If the Commonwealth Games coverage has inspired you to get on your bike, put on your running shoes or actually use the gym membership that you pay a fortune for, then it’s important that your efforts don’t go to waste. Whether you’re going to the effort of exercising regularly or are undertaking an intense training programme for a specific event, how and when you eat is hugely important. Sports nutrition is a complex (and highly individual) area and with so much contradictory information out there, it’s hard to know exactly which approach to take to maximise your performance and results. Here are three key areas where people commonly go wrong:
It’s not unusual for people to exercise first thing in the morning or after work, when it can be hours since their last meal. The problem here is that blood sugar will be low which results in the release of the stress hormone cortisol. Excess levels of cortisol will impact your training and may encourage the body to burn muscle instead of fat. If you exercise regularly without achieving the results you’re seeking, this might be the problem.
While nutrient timing is especially important for endurance or speed training, just maintaining steady blood sugar levels throughout the day can make all the difference for the average gym-goer. You can do this by ensuring a blend of protein and fibre with every meal and snack, avoiding long gaps between meals and limiting your intake of sugary foods and refined carbohydrate. If your last meal was several hours earlier, a small balanced snack about an hour before your workout could make it immensely more effective.
If you’re undertaking serious training in preparation for a specific event such as a triathlon or a marathon, your nutrient timing needs to be far more precise if you want to enhance performance and reduce the risk of injury. A carb-rich pre-training meal roughly 2 hours before you start will make sure that you’re not running on empty, and making the most of the 45-minute recovery window after intense training is crucial. This is when your muscles are the most susceptible and will benefit most from the nutrients. A balanced protein-carb drink such as chocolate milk or ground hemp seed mixed into fruit juice will do the trick – there’s no need to spend a fortune on branded products. This can be followed by a recovery meal within 2 hours of training.
The right levels of protein and carbs at the right time can make all the difference for both the serious and the occasional athlete.
Sports products can be relevant if you’re exercising for hours at a time at an extremely intense level, but you really don’t need them if you’re working out for about an hour. Gels and sports drinks are full of sugar, with good reason, as they can be very helpful for endurance athletes who need that level of glucose. Not so good though if your weekly workout is designed to keep you in good shape, as excess sugar will go straight to your waistline, defeating the purpose of all that effort. At best you’ll just burn off what you ingest, which leaves you exactly where you started before the workout.
A note of caution: a number of these products also contain a range of additives, stabilisers and sweeteners, which may actually end up slowing down your performance, as these will go straight to the liver for processing, diverting its attention from energy metabolism at a crucial time. Make sure you know exactly what you’re putting into your body and why, how or if it might help
Just 5% dehydration can result in 15-20% loss of energy. That’s a significant amount if you’re undertaking intense training and have a specific performance goal in mind. The best way to assess how much water you should be drinking during intense and lengthy training sessions is to weigh yourself naked before and after a typical session. For each pound (0.45kg) of weight loss through heavy sweating, you need to be taking in about 450ml of water.
For example, if you drank 200ml of water during the session and lost 2lb (0.90kg), you would need to factor in an extra 900ml of water, spread across the session, to ensure proper hydration.
More standard exercise such as basic gym work or classes doesn’t require such a technical approach. Once simple way to monitor hydration levels is to keep an eye on the colour of your urine: you should be aiming for a pale straw colour most of the time. If it’s too dark, then that indicates dehydration. Completely clear suggests you may be over hydrating, which can affect mineral balance in the body.
While sports nutrition has some basic guidelines that will work in many cases, it is increasingly recognised that a personalised approach is the most effective way to get the balance right, which is why so many athletes seek specialist nutrition support. If you’re struggling to achieve the desired results from your training, you may benefit from a private consultation.
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