Friday, December 9, 2011

Sports nutrition in 5 simple layers

Glamour Of Nutritional Supplements

Nutrition is a high tech business with millions of pounds of research being spent on the latest ergogenic aides, but for most people getting the basics of nutrition right will reward them with maximised sports performance, healthy weight loss and body, and a robust immune system. Unfortunately the basics on nutrition are often not met, being eclipsed by high tech products such as creatine, HMB, weight loss tablets such as Proactol, Zotrim or Alli, or the plethora of weight loss and fitness supplements that are marketed to us.

A common mistake made by those looking for improved sports performance, weight loss or health is to look for a supplement to do the job. People concern themselves with exotic products rather than addressing the basics first.

Hierarchy Of Nutritional Needs

Considering nutritional needs to be a hierarchy of needs is a good way to develop a successful nutritional strategy. You may be aware of food pyramids - the ones you learn in cookery at school, or the ones found on sites such as the Good Food Guide - but these have some fundamental flaws in them (for another blog post). Consider the pyramid to have a wide base representing the most fundamental of nutritional needs, and an narrowing towards the top representing nutrients that are gradually more specialist towards the top. The more specialist needs we see at the top should only be considered once the fundamental base needs have been met.

Base Layer 1 - The Fundamentals: The basic needs of nutrition can be met by including a balance of the macronutrients carbohydrates, fat and protein. The balance will vary with your lifestyle requirements and body type. Essential to get the system working is water and fibre, both soluble and insoluble. These will largely be met if you consume lean meats, fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and fish. Limit your intake of sugar and refined grains which are considered to be anti-nutrients and actually contribute no nutritional value apart from energy, yet use up resources in the process. Add protective and micro-nutrient rich foods such as variety of colourful fruits and vegetables. Try to include raw or lightly cooked foods as the nutrient content may become denatured by intense heat.

Layer 2 - Protection:

Part of life is oxidation, and this is part of exercise too. As a metal car rusts so do we, and when we talk of anti-oxidants we are usually considering ways of limiting or repairing the damage caused by the aerobic nature of our body functions - free radicals affect our health and well being. Once the fundamentals are established you can consider tweaking your micro-nutrient needs to include anti-oxidants that are essential in combating free radical damage to the body including immune system.

Consider the fruit and vegetables you do consume according to their anti-oxidant content. The richer in anti-oxidants the better able to combat the oxidative stresses placed on the body by air pollution and intense exercise, both of which place damage on the cells of the body. Taking a broad spectrum multivitamin may add to the daily protection from free radical oxidation, and a regular intake of omega 3 oils, through foods or supplement form will also help.

Below is a table of high antioxidant food types. Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) is a method of measuring antioxidant capacities in biological samples. The higher the ORAC the more antioxidants are available. (US Dept. Agriculture; Brunswick Laboratories; JACS)


70% cocoa solid dark chocolate 13500

Pomegranate 10500

Dried prunes 5770

Red delicious apples 4270

Raisins 2830

Kale 2410

Blueberries 2400

Garlic 2320

Blackberries 2040

Spinach 1700

Brussels sprouts 1580

Strawberries 1540

Alfalfa sprouts 1450

Broccoli flowers 1290

Raspberries 1220

Beets 1170

Plums 949

Red bell peppers 810

oranges 750

Corn 720

Cherries 670

Onion 560

Eggplant 510

Cauliflower 510

Cabbage 480

Potato 460

Sweet potato 430

Leaf Lettuce 410

String Bean 390

Carrot 340

Yellow squash 280

Iceberg lettuce 230

Tomato 195

Celery 130

Cucumber 110

Layer 3 - Fueling For Sport - Real Food

Now you have a good general diet, an availability of macronutrients and micronutrients and a consideration of how best to protect our body from free radicals for health and immunity, it is time to consider what and when is best to eat. Also an optimum hydration strategy will be useful for those performing exercise - whether for sports or weight loss.

