Proper training, good shoes, and top-of-the-line sports apparel are only part of improving your performance. Smart athletes know that best way to stay on top the game is to eat right. Nutrition is crucial for building your muscles and giving you the burst of energy when you need it most.
In this article, you will find tips from nutritionists, chefs and professional athletes on how to eat for peak performance. This will help you create a simple but effective diet that is tailored to the unique needs of a rigorous, athletic lifestyle.
Your body stores carbohydrates as glycogen, the easiest and most accessible form of energy. You need to start your exercise with full glycogen stores, and replenish them right after so you can be prepared for your next workout.
One gram of carbohydrates is equivalent to four calories of energy. However, your required energy supply depends on the length and intensity of your routine. Athletes often talk about carbohydrate depletion (where energy runs out), or ‘bonking out’ or ‘hitting the wall.’ That’s why it’s important to boost carbohydrate stores (called ‘carbohydrate loading’). As a general rule, athletes need 15 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight. So let’s say you’re going to a run a marathon that day, and will be maintaining a high-level of activity for several hours. If you weigh 175 pounds, you need 1,200 grams of carbohydrates or the equivalent of 4,800 calories.
Nutritionists recommend getting your carbohydrates from fresh vegetables, instead of canned or processed food. Fruits are also an excellent source. Grains, starches, pastas and breads should only make up 25% of your total carb allowance.
It’s also better to distribute carbohydrate consumption over the day, through smaller but more frequent meals. Instead of heavy breakfast, lunch and dinner, have a snack or a light meal every five hours.
Fats contain the highest concentration of energy, with one gram of fat equivalent to 9 calories. In fact, a single gram of fat can release 3,600 calories of energy.
However, fat doesn’t release energy quickly. In fact, it takes a while for the body to shift from burning calories from carbohydrates to burning calories from fat. Plus, any fat you consume takes 9 hours to digest, because the body needs to break it down and transport it to muscles before it can be considered ‘fuel.’
Here’s another important fact about fat: the body needs a lot of oxygen to convert fat, so your exercise intensity has to decrease for fat conversion to occur. That’s why it’s fat is ideal for longer, slower and low-intensity exercises that use endurance rather than quick bursts of speed. This can include easy cycling and walking. You should also take fat several hours before your regimen starts, and not right before.
Nutritionists and doctors make a distinction between good fats and bad fats, primarily because of the ingredients’ effect on cholesterol. The best sources of good fats are olive oil, olives, avocados and nuts (like macadamia and almonds).
Your body needs protein to repair and rebuild any muscles that have been broken down during exercise. It’s also crucial for helping your body create optimal carbohydrate stores. So, even if protein isn’t really an energy source, its crucial for efficient energy use.
The typical adult needs 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. If you’re strength training, this requirement increases to 1.4 to 1.8 gram per kilogram of body weight. Or, if you’re in endurance training, you need 1.2 to 1.4 gram per kilogram of body weight.
This does not, however, give you license to scarf down two servings of steak for dinner. Three ounces of fish, chicken or meat already yields 21 grams of protein, and 8 ounces of milk already yields 8 grams of protein. Tofu is a smart choice: it has low fat, but already gives 15 grams of protein per 3 ounces. You can also get protein from cheese (3 ounce slice = 21 grams of protein), eggs (2 large pieces = 13 grams) and peanut butter (2 tablespoons = 8 grams).
It’s best to use proteins that have low fat content. Chicken, fish and soy products are considered healthier than beef and pork. Food preparation is also important. Instead of frying food, broil, grill or stir-fry lean protein in a non-stick pan, and use olive oil.
You need lots of fluids to prevent dehydration and heat stroke. In general, you need 15 to 20 fluid ounces at least two hours before exercise, and 8 to 10 fluid ounces about 10 minutes before you exercise. During your regimen, take 8 to 10 fluid ounces every 15 minutes.
You also need to keep drinking fluids after your regimen. Many athletes will weigh themselves before and after a workout to calculate fluid loss. In general, you should drink 20 to 24 fluid ounces for every pound you lost.
If you are exercising for less than an hour, it’s okay to drink plain water. However, if you will be exercising for longer than that—say, in a marathon or a cross-terrain bike ride— it’s advisable to get sports drinks, so you can replace any electrolytes that you have lost through sweat and burned calories.