The importance of nutrition in sport is gaining more attention all the time but is rarely taken too seriously. We read a lot about pre and post-event nutrition as well as hydration but what of the weeks and months leading up to your event? Kathryn Bistany of Corpotential asks the question: Nutrition, is it just an energy thing or can it improve performance?You obviously give your training a lot of thought and plan it meticulously months in advance otherwise you would be guaranteed a very painful and disappointing outcome. Have you ever considered, however, that planning your nutrition just as meticulously could get you better training results, reduced risk of injury, much improved recovery and ultimately, a better end result?The ingestion of food in the correct quantity and at the correct times will guarantee you the energy you need for your sport; but what’s right for you? We tend to forget how biochemically individual we all are. We all look different, have different tastes, different moods, yet for some very odd reason we believe that there is a set formula for eating for sport. When articles are written on what to eat based on scientific research, this information should be used as a benchmark only. It is then up to you to try and figure out how your body works and what it needs to keep it in peak condition.In future articles we will be looking at different aspects of nutrition and how you can work with your body to optimise your performance and, inadvertently, your long-term health. It constantly surprises me how many athletes believe that the only way to get to the top of their sport is by pushing their body to such an extreme that they expect, and accept, that in the long run their body will pay the price and pain will be part of their retirement package. The fact is that if you properly support your athletic activity with the correct nutrition, you can not only limit the long-term damage, but in many cases, eliminate it completely.We will also be looking a common nutritional myths and set the record straight. The use of vitamin, mineral, probiotic and amino acid supplements will also be discussed providing you with a list of dos and don’ts.Peak performanceThere are four aspects you need to consider on the road to peak performance:Energy Strength Mental focus Injuries: limiting them and/or speeding up recovery Each aspect has nutritional implications whereby your eating habits can have a negative or positive impact on each of the above. In each case we will discover that there is a basic nutritional protocol to achieve a positive impact. Over and above that, there is the optimal nutrition protocol which is individual to your needs.First and foremost, however, is the need to eradicate any nutritional deficiencies.Nutritional deficienciesFor a start, it is reasonable to assume that most of you are deficient in one or more vitamins or minerals. How do I know that? Simply that our food is not as nutrient dense as it once was. Our soil is particularly poor in certain minerals which means that our food does not contain enough of these important nutrients to ensure the levels we require for optimum performance. Based on clinical experience, even in individuals eating a varied diet in the correct quantities, nutritional deficiencies are not uncommon. This may not be a serious problem for the layperson, although I am sure that depends on one’s point of view, but as an athlete you are utilising many more nutrients and need to replace your stores as fully as possible.It is not uncommon to hear of endurance athletes, in particular females, of being iron deficient. Low levels of iron will have a deleterious affect on performance as oxygen levels become sub-optimal. Studies on magnesium in athletes suggested that deficiencies resulted in reduced metabolic efficiency by increasing oxygen consumption and heart rate when performing exercise. Zinc deficiency, not unusual in developing and industrialised countries, has been shown to weaken the immune system. The list is endless.Of course the problem then arises of how to test for deficiencies. Certain symptoms can suggest particular inadequacies and can be very useful in analysing an individual’s nutritional status. For more exact results, blood and urine tests can be used. However it is important to perform the right tests for accurate results. For example, a blood serum test for magnesium may suggest normal magnesium levels whereas a test within the red blood cell may show a deficiency. This will be discussed further in the months to come.Optimum nutrition and how to get startedOptimum nutrition should make you feel great all day long. You need to be mentally alert and focused throughout and be able to sleep easily and deeply during any day time naps or/and throughout the night.Feeling this good means you can train hard and feel confident to recover from each session completely in readiness for the next one.So, if you are ready to add nutrition to your training arsenal, here is how you can get started. Depending on your nutritional status and present eating habits, you may have to do one or more of the following:Improve your eating habits by increasing variety to ensure that you are getting all the nutrients you possibly can Improve the quality of the food you are eating, ie fresh instead of processed, frozen instead of ‘old’, organic Make sure you are drinking enough water Improve your eating habits: the Western diet is prone to being very limited as we inadvertently eat the same foods all the time. The best way of ensuring that you are eating a varied diet is quite simple:include at least 6 different foods per main meal eat 20-25 different foods per day make sure that your meal is colourful eat something every 2 ½ to 3 hours, preferably more than one type of food plan your food intake for the whole day at least one day before An example of eating 6 different foods is porridge with milk, pumpkin seeds, a banana, some berries and a couple of dried apricots. Note that the colour in your food will come from fruits and vegetables. For the moment, quantities won’t be discussed but eating a number of different foods is an important aim.Try and include a variety of raw vegetables daily. Quite often these are ignored by the athlete as their main focus is the intake of starchy carbohydrate. However the starches need the vitamins and minerals found in vegetables for the energy making process.Eating regularly is not only important to replenishing your glycogen stores (the storage form of glucose) but also to ensure mental focus and avoid mood swings cause by blood sugar imbalances. How regularly you eat will depend on your job and training schedule but you will find it much easier if you have prepared your food ahead of time and have it with you.Improve the quality of your food: the most important thing is to increase the amount of fresh foods you eat versus that that is ready made. This includes products such as brunch/sports bars unless you are ingesting those directly before, during or after physical activity.Pick wholemeal instead of white, butter instead of margarine, natural live/bio yoghurt instead of fruit flavoured, water instead of soft drinks, dilute all fruit juices and pick those with no sugar added and not make from concentrate. If you can, consider buying organic.How you store your food will make a difference to the quantity of vitamins left in that food before you eat it. It is always best to eat fresh food within 2 to 3 days of buying it. Time diminishes the nutritional value of all fruits and vegetables, as will heat and light. If your lifestyle doesn’t allow you to shop regularly for fresh vegetables then consider frozen ones. The nutritional quality of frozen vegetables can be higher than fresh ones.Improve your drinking habits: sipping water regularly throughout the day is better than drinking half a litre when you are dying of thirst. For some of you, this may mean setting your alarm at regular intervals to remind you to take a sip. If you are hydrated enough, your urine should be clear or light yellow. The exceptions to that would be the first urination of the day, which is quite concentrated, and if you are taking a multivitamin which will result in yellow urine caused by B2 (riboflavin).All the above are just the necessary beginnings to start developing good eating habits. In the months to come we will see how nutrition can be made specific in order to ensure high levels of energy, mental focus, improved strength and ultimately, limiting the number of injuries as well as how to eat to improve the speed and quality of repair if you are injured.
Kathryn Bistany, The Founder and Managing Director of Corpotential Limited.