Last night I had the pleasure of speaking with approximately 200 high school cross country athletes participating in the 13th Annual High Performance Distance Academy. They made for such a FUN crowd, and I am thankful for the opportunity to share my knowledge and passion for all things good food and sports nutrition.
Below I have summarized the main points of my presentation through 6 principles in optimizing nutrition for performance and recovery:
Principle #1 - Fuel Right Daily
Pay attention if: You’re prone to illness and injury, or generally feel tired and fatigued or you’re having trouble achieving body composition goals.
There is no special "magic bullet" in terms of what athletes should eat daily to maximize performance. Quite simply, it boils down to quality in = quality out. Just as consistency in training is important in long-term success and achievement of goals, a consistent high-quality diet is essential in supporting that training. Your fueling patterns over the long term are important for overall health, maintenance of immune function & maximization of energy levels, all which aid athletes in consistently maintaining higher levels of training. My advice: aim to eat from ALL food groups while consistently pairing a source of complex carbohydrate + lean protein with each meal and snack. Variety is the spice of life: emphasize whole foods where possible but always aim to fill your plate with color!
Principle #2 - Eat enough, starting with breakfast
Pay attention if: Your workouts aren't enjoyable and the quality of them has declined, you think about food all the time or can't focus during class (or work), and you find that your hunger tends to spike in the evening.
It's important to ensure your daily calorie and nutrient needs as an athlete are being met daily as even a little calorie deficit over the long run can lead to illness or injury. In the words of Scott Jurek: "Focus on quantity of calories [eating enough] no matter what type of diet, and then work on improving the quality of the calories."
Adequate fueling starts with a high quality breakfast, so don't skimp by running out the door without some quality fuel in hand.
Smart snacking is also essential for athletes to meet overall calorie and nutrient needs and maintain high energy levels throughout the day. Aim to consume 2-3 snacks (200-300 kcal each-- these are not meals!) throughout the day, especially on higher intensity or longer duration training days or if completing multiple workouts in one day.
"Many athletes think performance starts with training, but really it starts with fuel.” - Nancy Clark, Sports Nutritionist and Author
Principle #3 - Make the most of your macronutrients
Pay attention if: You feel low in energy before, during and after workouts, you're slow to recover or often feel fatigued in general.
Carbs, protein and fat - all three macronutrients are important in the diet of the athlete when it comes to optimizing performance and recovery. Carbohydrates are your main fuel/energy source (gas for the tank!) while protein is essential for recovery and refueling (rebuilding muscle fibers and refilling glycogen stores) and fat essential for fighting inflammation and promoting optimal immune health. As a rule of thumb, athletes should aim for 50-65% total calories from carbohydrate, 15-25% total calories from protein and 20-35% total calories from fat, however exact percentages of each depends on the individual and event focus. I've broken down the importance of each in more detail in this article, so check it out to learn more.
Principle #4 - Practice Nutrient Timing
Pay attention if: You're prone to GI issues during workouts, or you're low in energy and feel sluggish before and/or during workouts.
Pre-Workout - Carbohydrates provide energy to muscles, while protein promotes satiety and primes the muscles to work hard. Fluids are essential in ensuring you are starting your workout at a state of optimal hydration.
During a Workout - Carbohydrates provide energy to muscles to fuel sustained hard efforts & fluids are essential to keep your body well hydrated.
Post-Workout - Your muscles are primed to accept nutrients to aid in recovery immediately after working out, so hitting that 30-60 minute refueling window is key for optimal recovery!
For details on how to optimally fuel before, during and after workouts, download this free handout as a resource. Enjoy!
Principle #5 - Hit the hydration "sweet spot "
Pay attention if: You feel fatigued, nauseated, have dry lips and throat, headaches and reduced ability to concentrate at school (or work) or to complete your workouts.
For general health, we need to drink regularly to avoid dehydration and for optimal metabolic functioning. For athletes, overheating is a big problem during exercise (more especially in the summer) & sweating is the most efficient way to cool down. Quite simply, if you can’t regulate heat, you can’t perform! How much you need to drink varies greatly between individuals based on size, sweat rate, activity levels, weather and altitude. The best way to monitor hydration status is truly to observe the color of your urine. Aim for the color of lemonade (not clear) for optimal hydration status, and push fluids if your urine is low in volume and more the color of apple juice :) Read more on heat & hydration in my recent blog post here.
Principle #6 - Maintain a healthy relationship with food
Pay attention if: You tend to eat mindlessly or while distracted; or you have a long list of "do not eat" restricted foods, think about food constantly or if eating causes you distress.
While diet and nutrition can go a long ways in optimizing athletic performance, it's still important to eat for pleasure and keep "all things in moderation" in mind in making daily fueling choices. Food should never be "restricted" for the sake of performance, nor utilized as a main rewards system once certain goals are met. Kara Goucher sums it up pretty well in an interview after the 2009 Boston Marathon by stating the following:
"After I finished Boston, a reporter asked if I was going to eat whatever I wanted for the rest of the week. The truth is, I eat what I want every day, so this week won't really be any different. I love food, but I don't look at it as a reward for a hard workout; it's fuel to help me run harder and recover faster."
Final Words of Wisdom
While it's true that a well-fueled athlete is a happy, healthy & successful athlete, aim for progress, not perfection! Remember that there is no single wonder food or miracle supplement that will guarantee perfect nutrition or enhanced performance, and what you eat over the long-term will make a greater difference come race day than what you eat the week of (though both are important). Don't forget you're eating for life, eating for pleasure, and eating to be social -- food fulfills many needs in our lives and all can be met through a balanced yet mindful approach :) Finally, everyone is different, so don’t compare your diet (or body) to others. Instead, strive to be best version of YOU possible.
Fuel up., train happy, and have a great Wednesday!
Kristen Chang is Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD) and endurance athlete residing in southwest Virginia alongside her husband and dog. Through this blog she aims to share favorite fueling recipes, general wellness and sport nutrition tips and stories from her athletic endeavors.
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