When people start talking and thinking about nutrition it’s really common that they speak either about eating healthily, or eating for fat loss, but nutrition is much more than that.
What you eat can have a direct and significant effect on how you perform during exercise and then how well you recover from the session and adapt to the stimulus you create. If you perform better, you create a better stimulus, if you recover better you are able to create a stimulus more often, and if you adapt optimally to that stimulus?
That’s when we’re really on to something.
What is performance nutrition?
Performance nutrition is also a key area for competitive athletes and sportsmen/women. If these individuals aren’t performing at their best on the field, then nobody will care how ‘ripped’ they are from the substitutes bench.
What we really need to do from the outset is to make a firm and understandable distinction between nutrition for fat loss and nutrition for optimal performance. When you are eating for fat loss, the key things you’re focusing on are:
- Creating a calorie deficit
- Eating enough protein to maintain muscle mass
- Staying full
- Eating a diet that makes you feel as good as possible given the circumstances
- Eating a diet which you can sustain for the duration of your fat loss phase without ‘falling off the wagon’.
But the approach you’d take for maximising performance is going to be fundamentally different. Of course there will be some key similarities, too, in that you should be focusing on whole food nutrition the majority of the time, staying hydrated and eating a range of colourful vegetables, but we also need to think of the following:
- Maintaining or slowly increasing bodyweight by staying at or slightly above your calorie needs on a daily basis, of course in the face of an increased training volume compared to what you would utilise during a fat loss phase.
- Eating enough protein to recover properly, which will be less than you’d need if you were losing fat
- Staying full between meals, though this will be inherently easier owing to a larger intake and could in fact work against you if your calorie needs are especially high.
- Eating a diet which makes you feel good, which may be easier owing to a higher energy intake but at the same time more difficult owing to the uncomfortable fullness or potential sluggishness associated with large food intakes.
- Eating a diet which you can sustain long-term without going overboard and gaining unwanted body fat
Tying in to that last point is probably the most important difference between eating for fat loss but more so body composition in general and eating for maximal performance. That is the fact that being as lean as possible is NOT a good idea for athletes.
Somewhere along the road, the ‘health and fitness’ industry was taken over by the physique industry, and the message became very confused. It is now taken as a given that an athlete will be very lean, with visible abs, but at the top sporting level this is the exception rather than the rule in most endeavours. Being too lean is very possible, resulting in poorer performance. Excessive leanness (which isn’t as lean as you’d think, being that every magazine cover shows ripped athletes) will cause you to become exhausted earlier in a game or training session, will make you less resilient when it comes to injuries, and can hamper your overall performance capacity and general health if you need to maintain a low calorie intake to stay in ‘top shape’.
In sum – though some athletes maintain a very low body-fat percentage, this is not always the case (and when it is, it usually happens by accident due to a combination of genetics and a hugely demanding sports regime) and it shouldn’t be your priority. Perform at peak condition and eat to fuel that performance. You may not end up with an 8 pack mapped out with veins, but you’ll be the best athlete you can be and I can guarantee you’ll look the part by accident.
Below you’ll find information on the different aspects of your diet which you need to pay attention to as a high performing athlete, but one of the most important aspects needs to be said up front – to be an athlete you have to BEHAVE like an athlete. Athletes have certain habits which they cultivate in order to be successful: they prioritise training and sleep, they get regular massage, they pay attention to their mobility work, but most of all they plan ahead.
Your body doesn’t care that you’re busy, that you’re travelling, or that you had a rough day at work, your nutritional requirement are the same. You still need to eat sufficient calories, enough protein, and the meal composition which you always need – and this sometimes calls for some forethought. Don’t feel above preparing food and taking it with you to work, utilise supermarkets when looking to get food on the fly, and make what you are eating a priority.
If nutrition is something you actively think about, it’s a lot easier to manage. Don’t leave things to chance.
It’s a pretty good idea to track your overall calorie needs in some way, with smartphone apps being the most popular and probably most convenient method. This ensures that you aren’t under-eating during especially taxing periods of the competitive season, and will help you quantify your intake in a far more accurate way.
Eating low and training high is a very common issue amongst athletes, and it’s understandable why. The modern preconception of athletes is that of Grecian symmetry and leanness but in reality an athlete should adopt the body of his or her sport and largely put aesthetics aside. Of course this is not going to be possible to do entirely for most of us – we all like to look good naked – but treat is as an afterthought. Remember - nobody tells their grandchildren about how good they felt when they took their T-shirt off in the changing rooms, but everyone likes to regale people of their sporting accomplishments.
Use our Awesome Supplements Calorie Calculator to estimate your required intake and be consistent with it. It’s really easy to ‘eat big’ one or two days in a row, but if this is more than you are accustomed to eating it can sometimes feel like a chore which soon goes out of the window as soon as you take your eye off the ball.
If feeling uncomfortably full, try using liquid calories such as intra-workout sports drinks like Awesome Supplements Electrolytes with Carbs. Additionally, follow the information below regarding your macronutrient distribution to ensure that you are fuelled adequately, feeling good and on top of your game.
