The basic principles of health eating apply to all athletes. Eating a healthy and balanced diet will provide you with the nutrients you need to compete in your sport/activity. You need to get to know which foods are good sources of the nutrients you need and when you need them.
These are my golden rules:
1. Be the right weight for your height – meaning consume enough food for your level of activity. If you eat too little then you won’t have the energy to be able to keep up your energy levels.
2. Eat enough carbohydrate to fuel your energy levels during exercise.
3. Eat the right foods at the right time – timing is just as important.
4. Keep hydrated - drink plenty of fluids.
5. Eat a wide variety of foods to ensure you get a variety of nutrients you body needs – plenty of wholegrain breads, fruit and vegetables, with moderate amounts of milk, yoghurt and cheese, lean meat, fish, poultry, eggs, nuts and pulses.
The most important fuel for energy, so don’t scrimp on it.
So why is carbohydrate so important? Well you need carbohydrate because it provides glycogen (this is how carbohydrate is stored in the body), and this is the preferred fuel for the working muscles. There are of course a number of different fuels that muscles can use but glycogen is the most important fuel in sport as it is stored in the muscles and can be readily used. So the more exercise you do, the more carbohydrate you need. The amount of carbohydrate depends on the type of exercise, the intensity, duration, frequency and of course your fitness level. If you start feeling sluggish in your sport, this might be because your glycogen stores are running low. Glycogen is stored in limited amounts but the stronger your muscles, the greater their capacity to store glycogen, and the more glycogen they hold, the longer you can continue to exercise.
What foods contain carbohydrate?
- Breakfast cereals
- Peas, beans and lentils
- Root vegetables
Other good sources of carbohydrates include fruit (bananas), juices, low fat cakes (scones, teacakes, fruit cake), confectionary and sugary products (jelly babies, marshmallows, syrups and honey), sweetened dairy products (smoothies, milkshakes, sweetened yoghurts and low-fat ice cream) and sports drinks. These foods are ideal for snacks between meals especially when training hard.
Roughly 60% of an athlete’s diet should be from carbohydrates. Most of the population consume 40%. For example, energy intake for an athlete might be 3,000 calories; 60% of this is 1,800 calories, which is roughly 480g of carbohydrate. Yes this sounds a lot, but as a general rule this means that a main meals, half your plate should be taken up by one or more of the above foods.
The Glycaemic Index
The glycaemic index (GI) is a ranking of foods from 0-100 according to how quickly each food will raise blood sugar levels. In sport, GI is extremely important to athletes diets. Foods with low and medium GI release their energy slowly, so they can sustain energy levels over a longer duration. For example, a bowl of porridge gives a skier plenty of energy until lunch time. Foods with a high GI give you an instant burst of energy, so they are ideal when you need to take on extra energy or for refuelling following exercise.
Examples of high GI foods:
- Sweet and fizzy drinks
- Dried dates and raisins
- Mashed potatoes
- Cooked carrots
- White and wholemeal bread
- Rye-based crisp breads
- Rice cakes
- Wholegrain cereals
Medium GI foods:
- Fresh dates
- Raw carrots
- White and wholegrain pasta
- Porridge and oatmeal
- Wholegrain rye bread
- Brown and white rice
Low GI foods:
- Dried apricot
- Green leafy vegetables and most other vegetables
- Lentils and beans
- Soya products
Timing of foods
As a rule, on the day of your competition, your last big meal should be eaten 3 hours beforehand. This allows the body to digest and absorb all the nutrients (more so for carbohydrate). Don’t stress if you can’t eat much on the day of your competition – as long as you have been eating well in the week leading up to your competition and you have had lots of carbohydrate the day before, you should be fine. Keep your last meal light and easy to digest and stick to foods you have had previously so you are not at risk of causing stomach issues. Please do not start experimenting with new foods prior to a competition.
Roughly 20 minutes before your start, have a small carbohydrate snack – keeping your energy levels topped up. This is where a carbohydrate food high in GI is important.
After exercise, your muscles need carbohydrate and protein for refuelling and recovery. When exercise stops muscles can refuel their glycogen stores twice as fast as normal, so it is key to eat a meal/snack containing plenty of carbohydrate and some easy to digest protein within 30 minutes of you finishing exercising. This means before you get showered, changed, and go home!
