What to eat for peak performance.
If your exercise routine consists of jogging a couple miles, a Yoga class, or lifting weights at the gym for half an hour, a healthy, well-balanced diet should provide all the nutrition and energy needed for your workout.
However, if you push yourself with high-intensity workouts lasting more than 90 minutes or if you compete in endurance events, then it may benefit you to eat a special diet for stamina, endurance, and recovery.
While there’s not one perfect diet for an athlete, all athletes need to eat an assortment of carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Through trial and error you can determine the balance of nutrition that’s right for you.
If you’re trying to find the balance, keep reading to find out what athletes should include in their diet.
– Ron Maughan
Carbs, Carbs, and More Carbs
Carbohydrates provide the fuel needed for exercise. Carbohydrates in your food are converted to a sugar called glucose and then stored in your muscles in the form of glycogen. As you exercise, glycogen in converted into energy. Under normal conditions, your muscles should have plenty of glycogen stored up to provide enough energy for less than 90 minutes of high intensity exercise.
For athletes who compete in endurance events lasting longer than 90 minutes (marathon running, cycling, or swimming), it’s beneficial to load up on carbs in the days prior to the event in order to store up extra glycogen. Extra energy stores will improve performance and reduce fatigue. This diet technique is called a carb-loading diet. A week before an event, adjust your diet so carbs account for half of your total calories. Three to four days before the event, three quarters of your total calories should come from carbs. Examples of good carbs include bread, pasta, cereal, starchy vegetables, and fruit. Be sure to replenish your carbs during and after exercise with a sports bar, sports drink, fruit, or fruit juice.
While great for endurance exercises, a carb-loading diet isn’t for everyone. So experiment before a big event. Keep in mind the side effects of a high carb diet: possible weight gain, digestive issues caused by a high fiber diet, and fluctuating blood sugar levels.
While carbs are for energy, protein is needed for healthy muscle tissue and strong bones, both important for strenuous exercise. Under normal conditions, you should consume about 1.2 to 1.4 grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight each day. The amount of protein needed by strength athletes increases to 1.7 grams per kilogram of weight.
Great sources of protein include poultry, lean meat, fish, milk, nuts, and eggs. One of the best things to drink when recovering after a high intensity performance is milk. Milk contains both carbs and protein. And the protein in milk is made of both casein and whey, both of which are beneficial for muscle recovery.
Light on Fats
When your stores of carbohydrates begin running low during endurance activity, your body turns to its stores of fat for backup fuel. Of course, eating fat isn’t as important as carbs and protein, but it can improve your performance. Avoid saturated and trans fats, and eat unsaturated fat found in nuts, olives, avocados, vegetable oil, olive oil, salmon, and tuna.
Plenty of Fluids
Dehydration is a major concern for endurance athletes, especially in hot temperatures. Athletes must drink plenty of fluids before and during their event in order to stay hydrated. Marathon runners and cyclists should drink one cup of water every 10 to 15 minutes during races.
Excessive sweating also leads to electrolyte loss. Electrolytes are used by the nervous system to transmit nerve signals. A great way to replenish electrolytes is to drink a sports drink. If the flavor is too much or you want to up the amount of liquid you’re getting in your sports drink, feel free to dilute your sports drinks with water.
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