Protein is generally speaking the most important macronutrient, and this instance is no different. Protein is the macronutrient responsible for maintenance, growth and recovery of muscle tissue, all key for an athlete involved with any sport. Your overall protein need is dictated by your sport of choice, ranging from 1.2-3g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight – for more in-depth details on your sport, check our our Awesome Supplements Sports guides.
Once you know how much protein to eat, it’s time to spread that out during the day and the first thing, therefore, that you should focus on is a good protein source prior to when you train or play. Around 0.3-0.5g per kilogram of bodyweight is a good starting point here as this is going to be enough to do the job you’re wanting to do – namely prevent any muscle loss and reduce excessive post-training soreness.
When it comes to consuming protein prior to working out, a good idea is to make sure that this falls within a 2 hour ‘window’ before your session – with the protein source you use being determined by how close to the session you are. If you’re not training for 1-2 hours, a whole-food source is the way to go (chicken, beef, eggs or whatever you want) as this is going to take a little while to digest, meaning it won’t sit heavy on your stomach and/or end up being left on the floor. Any closer than that and you might need to start thinking in a little more detail.
When you train, blood is taken away from your digestive system for use in carrying nutrients to the working muscles – in fact, digestion all but stops if you are hitting an intense session, meaning that consuming a whole-food meal too close to a session will result in it not being digested when you need it, and you’ll be left feeling sluggish and potential nauseous.
(your individual results may vary, some people are fine with this)
As for during the session, protein intake at this time is not really needed. While it is popular in some circles to recommend consuming a liquid protein source during the workout itself, this has never been shown to be effective for improving progress when compared to simply eating well before and after the session. The exception to this is if you are going to be training for over an hour in a fasted state, where a protein source may be of use, but simply chugging a protein shake in the changing room before you head out onto the field will negate this, so just do that.
After that, distributing your other protein meals evenly through the day is a very good idea from the viewpoint of eating enough total protein (200+g protein is hard to eat in 2-3 meals) but also potentially from a viewpoint of maximising muscle protein synthesis. Aim for a meal every 4-5 hours or so, including within 2 hours pre and post activity.
A note on pre workout fibre: In much the same way as your protein source, the amount of fibre you have in your pre workout meal is going to be determined by how ‘far out’ it is from your workout. If you’re eating a far way away from training, say 90 minutes or more, then it doesn’t matter all that much and the usual general recommendation of ‘have some vegetables when you eat a meal’ stands. Fibre is very good for you and should be contained in most if not all meals which you eat.
The exception to this is a pre workout meal which is relatively close to a workout. Fibre takes a long time to digest, and the last thing you want when performing HIIT hill climbers or TABATA burpees is a bloated stomach which is full of broccoli. Common sense should prevail here, and by using trial and error for a few days you should be able to work out how much fibre you can comfortably tolerate before exercise.
And that leaves us to carbohydrates, the primary fuel substrate for any intense training that you do – meaning that forgoing carbs while looking to maximise performance (and therefore results) is a poor idea.
I’ll brush over how ‘fuelling exercise’ works for context of why we need carbohydrates, then give recommendations.
Within your muscle cells you have tiny molecules which act as ‘energy units’ called ATP (Adenosine Tri-Phosphate). As the name may suggest, this means that you have one unit of adenosine which has three phosphate bonds attached to it. When you want to do anything, it is ATP which provides your muscles with the energy needed to contract, moving your limbs.
The phosphate bonds are packed with potential energy, so when you need to do something, an enzyme called ATPase breaks one off and releases it for use. This also leaves a molecule of ADP (Adenosine DI – meaning two – Phosphate) and a free phosphate group floating around. ADP is inert and can only be re-activated when it gets another phosphate bond to be re-converted into ATP using energy within the cell and the PhosPho-Creatine Energy System, but by far the more effective method of replacing this energy is through carbohydrate metabolism which is the process your body uses in order to make new ATP molecules out of the carbohydrates that you eat. We only actually store enough ATP for a few seconds of work at any one time so, as you can tell, this process needs to happen pretty quickly.
Carbohydrate metabolism can occur with or without oxygen, but whichever form happens the result is more ATP for use. Without carbohydrate, it’s very difficult for your body to replace ATP, especially without oxygen (It can do so using fats, sort of, but this process is far slower and is impossible without oxygen so isn’t much use for exercise that takes place in short intense bursts), meaning that you run out of cellular energy, you get tired and heavy legs, and you have to stop training.
As you can see, carbohydrates are going to be pretty vital if you’re wanting to perform with intensity (which you should) and this means that we need to make sure you include a good amount of carbohydrates within your diet. Generally speaking, once you start to become a little fitter and more used to exercise, it’s a pretty good rule of thumb to look to increase the proportion of carbohydrate in your diet. In fact, what we recommend for those who are looking to train to a high standard, is that you consume as many grams of carbohydrate as you can whilst still maintaining your weight, feeling good day to day and enjoying your diet – a little more on this in the section coming up about fat.