Protein is vital for the growth and repair of muscle tissue and after hard training this remodelling can continue for over 24 hours. Starting with the post-training snack, regular protein intake helps to provide the building blocks (amino acids), for ongoing muscle growth and repair. 20g of protein is the magic number that you need to hit to kick-start the recovery process after training (slightly more for bigger athletes and less for smaller).
- Lean meats and poultry
- Beans, Lentils, Pulses and Soya
- Nuts and Seeds
- Low fat dairy products
The amount of protein athletes need has been a hot topic for many years – this is because people who are very active, generally require more protein than those who don’t. However, most people in the UK eat more protein than they need. So even top athletes should be getting enough protein to meet their needs. This means there should be no need for you to increase the amount you eat of foods rich in protein and there is also no need to buy protein supplements. If you are eating enough to meet your energy demands, you will be getting enough protein and will not need extra quantities of protein foods. However, protein supplements are a super convenient way of increasing your protein intake, especially if you are not a meat lover.
To reach the 60% of your daily intake for carbohydrate, you need to limit your fat intake. You don’t need to do this by too much as some fat in the diet is essential for good health. Focus on getting the healthy fats into your diet (the unsaturated ones) that come from oily fish, avocados, nuts, nut butters, seeds and oils. Cut down on saturated fats that come from meat products, hard cheese and full fat dairy products, butter, cream, cakes, biscuits, pies and pastries.
- Reduce intake of fried foods (chips, crisps, battered fish)
- Use a minimal amount of fat/oil when cooking – maybe substitute for coconut oil
- Use low fat spreads and low fat dairy products
- Eat lean meat
- Avoid fatty meat products
- Cut down on pastries, cakes, biscuits which contain a lot of hidden fats.
- Avoid mayonnaise, salad cream and creamy sauces.
Before contemplating taking supplements, you should be able to get all the nutrients you need from a healthy balanced diet. Supplements do not make up for not eating well.
- Vitamin and mineral supplements: should not be taken providing you are eating a healthy balanced diet with a good variety of fruits and vegetables. Vitamin and mineral supplementation do not increase performance, offer a competitive edge, prevent injuries, provide energy, build muscle
- Protein supplements: should be taken carefully and you need to ensure you are not increasing your energy intake so much that you are not able to burn it off. If you increase your energy intake and can’t burn it off, you will essentially put weight on – this might not be put on as muscle but could be stored as fat. However, if you are unable to eat enough protein in your diet (maybe you just don’t crave meat) then using protein powders in shakes is an easy alternative which is completely customizable. There are so many protein powder supplements on the market today and each type of protein serves a different function in the body.
Choosing the right one can be difficult and confusing, here are the four basic types of protein and when you should use them.
o Whey protein - A complete protein that is a great source of branch-chain amino acids, which aid fuelling your muscles and stimulating protein synthesis. This increases the speed of recovery by helping your muscles adapt to stress. (e.g. optimum nutrition).
o Soy protein – it’s made of soybeans that have been de-hulled and defatted. It is a great source of amino acids and one of the best options for vegetarian or vegan athletes. Although there are some sides effects that come with it, so I would recommend using the plant-based protein supplements first (e.g. myprotein).
o Rice protein - Rice protein is very easy to digest and a good solution for runners with sever food allergies or who are lactose intolerant (e.g. nutribiotic).
o Plant-based proteins - They are the best choice if you are vegetarian, vegan and you don’t suffer from food allergies. The advantage of mixing three to four of these proteins together is that you get a complete protein that is easy to digest (e.g. vega).
Keeping hydrate during training sessions and competitions in very important. If you get dehydrated it can stop you performing at your best. Becoming dehydrated is very easy as the body can lose up to 1-2 litres through sweating, even on colder days. Drink plenty of water before you train and get into the habit of drinking regularly throughout the day and not just waiting until you feel thirsty. When exercising, the fluid we have should be on top of the usual 1.6 litres we need every day.
When you are training for a competition, try and get use to drinking on the go. It will be weird and uncomfortable at first, but you will be able to take on more water and carbohydrate to improve your performance. Sports drinks are formulated to provide optimum amounts of water and carbohydrate which are absorbed quickly. Consuming these drinks after training or a competition is also very important for recovery. Some sports drinks are expensive, but you can make your own at home for less – mix fruit juice with water, well diluted fruit squashes or juice drinks will hydrate you and give you some energy. However, these drinks contain a lot of sugar and could lead to tooth decay.