How to Make Nutrition Your Secret Weapon in 2018
If you’re an athlete with big goals, you likely take advantage of any opportunity, big or small, to improve performance. As you look toward 2018, understand that honing your nutrition strategy is a BIG opportunity. Nutrition can be the difference between capitalizing on months of hard training or falling short on race day. Nutrition also impacts health and happiness, making it an important factor in all your 2018 outcomes. Here are a few tips to help make nutrition your secret weapon this year:
Lose weight slowly and at the right time
Weight loss should occur during the off-season or early base training period for endurance athletes. This is important because training adaptations are less effective during periods of weight loss. Thus, trying to lose weight during a build or competition phase (when you have more training sessions designed to increase speed and strength) will compromise fitness gains. For more on athlete weight loss, read Kristen Arnold’s blog, Off-Season Weight Loss Tips.
Think of food as fuel rather than a reward for training/ Emphasize fueling when your body needs calories the most
Often I see athletes limiting calories during and around workouts to be able to have a treat or big meal later in the day. While a craft beer or dessert can be part of an athlete’s diet, eliminating fuel before, during, and directly after workouts to maximize “treat calories” is unwise. Focus on eating your calories when your body really needs fuel for training and recovery rather than saving them for later.
Pay attention to your hydration needs
Proper hydration during exercise can delay the onset of fatigue and protect health and well-being by preventing dehydration. Even a 1%-2% loss of body water can negatively affect performance, particularly in hot environments. The simplest, cheapest way to gauge hydration status is to monitor the color and volume of your urine. For example, a small volume of darkly colored urine indicates dehydration. Other easy methods of determining hydration status and needs include sweat rate testing and weighing yourself before and after activity.
Nail your nutrient timing
Timing of nutrition intake is important if you want to realize the greatest benefits from your training. You want to pay attention to pre-workout fueling, fueling during exercise, and recovery nutrition.
Pre-workout fueling provides energy for the workout and tops off liver and muscle glycogen levels (your body’s carbohydrate stores), which can increase performance. Plan to fuel 1-4 hours prior to a workout with fluids and foods higher in carbohydrate, moderate in protein, and lower in fat and fiber. The closer you get to your training session, the smaller and simpler the meal or snack should be. A few of my pre-workout favorites include bananas, Fig Bars (Nature’s Bakery), and Cocoa Elite's Elite Arctic Blast.
Depending on the duration of your training session, carbohydrate fueling during exercise can improve and extend performance by maintaining blood glucose levels and carbohydrate oxidation. During endurance or intermittent high intensity workouts lasting 60-90 minutes or more, supplementing with carbohydrate drinks and foods can make sense. Work with a sports dietitian to create an individualized fueling plan for such exercise.
Post-workout fueling promotes muscle tissue repair, enhances adaptations to promote strength and fitness gains, and replenishes fuel stores (glycogen) for later training sessions. When an athlete has strenuous workouts or competitions less than 8 hours apart, recovery fueling should happen as soon as possible post-exercise to maximize recovery. Ideal recovery nutrition consists of carbohydrate and protein in a 4:1 or 3:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio. One of my favorite recovery products that is portable and can be served hot or cold is Cocoa Elite’s Complete Body Recovery Protein.
Develop your race-day fueling plan early and practice it
Race day fueling plans should be individualized. The plans should take into account taste preferences, gut tolerance, on-course race day products and size/needs of the athlete. It is important to begin thinking about this early so that you can practice your fueling plan and avoid a race-day disaster. Always remember: “nothing new on race day.”
Emphasize both sports fueling and fueling for health
Fueling close to and during workouts often requires an athlete to consume simpler, more easily digestible foods to minimize the risk of gastrointestinal distress. It is important to balance the simpler fueling around workouts with fueling for health. Research suggests that a focus on more complex carbohydrates and plant polysaccharides may positively influence the athlete’s gut microbiome (a community of microorganisms living in the human body, in this case the gut). This tactic is important for delivery of water, nutrients, and hormones during activity. We also know that an athlete needs to consume necessary nutrients to support training, which are readily available in nutrient-dense, more complex foods. Be sure to incorporate nutrient-dense foods outside of workout windows (i.e., whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, beans, lean meats, fish, dairy, and mono- and polyunsaturated fats).
Avoid severe restriction or rigidity
Adding extreme diets or rigidity to life and training stresses is neither productive nor performance-enhancing. In addition, rigid diets are rarely sustainable or successful and can lead to burnout, health issues, and eating disorders. Ensure that your overall nutrition approach is high-quality and nutrient dense, but make room for planned indulgences. When you have a planned dessert or a hard-earned microbrew, sit down and enjoy it rather than inhaling it and then feeling guilty. Remember, an athlete’s season can be akin to a marathon. Be sure to incorporate balance in your diet to get to the finish line and enjoy the journey.
Consult with a sports dietitian (RD) to customize your nutrition approach
As I mentioned before, every athlete is different. Fueling approaches should take into account, athlete level, athlete goals and race distance. It is also important to pay attention to individual physiology, personal medical history, family medical history, taste preferences, timing of training phases and more. The tips outlined above are a great place to start. But for more specific, customized information, invest in a consultation with a sports dietitian.
 Karpinski, C. and Rosenbloom, C. (2017). Sports Nutrition: A Handbook for Professionals, 6thEdition. Chicago: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
 Clark, A. and Mach N. (2016). Exercise-induced stress behavior, gut-microbiota-brain axis and diet: a systematic review for athletes. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. Volume 13:43. Retrieved from: https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12970-016-0155-6