Further to that, it’s a good idea to have some carbohydrates pre workout. Choose something which sits easily on your stomach (and is, typically, lower in fibre). White rice is a really common option for whole-food meals, or a white wheat wrap with some protein in it. Some fruit or a smoothie are great ideas, too. In the same vein as protein, the closer to the workout you leave it, the more easily digestible it needs to be, and considering a liquid carb source like Electrolytes with Carbs or coconut water for the last few minutes before heading out isn’t a bad idea to make sure you don’t feel bloated during your session.
While you are exercising, you probably won’t need to have any extra carbohydrates provided your pre workout meal was appropriate, but for events or workouts lasting much longer than an hour, sipping 20-30g of carbs per hour is a really good idea when maximal performance is the goal. This serves two purposes. Firstly it ensures that liver glycogen and blood glucose don’t drop so much that you experience hypoglycaemia.
Secondly, consuming carbohydrates during a workout can reduce the stress response to prolonged training bouts, resulting in less fatigue and potentially greater performance secondary to the actual available levels of training fuel.
After training, carbohydrate intake is either vitally important or almost irrelevant, depending on one factor – will you be training again that day? Assuming you follow the guidelines above and have a moderate to high intake of carbohydrate on a daily basis, you will easily replenish stored carbs within worked muscles day-to-day just by eating your regular meals. This means that placing importance upon consuming carbohydrates post workout isn’t needed. They certainly don’t hurt, but they don’t really improve recovery to a greater degree than they would if they were placed elsewhere in the day.
If, however, you are indeed training twice per day, it’s very important that you consume a fast-acting carbohydrate source in between those sessions in order to perform at your best during session two. 50-60g of ‘simple’ carbs from fruit, yoghurt, supplements, sweets or similar can help to top you up and help you fire on all cylinders!
The individual Stuff – Fat intake and macronutrient ratios
So, to sum up the previous section, we recommend that you consume protein within 2 hours before training in order to reduce muscle protein breakdown, you keep fibre relatively low pre workout so you’re not bloated but moderate to high for the rest of the time in order to take care of your general health and digestion, and you have a good amount of carbs in your diet to fuel intense activity, some of which come in before you train and possibly during your session. Once this is all in place we can look to individualise your approach to make things as close to ‘optimal’ as we can.
While there are some things we can say with a great degree of certainty on a wide scale, such as protein needs and the fact that intense training is fuelled with carbs, there are some aspects of nutrition which must be taken on an individual basis – one of these things is fat:carb ratio.
Carbs and fats should be considered as an inverse relationship meaning that within a given calorie intake, protein will remain constant but you can distribute carbohydrates and fats between the remaining allowance as you see fit. Within this, a caveat is that fat intakes of 0.5-1.5g per kilo should be considered as the range to stay within – this will avoid excessively low intakes which could lead to vitamin absorption issues amongst other problems, but also keep fats within a reasonable range to allow for a good carbohydrate intake. Use common sense here, and if the highest end of this range leaves you with sub 100g carbs, consider hitting a more ‘middle of the road’ distribution so as not to cut your performance needs short.
An athlete needs to do as athletes do, as said above, and one of the things athletes do is they focus and practice being in tune with their body, their needs, and the way that they feel during the day. By listening to your body you’ll soon discover that certain meal compositions do and do not agree with you, let me give you some examples:
- Bigger meals may make you feel amazing, tired, bloated, awake, or nauseous
- Smaller meals may make you feel light and energetic, or hungry
- Carbs may make you feel alert or sleepy
- Fats might make you feel comfortably full and energised, or nauseous, hungry or tired
There’s not much we can do in order to predict which way you will go, personally, so we have to create a starting point and then adjust as we go until ‘your way’ becomes clear. Generally speaking your starting point should be thinking of the foods which you tend to eat, and working with that. If you generally opt for eggs, lamb, salmon, avocados, oils and coconut based curries then you should opt for a higher fat, lower carbohydrate intake. If, on the other hand, you love bread, potatoes, rice, fruits and leaner meats, go with that.
Then, of course, there’s the middle ground which is appropriate for 90+% of people.
Experiment with different intakes and see how you feel. Are you energised day to day? Hungry? Bloated? Sleepy? Are you performing and recovering properly? Make adjustments accordingly.
Eating for performance is important, and there are a few things which need to be taken into consideration, but ultimately it’s not the most complex thing in the world:
- Eat enough calories to maintain your weight and performance
- Eat an appropriate amount of protein
- Distribute fats and carbs depending on how you feel, while being mindful of avoiding extremes
- Eat something around your workout which makes you feel good
And if you want a hand with any of the above, if you feel there’s something which you don’t quite grasp, or you want to read a little more into anything, check out the BTN Blueprint or Sports Nutrition guide. For recipes and ideas to make the above interesting, affordable and convenient, the BTN CookBook would be an awesome place to start.