In order for athletes to be successful, regardless of their chosen sport, one of the key outcomes needs to be consistency in training and competing.
Only when an athlete can train consistently over a period of time will they achieve progression and improvements in their performance. This involves ensuring the right fuel before, during and after training; as well as sufficient rest and recovery between sessions and competitions/races.
So what does the right fuel look like for athletes?
When I work with athletes, there are a number of things to take into consideration when thinking about their nutritional strategy. These include:
- Energy demands of that sport - endurance, power, speed, weight management
- The mix of training sessions and intensities
- Their body composition goals
- Their competition schedule
As well as building a nutritional plan that is tailored to their training and competition schedule, I also encourage all athletes to get some baseline blood tests which can be monitored at regular intervals.
By keeping a watchful eye on key biomarkers, it is possible to observe any stress to the body that could be detrimental to performance, as well as ensuring optimal recovery throughout this and subsequent training blocks.
Athletes can be inpatient and find down time after races in particular, very difficult. During a race the body works hard, resulting in the body becoming fatigued and sustaining damage. It is very difficult for athletes to know when the damage inflicted has been repaired and the body is ready to start the next block of training.
While some may use heart rate variability and go with “how they feel”, in a lot of cases, following a great or terrible race it can be tempting to start training too soon either as a result of a race high or due to frustration from a poor result.
For those athletes new to monitoring biomarkers, a good place to start is after an “A” race. For a race recovery profile the biomarkers CRP, CK, creatinine, eGFR and cortisol are measured.
- CRP is a marker of general inflammation. This will increase as a result of any inflammation, and so will increase during extremes of exercise.
- CK (creatine kinase) and creatinine are both released from muscle breakdown and so will be increased as a result of an event. CK is much more specific to muscle so will give an indication of how much damage was done and so indicate the amount of recovery required.
Creatinine is more a marker of how the kidneys are coping with the increased toxins released by the physical damage.
- eGFR is based on the creatinine and uses it to create a marker of kidney damage by also taking age and sex into account.
All of these should return to baseline if proper recovery is allowed. If training volume/intensity is increased too soon then these markers will show that by taking longer to return to baseline.
Ideally it is recommended that a sample is taken, as a minimum, in the week before the race, 24hrs after the race, then 2 weeks later. When recovery is optimal and includes both physical rest and appropriate nutrition, all these results should all be back to baseline. For some individuals a 4 week sample may be needed.
Nutrition is an integral part of being an athlete, from fuelling pre-event and recovering after, it plays an important part in adaptation and progression.
This means fuelling up with complex carbohydrates such as oats, potatoes – sweet and white, wholegrain breads, pasta, rice quinoa and couscous, before high intensity training; this ensures that glycogen stores can be built and sufficient energy is available to the working muscles at a high intensity.
On lower intensity and rest days, while carbohydrates should be consumed, they can be kept to a moderate intake – aiming for around a fist size portion at meal times.
Protein, while always thought of as an integral part of recovery, should be “pulsed” at regular intervals throughout the day. This ensures a more even distribution of protein throughout the day and studies demonstrate that muscle protein synthesis (building of muscles) is more efficient. As a rule of thumb I tend to suggest a palm size portion at meals.
Dairy protein is particularly good for recovery immediately post exercise, as it contains the right composition of easily digestible carbohydrate and protein.
The final nutrients to add to the mix include fruits and vegetables to provide vitamins and minerals necessary for efficient running of all the processes within the body; and essential fatty acids which ensure absorption of fat soluble vitamins, important for preventing inflammation, muscular recovery and boosting the immune system.
Renee McGregor is a leading Performance dietician with over 15 years’ experience.
She has delivered nutrition support to athletes over the last two Olympic and Paralympic cycles as well as other major international competitions.
Renee is also author of best-selling titles Training Food and Fast Fuel books, as well as the nutrition lead for Anorexia and Bulimia Care.