Fuel for Athletic Performance

I originally wrote this as a letter to my son’s football team—they asked. Thought I’d share it with everyone looking to have athletic energy and reduce fat. And the team? Currently #1.

Want some help with ideas. A complete list of recipes is here including the now-famous “Football Chicken Satay.”

Dear Wolverines,

Fueling for performance is a lifestyle. Cutting edge, professional athletes very carefully eat to meet their bodies’ nutritional needs. This is just as important as their training schedule. The serious athlete has no problem saying no to junk food and deserts that hurt their performance. Real athletes makes sure they get plenty of the right building blocks for their bodies; their game depends on it.

Think about it: every time you train hard you put wear and tear on your body. That time in between training is for your body to repair and come back with even stronger muscles, bones—and performance, right? If you don’t give it 100 percent, always, where will it get the genuine building blocks it needs to rebuild after an intense training session? Or after playing both offense and defense, and winning? How long can that last if it is rebuilding with junk?

It’s like building that amazing, world’s tallest, skyscraper and choosing to hook the structural beams together with chewing gum, mortar the bricks with ice cream, frame with corn cheetos, and paint with coca cola—doesn’t work.

Do you want muscle mass or fat? Do you want to fatigue or have all the energy you need?

Most professional athletes have nutrition coaches; the rest of us have to depend on getting and understanding the right information. Unfortunately, there is a tremendous amount of incorrect information out there. Old fads like “carbo-loading” still reign if you search the internet. New commercial interests try to sell you products by giving you information as if it were “backed by research” when it usually isn’t (or the research was poorly done).

You are an athlete! Athletes make changes in their routines. They give their bodies what their bodies need to perform, not because it’s advertised, or because they see their buddies doing it—but because it works. So it is best if you know why something works. Most of this post is info that will help you know why I’m saying what I am saying.

And working any of my guidance into your weekly routine will help in more ways than athletics.

So even if you haven’t (yet) made elite status and are simply trying to compete in your class, there are a few key things to know:

  • First of all, what you eat and drink throughout the week will greatly affect your game. You cannot get what you need in just the pre-game meal.
  • Secondly, living on a diet of sugar, carbohydrates and processed foods will put on weight in the form of fat and NOT muscle and WILL create nutritional deficiencies. More than anything, this sort of diet will hurt your game, your overall health, can cause allergies / food sensitivities and can even affect behavior and academic performance.
  • Thirdly, it’s important to drink enough water all week—this will affect your game.

An important word on sugar: “bad!” Sugar from the sugar cane plant (even organic, turbinado, raw…) *and* sugar from the corn plant (also called corn sugar, high fructose corn syrup) both cause immediate inflammation in our bodies.

After playing intense contact sports, the last thing to do is put something that causes even more inflammation in your body. It could make you more likely to be injured and will slow down or even prevent healing if you do happen to get injured.

Want to build muscle? Just say no to sugar and starchy foods after the game (or training session):

Important point #1: there is a two-hour window of time *after* intense exercise when the body burns fat as fuel, creates a leaner you, and builds muscle and bone.

Important point #2: consuming sugar, fruit juices, and starchy foods like breads and pasta within this two-hour window will decimate these benefits and tell your body to pack on the fat instead.

Hydration tips:

  • Drink by a schedule-not by thirst. Drink a glass of water when you wake up, just because…
  • In truth, it is important to make sure you get enough water* well before you arrive at the game; days before. Otherwise, on game day your body is still trying to “catch up.”
  • During the week, monitor your urine color. If it is pale like lemonade that’s a sign of good hydration. If it is dark like apple juice; drink more fluids.
  • You can weigh yourself before and after a game to gauge how much weight you lost. Drink 24 oz fluid for each pound lost. 8 oz = 1 cup
  • Ideally you won’t lose that much water weight because you will drink throughout the game.

*drink filtered, unchlorinated water.

Important point #3: Gatorade has so much sugar in it that your body cannot actually absorb the electrolytes you think you are getting. That surge in energy is from the sugar. It wears off pretty fast, and then you crash—still in the game.

In fact, one peach has more potassium than a bottle of Gatorade—and won’t crash you.

What to eat:

Eating high performance food all week gives you energy to practice better which will ultimately help you play better when it really counts. Good food is fuel and also lets your body store all the nutrients you need to draw on during the game.

Your meals all week should be mainly protein (meats, eggs, nuts), lots of vegetables and some fruits. Definitely eat breakfast, avoid the pizza, cereals and desert (see three important points above).

Go Hard!

Here are the rest of the details: Eating sugar (carbohydrates are the same as sugar in this sense) causes a fast spike in blood sugar. High blood sugar stresses the body in many ways and is toxic. In response, the body makes insulin to move the sugar out of the blood into cells. It also signals the body to convert the extra sugar and store it as fat.

Where the athlete is concerned, through a complex interplay of hormones and nervous system coordination, interval training (competing in a game, wind-sprints…) starts a body response that promotes bone growth (including length in children; strong bones in adults), promotes more muscle mass, promotes fat burning, promotes blood sugar stability, and boosts the immune system.

