The last part of my series addresses the fitness questions and challenges for those who are metabolically healthy, who even carry the right amount of body weight, but want to know what nutritional steps they can take to optimize their performance. If you missed the earlier installments, they include Your Fitness Part 1, Part 2 – for the metabolically challenged, and Part 3 – for the metabolically healthy folks who exercise and want to lose some excess body fat.
Nutrition, of course, is not the only key to enhancing your fitness and athletic performance.
There are other do’s:
- work with a trainer or follow a wisely designed exercise program
- get enough sleep
- manage your stress well
- avoid over-exercising
- don’t neglect the rest of your life!
so I am just going to focus here on eating right to enhance your fitness.
All dietary recommendations fall on a continuum of values depending whether you are more interested in muscular strength and sprinting or an endurance sport. Some sports (such as rowing) are seasonal: sprinting one time of the year and endurance another; other sports combine both (American football), and some individuals participate in both kinds of sports.
- Individualize! The most important principle in any dietary program is the value of individualization: I will make some general recommendations and then the ball is in your court, you can try them out for 2-4 weeks and decide for yourself which ones seem to work well with your physiology and your athletic goals. If you adopt many changes at one time, it can be challenging to sort out the different effects, so if many of these ideas are new ones for you, start with just one or two so you can give them a thumbs up or thumbs down knowledgeably.
- Macronutrients matter, both their timing and their proportions, let’s start with protein. Each time you exercise strenuously, your muscles are stressed and are in fact a little bit injured as the components of the muscle are consumed as the muscle does its work. Muscles, tendons and ligaments can all become weakened with exertion if you do not properly replenish the protein building blocks with which your body does structural repair. Any athlete in training would be wise to spread out their protein requirements fairly equally among all their meals; the question is “How much do I need?”
- For high intensity sprint/strength training, daily needs can run as high as 1.8-2.0 grams/kg of body weight. Translation: for a 200 pound athlete (91 kg), that means 164-182 grams of protein daily, or ¾ of that for a 150 pound athlete. Consider an ounce of protein rich food contains approximately 7 grams of protein, a 200 (or 150) pound sprint/strength athlete needs 24-26 (18-19) ounces of protein, 8 (or 6) ounces 3 times a day. A generous fish filet, steak or two eggs and sausage at every meal.
- Endurance athletes or maintenance sprinting athletes can get by with less, 1.3-1.8 grams/kg daily. So our 200 (or 150) pound athlete would need 120-164 grams or 18-24 (13-18) ounces of daily protein.
- Fat is too often neglected in standard nutritional advice for athletes: low-fat milk, meat trimmed of its fat, egg white omelets are all for athletes who want to have a skinny short career and develop complex metabolic problems. Athletes need more fat than non-athletes: fat enhances the digestion of protein, carries valuable fat-soluble vitamins and anti-oxidants (critical for bone health, immunity and more). Fat also belongs in every meal, and considerations should be given to fat quality without worrying about quantity: it is hard to overeat good fats. Good fats include egg yolks, full-fat dairy, avocados, nuts and nut butters, and the fat that is part of cold water fish and pasture-raised meat. Two critical but complex issues around fat are worth mentioning (and deserve an entire article each, sometime soon)
- Salad dressings should be made exclusively or primarily with olive oil, supplementing with nut oils (macadamia, walnut) for special flavors. Oils that should go out of your pantry completely include soy, corn, “vegetable”, safflower and canola oil. They have been associated with diabetes, cardiovascular illness, cancer and obesity; they are often genetically modified, highly processed, and contaminated by cleaning agents.
- Fats for cooking should be solid at temperatures up to 70 degrees, meaning: butter, lard, ghee, coconut oil, duck fat, what else? Olive oil can be used for very gentle cooking, but can be highly reactive, like other problematic oils, when exposed to heat.
- Carbohydrate needs and timing will need to be the most individualized. You are eating carbohydrates to replace muscle and liver glycogen stores and to fuel sprint and strength exertion; carbs are not strictly necessary for endurance sports. (High level sports’ nutritionists debate whether carbs are necessary for performance or can all athletes adapt to a very low carbohydrate diet. Experts agree however, that if you are going to eat carbs, their quality, amounts and timing are very important.) Carbs also provide necessary but small amount of sugar required for brain and blood component metabolism; they provide vitamins, and flavor, and good substrate for healthy bacteria living in our guts, but they are not as necessary to life as are proteins and fats.
An athlete’s carb needs can vary from 50 (endurance athletes) to 150-175 grams (sprint and strength training) of carbohydrates a day, still far less than the Standard American Diet. If you have been fueling your exercise primarily with carbohydrates, I encourage you to consider increasing your protein and fat consumption and limiting your carbohydrates. You may require a few weeks’ period of adjustment, but you are likely to find greater reserves of energy and performance, less cravings and hunger, and less need to carry and consume nasty packaged sugary “performance fuels.”
Some popular carbohydrate strategies include:
- Partitioning carbohydrates: spread them out evenly over the day or try eating the bulk of your carbohydrates in the later part of the day. (John Kiefer, nutrition and fitness consultant, has taken this topic to a high art form in his book, Carb Back Loading, and summarizes his insights in this article.
- Eat a small amount of easily digestible carbohydrate before exercising, or…
- Exercise fasting! And replace consumed glycogen with a carbohydrate rich meal within an hour after exercising. Choose complex carbohydrates that are grain free, such as sweet potatoes, berries, or other fruits or vegetables.
- If you are used to eating carbohydrates, consider exploring “Nutritional Ketosis” as it applies to athletics. A great discussion of this, both academically and by personal report, appears on the website of Dr. Peter Attia.
- Supplements are part of it all. Most basic are the most important:
What Do I Do?
As a competitive rower, I am interested in improving my performance: I would love to row a bit faster and stronger! I would consider that I fall into this category of Fitness Goals: my weight and metabolism are essentially healthy. It’s important to me that I improve my fitness without sacrificing my health. For me that means getting enough sleep; as a rower, I know my sleep can be compromised when I set an early morning alarm, so early bedtimes and days off are part of my routine.
First thing in the morning, I start with decaffeinated black tea and whole cream. For breakfast, I eat 2 eggs, some meat, and some vegetable or broth in the morning, taking decaffeinated black tea with cream. On exercise days, I have the tea and cream before exercise, and a whey protein smoothie (recipe link) right after exercise, about 1-1/2 cups. Within an hour or two, I sit down for a hearty breakfast, adding in some fruit or fried sweet potatoes or even sweet potato pancakes, and a cup of Dave Asprey’s brilliant bulletproof coffee or tea. If you’ve never tried it, be bold, it’s a great way to eat healthy butter and enjoy a foamed hot drink without shelling out for a latte downtown. Lunch is always a big green salad with either leftover dinner or some form of meat or fish. Dinner is again a big salad or cooked green vegetable, a small amount of starchy vegetable (half a sweet potato, most of a cup of rice) with lots of butter, and 4-6 ounces of protein. A glass of red wine before dinner, a handful of sprouted nuts and an ounce of dark chocolate (80-91%) and that’s a full day.
What about you? are you an athlete? How do you fuel yourself and what do you like or dislike about your nutritional program?