Fueling for Performance

By Karen Knapton
Whole Health Consulting Inc.

The most frequently asked question I receive from recreational athletes as well as elite athletes is “what should I eat for race day”? My response is simple, race day fuel is important but it’s what you’ve been doing the weeks and months before in regards to daily nutrition that will affect race day performance. You would not skip hours, days or weeks of training and expect to go out and have your personal best at a race. The same goes for your dietary preparation. The old saying is so true, you are what you eat and your athletic performance will show this.
There are six essential nutrients your body requires for optimal health whether you’re looking to maintain your weight, speed your workout recovery, or to improve your athletic performance. The first and most important nutrient is water. Prehydration, hydration and post hydration will make or break a great race and the ability for your body to recover more rapidly after a grueling workout. Recommendations vary because of age, gender, exercise intensity, duration, and weather conditions but generally 90 –120 ounces of water a day should keep an active athlete hydrated. For workouts less than an hour, water should be sufficient, with workouts lasting longer, a sports drink with carbohydrates and electrolytes would aid performance and recovery.
Vitamins and minerals are the next two essential nutrients your body requires to perform at its best. We receive a bulk of our vitamins and minerals from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Dietary recommendations for fruits and vegetables are 9 –13 one half cup servings a day. The typical American falls short, as does the average athlete. Fruits and vegetables will supply your body with two things a dietary supplement can’t, fiber and phytonutrients. Fiber to keep your gastrointestinal tract working healthy and phytonutrients, the plant based substances that have been shown to decrease the prevalence of certain types of cancer, heart disease, stroke, to bolster your immune system.
When we talk about the best fuel for an athlete carbohydrates win the award. Carbohydrates are the primary source of fuel for working muscles as well as supplying energy to the brain. An athletes diet should consist of 60 –70% of carbohydrates daily, mostly coming from whole grain choices, whole wheat pasta, brown rice, whole grain cereals, breads and of course carbohydrate rich fruits and vegetables. Athletes need to have a carbohydrate rich diet daily, not just the week before or the day before a race. Carbohydrate stores are depleted daily and need to be refueled daily for optimal performance. You wouldn’t expect your car to run on empty so you can’t expect your body to run on fumes either.
Protein is the next essential nutrient our body requires to maintain, repair, and promote new cell growth daily. The athletes diet should contain between 12 –15% of protein choices, poultry, fish, lean meats, beans, and legumes. Excess protein will not build more muscle. Training and more training will do this. Your body does not have the ability to store protein like carbohydrates, and any excess has to be excreted through your urine as waste product or stored as fat. As an athlete the last thing we want to store is more fat.
Finally our body requires fat on a daily basis for optimal health to help with absorption of our fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, to cushion and position your body organs, and protect your bones from injury. Consumption of heart healthy fats or plants based fats would be the best choice which include plant based oils, olive oil, vegetable oils, nuts and seeds.
So if you’re looking to improve your overall health or bolster your race times, taking the time daily to get these six essential nutrients can help with this. Eating breakfast everyday, not skipping meals, snacking wisely, getting plenty of sleep, and hydrating, hydrating, hydrating will help improve your physical and mental performance. Just remember food fuels our bodies so think about that the next time you put something in your mouth, “How will this food help my performance?”

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