A University of Virginia research team demonstrated that while carbohydrates are burned during exercise in direct proportion to the intensity of training. Fat burning is also correlated with intensity. However, the actual fat burning takes place during a 2-hour period after the anaerobic (high intensity interval) workout, during the recovery.

They also demonstrated that a high sugar (including carbohydrates) meal after working out, or even a recovery drink (containing high sugar) after working out, will stop the benefits of exercise-induced anabolism (building up). You can work out for hours, then eat a high sugar candy bar, “energy” bar or have a high sugar energy drink, and this will shut down the bonus of enhanced fat burning and muscle building after working out.

This is important when thinking about “rewards” after the game and also choices throughout the week. And I hate to say it, but if you read the labels you’ll find cane sugar or High Fructose Corn Syrup added to almost everything, even chicken broth. We’ve become an addicted society; withdrawal takes a few days, determined and patient parents L and not having sugary treats in the house.

And if that isn’t enough, there are 143 more reasons to dump sugar here: http://dumpsugar.org/2011/05/05/143-ways-sugar-ruins-your-health/ (and Dr. Nancy Appleton backs it up with plenty of scientific references)

Getting those electrolytes: The truth about sports drinks.

Advertising says that if we exercise, we NEED sports drinks to replenish ourselves—is this true?

Our nervous system and muscles run on electrolytes—you are an electrical machine. When electrolytes run low an athlete may develop muscle cramping. Even before that happens they can get tired, not think clearly… it is crucial not to lose too many electrolytes like sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium which are lost when we sweat.

The real question is how many electrolytes are lost during a cool-weather game like football? The answer: Unless there is already an electrolyte deficiency, the amount lost during the game is not so much to affect performance. That said, giving electrolytes isn’t a bad thing either and just thinking that it helps performance may help performance.

Unfortunately, the high sugar content of most sports drinks prevents absorption of the electrolytes you are trying to replace. Worse, sugar stimulates the kidneys and we lose water (diuretic)—also, most commercial sports drinks are loaded with chemicals and additives that impact health. The only thing research shows… is that kids drink more sports drinks than water during physical activity because it “tastes better”—there is no research that indicates these drinks will help performance. There is research that shows sugary drinks lead to a sugar crash and earlier fatigue in athletes that avoid sugar (and pre-game carbs for that matter).

Better electrolyte options:

  • Try coconut water (not milk). It is loaded with the five essential electrolytes that athletes need—including sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium and phosphorous. It is very low in sugar and the sugar it does have is at least a whole food with all the active enzymes and the type of sugar it does contain is different than the sugar cane plant and the corn plant and doesn’t appear to cause an inflammatory response like these two bad boys. It doesn’t taste like Gator Aid; if you’re wanting that taste, forget it. But most people seem to like it.
  • Another option is to squeeze lemons into their water. Believe it or not, 2 tablespoons of lemon juice have the same amount of potassium as an 8 oz sports drink. Potassium is usually lost before sodium.
  • Drink plain water and eat a peach. 8 oz of a typical sports drink contains 30 mg of potassium. A typical ripe peach has 333 mg and it also contains other minerals and vitamins.

Electrolyte and game refueling ideas:

Yes, these pre-teens are working on their pre-growth-spurt appetites and probably do get hungry an hour after breakfast if not midway through their game.

  • During a game (or even training) digestion is inefficient, so give the gut something easy to deal with. Ripe fruits are great; stay away from starchy grains, breads, pastas that cause digestive stress, intestinal upset—gas, bloating, and even diarrhea.
  • Peanut butter* on a ripe fruit. Peanut butter has 300-400x the potassium of the typical 8 oz sport drink, if it is salted it is also a good source of sodium. It is pretty easy to digest and also is a great source of proteins and other nutrients.

*Note: buy organic, natural peanut butter—no added sugar. The only ingredients should be nuts and salt to avoid the blood sugar spikes and partially hydrogenated trans-fats.

And bananas? A banana has three times the sugar and carbs as a peach. While it also has a good amount of potassium, the high sugar limits how much actually can be absorbed and does create an unwanted level of blood sugar, insulin spike, fat accumulation, thyroid stress… and it’s hard to digest. I know, it has been promoted as a good source of potassium.

Eating for Recovery—is really a misunderstanding: When athletes eat all week for performance; training recovery takes care of itself (except extreme endurance sports–that is a bit of a different story).

7 thoughts on “Fuel for Athletic Performance

    • Hiya!
      and thank you. Too many parents bring after-the-game sweets thinking they are rewarding their children. They just don’t understand how much that impacts health. Plus, the “energy bars” and Gatorade at half-time were creating a 4th quarter “bonk.” So I hope this helps parents and athletes who are not so fortunate to have a personal nutrition coach sort out their priorities and the importance of good nutrition. My team parents have been just great about implementing this and the 4th quarter bonk is nowhere to be seen. The boys are learning choices that help them beyond their game.

      More? Absolutely. Just not sure where to start, but if there are specific questions I’ll see what I can do to answer them.
      Yours in Health,

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