The relationship between what your body takes in and how it delivers
Competitive athletes and exercise enthusiasts of all levels have long been aware of the relationship between their performance level and their food choices. Seven-time Tour de France champion, Lance Armstrong, summed up the concept when he said, "The biggest lesson I ever learned about sports nutrition is that paying attention to it can make your dreams come true, and neglecting it can be your undoing."
The good news for the rest of us is that you don't have to be a world-class athlete to take advantage of the food and performance equation. In fact, virtually everyone can move toward peak performance by paying attention to the following nutrition guidelines. The foundation of a healthy, performance-supporting eating plan is to choose nutrient-dense foods. These foods provide a lot of nutrition for the amount of calories they provide.
Examples of nutrient-dense food include:
- vibrantly-colored vegetables and fruit
- whole grains
- nuts and seeds
- beans and legumes
- lean meats, poultry and fish
- eggs and low-fat dairy
Foods that are not nutrient-dense contain a lot of added sugar, artificial ingredients and/or unhealthy fat. Try to limit these foods to allow more room for the nutrient-dense options.
Meal timing can also greatly affect performance. Be sure to eat something nutritious every 3-5 hours when awake. By eating regularly throughout the day, your metabolism will be higher, making weight management easier. Each meal should include at least three different food groups, while providing plant-based carbohydrates, lean protein and some healthy fat. Also, nutritious snacks can be helpful in bridging the gap between meals.
Meals should be eaten 2-4 hours before exercising to allow for adequate digestion. Include well-tolerated foods, emphasizing wholesome carbohydrates for energy and some protein to curb hunger. If fueling 1-2 hours beforehand, consume a snack that is easy to digest and minimize fiber and fat to avoid stomach distress during exercise. Liquid calories may be better tolerated for high-impact sports or shortly before activity.
And remember that proper hydration goes hand-in-hand with a healthy eating plan. It's especially important for physical activity because exercisers have greater hydration needs due to water loss via perspiration and breathing. Be sure to hydrate around the clock since dehydration limits performance.
For workouts lasting 60 minutes or less, water will suffice. Although pure water quenches thirst, athletes who lose large amounts of sweat due to prolonged activity lasting longer than 75-90 minutes and/or hot environments may benefit from consuming a sports drink. These beverages typically provide electrolytes, key minerals lost in sweat, and contain carbohydrates to provide energy and prevent low blood sugar.
A good rule of thumb is to drink 8 ounces of fluid for every 20-30 minutes of hard exercise, but individual fluid needs will depend upon body size, activity level, pre-exercise hydration status and environment temperature. A good way to monitor hydration status focuses on the bathroom. Light-colored to clear urine, similar to highly diluted lemonade, indicates proper hydration. If you're not there and have no extenuating circumstances, you need to drink more.
While what you consume prior to physical activity is critical for your performance, your post-exercise nutrition is an important component to recovery. For strenuous workouts or sustained exercise lasting 75 minutes or longer, be sure to eat something within 30 minutes afterward. Choose carbohydrate-rich foods, such as potatoes, fruit and grains, and include some protein, such as low-fat milk, lean meat or legumes for optimal post-exercise nutrition. The most important part of all when it comes to performance is that you move toward a higher quality of nutrition and stick with it. Food is fuel for proper nourishment and is a winning ticket for athletes and exercisers of all levels in performing their best!
Crystal Witte, RD
Wellness Dietitian, Riverside Wellness and Fitness Center
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