Dietician, Bonnie Hancock, shares her tips on how you can improve your own nutrition for performance or simply improve health and quality of life. Bonnie works with the Australian Life Saving Team to help them before, during and after race days and support peak performance.
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges in developing nutrition recommendations for a sporting team is the variability among athletes in terms of body composition goals, specific event being contested, food preferences and further individual factors which may affect dietary needs.
When considering the nutrition needs of athletes in the Australian Life Saving Team, a dietitian needs to consider athletes whose main events are based on power and speed, those who target longer events such as the Ironperson or middle-distance pool rescue events, and those who do a combination of speed and endurance events. However, though load on race day and events may vary between competitors, what all athletes in the team require is the ability to back up throughout the day, aiming to perform at a high standard in consecutive races. This is where nutrition can greatly impact performance, in a positive or adverse manner.
As a dietitian, the main purpose is to educate and inform the athletes as to the best way to fuel their bodies pre, during and post race day. Many athletes have a fairly good understanding of which foods they should be putting into their body around training and racing, however some key factors may be forgotten about or done poorly due to fatigue under a heavy training load or focus being placed on other aspects and nutrition being deprioritised. For this reason, a strategy brought into the Australian Team process is to have all food and fluid prepared and ready for athletes at the beach and during the days leading into competition. This has worked well since being introduced last year at an international competition in New Zealand and was implemented recently at the World Titles so the athletes can have access to the specific foods they need to perform optimally, without having the added stress of sourcing these out.
However, for most people who participate in training and competition, or simply enjoy being active and healthy, the idea of having a dietitian and support staff on hand is not realistic and the responsibility to prepare and consume good food falls back onto the individual. Many people are aware of what a healthy diet might entail, but perhaps lack a further understanding when it comes to the principles of sports nutrition-which includes foods which are appropriate for training and competing, as well as timing of foods around training and racing. It is therefore wise to first and foremost gain a basic understanding of the key principles of sports nutrition, which will assist in performance for anyone from the recreational athlete through to the elite.
So what areas should you focus on when wanting to improve your own nutrition for performance or simply improve health and quality of life?
2.5L of fluid per day is recommended for an athlete, the majority of this being water. This figure may be increased in high temperatures or for a particularly heavy training load. During competition and training camps, it is common practice for the Australian team to weigh-in prior to a session or competition, with a follow up weigh-in post session or on day of competing. For the amount of weight is lost during this time, the athlete should aim to replace double this amount in fluid, eg if an athlete loses 1kg during a hard pool session, he or she should aim to drink a minimum 2L fluid over the few hours following exercise.
Electrolyte supplements can also be a valuable tool to help athletes replace salts lost during heavy sweating whilst training or competing. Electrolytes such as sodium and potassium are lost in our sweat, and major losses can affect performance. Some of these electrolyte supplements also contain carbohydrate, so can be a useful way of replenishing glucose/energy stores during a session or in between races.
For the weekend warrior participating in light to moderate physical activity, a minimum of 1.5L per day is recommended and electrolyte supplements or sports drinks should only be used during warm weather and intense exercise lasting longer than 1 hour. Many people consume inadequate amounts of water so a good place to start with hydration is to drink minimum 1.5L fluid per day, with more being consumed on days in which exercise is increased and monitor for signs of dehydration such as headaches and concentrated urine.
- Timing of food
Perhaps one of the aspects most overlooked when it comes to athletes and their nutrition, is the timing of foods around training and competition. Athletes will all have different preferences in taste and tolerance when it comes to eating before, during, post training and competition, but the guidelines regarding timing remain the same.
Glucose is the source of fuel most readily used by the muscles for energy and is derived from carbohydrate, therefore a carbohydrate source is recommended prior to training to fuel the body for performance. This should be consumed approximately 30 mins prior to training and be soft-textured for ease of digestion. Some examples include a banana or melon, crackers or rice cakes, a honey sandwich or perhaps and oat bar. If an athlete struggles to consume food early in the morning prior to training, a drink containing carbohydrate can be appropriate.
During training, fluid intake is highly recommended, with electrolyte supplements utilised where appropriate as mentioned earlier. Carbohydrate gels can also be utilised during an endurance training session, to be taken every 30 minutes to provide glucose to the working muscles and brain, and can also be utilised in between events at a competition.
Post training, it is essential to replace protein stores depleted during the session to allow reduced recovery time and lessen muscle soreness. It is recommended to have a source of protein (minimum 20g) within 30 minutes of training. Carbohydrate should also be consumed in the post workout meal. If the athlete must travel a significant distance home, he or she should have a snack prepared, containing both protein and carbohydrate, such a yoghurt, nuts with dried fruit, a homemade protein ball or an ASADA approved protein shake
The above principles can be used for the recreational athlete who should consume carbohydrate before exercise, a source of protein and carbohydrate after, and ensure to consume fluid throughout the activity. Unless participating in intense exercise of a significant duration, it is not necessary for most people to look into supplements as the required nutrients can easily be derived from natural food sources.
The principle of eating smaller and more often, however, can be utilised on non-workout days and even for those who lead a fairly sedentary lifestyle, as we shouldn’t go for extended periods of time without eating, with the gap between meals and snacks ideally being 3-4 hours.
- Meeting Daily Requirements
A vital component of an athlete’s diet is plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, which offer essential vitamins and minerals, as well as powerful antioxidants which assist in maintaining a healthy immune system, aiding recovery and reducing levels of inflammation in the body thereby reducing risk of illness and injury.
Whilst athletes are advised to exceed the daily recommended intake of 2 fruit and 5 serves of veg per day, only 2-3% of the general population are meeting the aforementioned recommendations, meaning both athletes and non-athletes alike are missing vital nutrients from fruit and vegetables.
We should aim to consume fruit and vegetables which are fresh or frozen at peak freshness, and those which are rich in colour, smell and flavour as these will have the largest antioxidant quota. Many studies have shown a direct relationship between adequate consumption of fruit and vegetables and a decreased risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
- No two individuals are the same
This last point is perhaps the most significant when it comes to nutrition. In terms of athletes, no two are the same and it can take some trial and error to figure out foods which serve the body best in terms of performance and recovery.
The same can be said for the general population. Whether it’s allergies or intolerances to certain foods, medical conditions or the way we digest certain foods, every person will have different preferences and needs when it comes to their own diet.
If you are struggling to find what foods work for you, it can be highly useful to see an Accredited Practising Dietitian to help you figure out the foods which will help you be the best version of yourself.
Accredited Practising Dietitian