Getting fit for sport takes more than just hard training. It's also about what we eat and drink. Getting your nutrition right can make the difference between reaching your goals, and in some people's cases, the difference between winning and losing. Timing, as they say is everything!
Eating too close or too long before your training session can affect your performance and not refuelling after a session can result in slower recovery affecting future training.
Your body needs 5 types of nutrient for exercise:
- Carbohydrate: This is the primary fuel of muscles and is burnt in the form of glucose. It is stored in the body as glycogen in muscles and the liver.
- Protein: The building blocks of the body for muscles, hormones, enzymes and the immune system. Proteins are made up of 20 amino acids, 8 of which are called essential amino acids. These have to come from the diet as they cannot be produced by the body.
- Fat: This is also a fuel, it is a more dense form of energy, it is utilised by the body as a secondary fuel especially at low intensity and in endurance races.
- Water: The body needs water to stay hydrated and control body functions like temperature regulation.
- Electrolytes: Aid hydration of the body and replace the nutrients (sodium & potassium) lost as sweat during training.
These five different nutrient types are needed in varying levels at different times as you train, (before, during and after exercise).
Preparation is important. Just as you warm up to avoid injury you need to have the right nutrition to ensure you give your best performance. A car won't run on empty and nor will you for long!
3-4 hours before exercise
Aim to eat a meal or snack high in carbohydrate with some protein, it should be low in fat so that the body can absorb and use the energy more quickly, e.g. porridge with honey or banana, low-fat fruit flapjack or cereal with fruit and yoghurt.
Eating 3-4 hours before exercise means that food will have left your stomach and dispersed into your system to give you the energy (the little bit of protein will help start the recovery process and may also give you some extra energy).
The last 2 hours before exercise
You should make sure you are hydrated so drink a little, regularly. Also it is worth having some carbohydrate too, to keep your energy levels topped up, e.g. carbohydrate sports drink or banana. Make sure you don't take in lots of carbohydrate in a short space of time, as this may cause a sugar rush into your bloodstream, often followed by a sugar low, which could impair your performance.
For training that lasts less than an hour the most important area to focus on is hydration. FACT - a 5% drop in bodyweight during exercise due to dehydration can lead to a 30% drop in performance.
Aim to drink a little regularly, about 125-150ml every 20 minutes. If this is an isotonic or hypotonic sports drink it will be absorbed more quickly into the bloodstream maintaining hydration.
The body is only able to store a finite amount of glucose, so if you are training for over an hour you'll need to add fuel during exercise. Drinking an isotonic sports drink is an effective solution. You need to try to consume 30 to 60g of carbohydrate each hour as this is the maximum your body can take up. However, don't wait until an hour and start fuelling, start early in your session, as the fuel will take a while to get to where it is needed most – the muscles.
After training, timing is crucial to get the nutrients to where they are needed most. It's all about speed. There is a 20 minute "Recovery Window" and getting the right nutrition inside your body ensures that it gets to the muscles quickly and at a time that they are primed to absorb it.
Did you know: You dont get stronger or fitter during training.
You train so that you can make adaptive changes to your physiology (bigger or leaner muscles/stronger lungs etc), but these changes happen after training as you recover. Training stresses and wears out your muscles (the lungs and heart are muscles too) and therefore it is crucial to feed them after exercise so that they will grow back stronger. Weak and 'hungry' muscles don't grow as strong as well fed ones.
Recovery is in fact preparation. Preparation for your next training session or race. Doing it right should enable you to continue to perform at full power again and again and therefore reach your goals quicker.
In order to recover properly your body needs:
Carbohydrate: The amount you need is determined by the length of exercise and your weight. For an hour of exercise you need around 1g carbohydrate per kg body weight. e.g. a 70kg man needs 70g carbohydrate. This is scalable depending on how long your train for.
Protein: To rebuild repair and strengthen muscles you need to eat protein. You need to consume a minimum of 6g of protein and ideally a carbohydrate to protein ration of 3:1. The protein should include the essential amino acids.
Electrolyte: For fast rehydration you need electrolytes. Restoring electrolytes are important as they play a vital role in the majority of bodily functions; specifically calcium, sodium and potassium are used.