For optimum health, athletes need to have a training plan AND an eating plan – this is called nutritional conditioning. Think of nutritional conditioning as a goal just as important as your fitness goals. In fact, without the right nutrition, you won’t be able to work out as long or as hard as you would like.
After an hour of exercise, the body’s blood glucose levels start to decline. After 1-3 hours of exertion, stored muscle and liver glycogen also diminishes and your body is simply out of fuel. To have enough energy for intense exertion, you need a diet high in carbohydrates and low in fat with sufficient amounts of protein distributed as follows:
- 60-70 percent from carbohydrates
- 10-15 percent from protein
- 20-30 percent from fat
Eating at frequent, regular intervals during the day gives you enough energy to replenish stored glycogen and helps your strength, speed and endurance. Use this guide to find out the minimum calories you should consume each day.
- Current weight (in pounds) x 20 = minimum number of calories for men
- Current weight (in pounds) x 15 = minimum number of calories for women
Athletes, who train harder or longer than 30-60 minutes 3-5 days per week, should refuel with carbohydrates immediately after exercise. Studies have demonstrated that consuming carbs within the first 15-30 minutes after a workout and again within a 2 hour period is best for glycogen recovery. High glycemic-index foods will break down more rapidly to replenish glycogen. These include sports drinks, breads, waffles, rice cakes, potatoes, corn flakes, soft drinks, watermelon and raisins. Also include high-quality protein such as lean meats, seafood, reduced-fat dairy products and Greek yogurt. The ratio of carbohydrate to protein should be 3:1 or 4:1. Adding a variety of fruits and vegetables is a good way to get the vitamins and minerals you need for preventing cell damage and promoting muscle repair.
It’s essential to stay hydrated during and after a grueling workout. Also, pay close attention to your sodium level. Lots of sweat could signal you are losing lots of sodium. Sodium is important for maintaining blood pressure and for nerves and muscles to work properly. Our daily diet typically contains 4.5 g of sodium, so sodium loss isn’t often a concern, but intense workouts in high heat can result in sodium losses as high as 10g! Lack of sodium in the blood is very serious and can lead to a medical condition called hyponatremia. You can supplement sodium if needed – it’s easy to find in processed foods and sports drinks.
The right diet is an important, but sometimes overlooked, part of a good exercise plan. Don’t let nutritional misinformation slow you down. Whatever your level of training or fitness goals, optimal nutrition is an essential tool for peak performance.