By: Travis Steffen, MA, CSCS
When training with the goal of competing at a high level, there are typically four key areas that coaches and athletes need to address.
- Physical training
- Psychological training
- Rest and recovery
An interesting phenomenon that takes place in the world of athletics is that – while many aspiring athletes will devote considerable time and attention to two to three of these areas, there is quite often a conscious negligence of at least one of these.
That’s right – I said conscious negligence.
What does this mean? This means that many people – athletes included – will have enough sense to know which of these four areas they’re lacking in most. Then, oddly enough, they’ll convince themselves of some form of flawed logic that justifies that negligence.
In short, they convince themselves that they’re not slacking off enough to make a difference, when they know wholeheartedly that this is untrue. They’re simply tools that their mind uses to salvage their self-esteem while continuing to engage in bad habits. They’re excuses.
One of the most common areas where this takes place is nutrition. The cold, hard truth is that 99% of the population could eat better. It’s no secret, and the vast majority of people know it – athletes especially.
To sum it up, the process of improving physical performance happens like this:
- You fuel your body with nutrients to allow it to perform during exercise.
- You work out per the specifications of your training program (hopefully designed by a qualified professional).
- During exercise, you place stressors on the body that tear the muscles down.
- These stressors act as signals to your body that tell it one thing: adapt or perish. This is an evolutionary response. Your body adapts to the demands you place on it.
- These adaptations occur through a combination of nutrition and recovery, and cannot occur optimally without the proper balance of both.
This process is cyclical. Much like a machine, if one cog in the system fails, the rest fail to do their job.
Here are six performance-centric nutrition tips that can help fuel your body’s improvement:
Eat for a purpose. Society conditions you to treat eating as a social event. Many also have a habit of eating when bored. To optimize performance and body composition, every calorie you put into your body must serve a productive purpose. Those purposes do NOT include eating to be part of a crowd or to quell your boredom.
Timing is everything. Meal size, composition and frequency are all important. However, many people overlook another important dietary factor – meal timing. If you can provide your body with the right nutrients when it needs them (i.e. breakfast and before and after exercise), and ensure it doesn’t get fed to excess when no calories are required (i.e. before bed) you’ll be a lot closer to optimizing your meal timing.
Don’t fear carbs. They’re an athlete’s best friend. Regardless of what the media and various fad diets will lead you to believe, carbs are not your enemy. They’re one of your most powerful performance weapons. Carbs fuel muscle action, and muscle action allows you to work harder, thereby increasing adaptations even more3. It’s recommended that athletes training at a high level follow a diet comprised of between 55-60% carbohydrates4. That said, these carbs should primarily come from complex, low GI sources such as fresh fruits and veggies, whole grains and oats.
Pre-fuel and re-fuel. A pre-workout or pre-competition meal is critical to performance. Regardless of your training adaptations thus far, your body can’t function unless it has the necessary fuel. A small meal comprised of a 3-to-1 carb to protein ratio is recommended5. After a workout, your body should be re-fueled with high quality protein with the purpose of promoting tissue repair, maintenance and growth1, 2.
Plan and prepare. People occasionally indulge on junk because it’s quick and convenient. However, if you take a little time each week and plan your diet with correct portions and nutrients, then you take it a step further and prepare a number of your meals ahead of time, you can have quick, convenient meals while still having control over the meal’s content.
Supplement, don’t replace. Fitness supplements are all the rage among hardcore athletes and fitness enthusiasts. However, many people can get carried away with these. One important guideline is this: do your research, then remember that these pills, powders, bars and shakes are meant to add value to an already-solid balanced diet of whole foods, not to replace it entirely.
In an evenly-matched bout, the more prepared fighter has the edge. By following these six tips, you’ll have already put yourself in a great position to succeed in any competition because you’ve got food working FOR you instead of against you.
1. Burke, LM. Nutrition for post exercise recovery. Int J Sports Nutrition 1: 214-224, 1997.
2. Borsheim, E. Essential amino acids and muscle protein recovery from resistance exercise. Am J Phys, Endo, Metab E648-E657, 2002.
3. Akermark C, Jacobs I, Rasmusson M, Karlsson J. Diet and muscle glycogen concentration in relation to physical performance in Swedish ice hockey players. Int J Sports Nutrition 6: 272- 284, 1996.
4. Kleiner S, Greenwood-Robinson M. Power Eating. Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL. 3: 6 – 8, 2007.
5. DeMarco, HM. Pre-exercise carbohydrate meals: Application of glycemic index. Med Sci Sports and Exercise 31: 164-170, 1999.