Fluid needs are closely linked to air temperature and humidity, plus the intensity and duration of your exercise. If exercising aim to begin fully hydrated - a guide is to keep your urine a light straw colour, and re-hydrate immediately post workout. If you weight yourself pre and post workout, add the mass of the fluid you consumed during the exercise to the difference between pre and post workout weights. Aim to consume 1.5 times this figure.

Example; pre workout 75kg, post workout 74kg, drinks 500ml during workout = 0.5kg so a difference of 1.5kg. It is therefore advised to consume 2.25l fluids post workout.

Fueling your sports from food is also essential. I recommend making a daily 500kcal deficit if you are trying to lose weight. If you use 1000kcal during a workout it is therefore useful to eat accordingly, so you do not have too much of a calorie deficit, and you do not overeat.

If you are like me and love to eat carbohydrates it is best to consume them pre and post workout as you are highly insulin sensitive during and up to 2 hours post exercise, particularly if your training consists of high intensity intervals or resistance exercises. However for best weight loss I suggest you stick to whole grain and vegetable sources of carbohydrates, and avoid sugar.

For athletes my advice is different in that you are not trying to create a calorie deficit. More focus is on recovery for the next session. You should therefore consume your carbohydrates during and after exercise as this is when your body will best use it - absorbing it like a sponge and maximising your recovery and boosting your immune system. If you burn 1000kcal in training aim to replace this with real food during your session - cereal bars, flap jacks and dried fruit. Post workout try to include protein with your meal, whether it is in a milk shake, bowl of cereal or meat and veg meal. Aim to consume a proper meal within 2 hours post exercise and have a snack within 15mins of exercise.

Layer 4 - Fueling For Sport - Sports Nutrition

Firstly I have to say that if you are after weight loss avoid sports drinks at all cost. They are essentially sugar and will do your weight loss efforts no good at all, will make it difficult to create a calorie deficit, and will make it difficult for your body to access fat stores for energy if an available source of sugar is present to use.

My advice for athletes is to use sports drinks to enhance your sport. Although nutrition and hydration needs can be met through food and water such as dried fruit, cereal bars etc, there are benefits of using special sports drinks. They provide a ready source of easily assimilated energy which is essential if exercising for over 1hour in a bike or run race. The stress on the gastric system is minimised and in the case of electrolyte drinks the essential minerals lost in sweat are replaced. The lack of fibre in sports drinks is also beneficial in longer races such as marathon or long course triathlon.

Recently a series of protein:carbohydrate drinks for use during training have been launched. These are particularly useful for sessions or races over 3h in duration as the branched chain amino acids (BCAA) that are catabolised in muscle during endurance events are 'saved' by the available BCAA in the sports drink.

Recovery drinks are also a revolution in the quest for swift recovery. In the field, recovery drinks allow athletes to consume a meal within the 15minute window of opportunity bu drinking a 2:1 carbohydrate to protein drink, that often contains vitamins and minerals too. This 15 minutes post race or training session is so crucial due to the ability of the body to use the materials we provide it. We are highly insulin sensitive, and any protein we consume with the carbohydrate will have the extra insulin to deliver it to where it is needed - the muscle - where repair will take place and glycogen will be replenished.

Layer 5 - Ergogenic Aids

If you have the first 4 levels of the hierarchy of nutrition needs sorted then it may be beneficial to invest in some supplements such as creatine, beta-alanine, caffeine or HMB, and depending on your sport each of these may or may not be beneficial. However if you have not fully adopted the principles of real food and sports nutrition there is no way that you will be able to rely on a supplement to realise your potential. Unfortunately as with everything, there are no short cuts and although it may take time and effort the gains you will get from real food and hydration will far outweigh the gains from the specialist supplements mentioned - even if their adverts promise otherwise. It is essential to walk before you can run when it comes to nutrition, and to get the building blocks in place before trying supplements is the key to success.

Personal Trainer Nico Valla specialises in helping people with busy lives get fit quickly, increase their confidence and tackle their big inspiring goals such as their first marathon, 10k, triathlon or ironman.

Nico has developed a pack of training advice and resources to help you get fitter. These are available for free, so if you wish to get much fitter very quickly then go and redeem your pack at

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