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How to Improve Nutrition For Better Sport Performance

Rory Townsend, Professional Cyclist

While many of us understand the importance of macronutrients such as carbohydrates, proteins and fat, in our diets, we often overlook the micronutrients which are necessary for multiple enzymes and biochemical reactions in the body.

Nutrient deficiencies can result in feelings of fatigue, a drop in mood or motivation, susceptibility to illness, or a reduction in power output. But since any one of these could be caused by low levels of a range of nutrients, it’s hard to pinpoint quickly whether symptoms are because of a deficiency, or some other underlying cause like illness or infection.

The Role Of Nutrition In Sport Performance

The idea of healthy eating comes down to promoting long term good health, fending off increased risks of disease whilst maintaining a balance so food is still enjoyable.

When it comes to sports nutrition it is far more to do with optimising performance. Particularly for those athletes in the top of their field. But increasingly so amateur/age group athletes seek gains throughout their training and lifestyle to improve performance.

Nutrition becomes almost like another training session. In order to get the most out of your training you must have the right fuel. Making the right nutrition choices to suit your specific sport but also the intensity of the session will ensure that you have:

  1. Put the right amount and type of fuel into your body to meet the demands of your session, allowing you to perform to your best ability.
  2. Made the correct choices after your training session, which will allow your body to adapt to your training and make it stronger within your chosen sport.

Adaptations include:

  • Increases in strength and lean muscle mass
  • Improvements in performance within their chosen sport
  • Good consistency between training sessions so that each one can be done to the best of their ability
  • Good sleep patterns, good mood and high energy levels

Periodisation of training over the year is a relatively common concept and the same can be applied to nutrition. For example during a recovery phase during off-season, although training volume and intensity may be significantly reduced, the body will be at more risk of injury and illness. Good nutrition strategies should include:

  • Increasing protein requirements (frequency rather than portion sizes at any given time);
  • Increasing intake of fresh fruit and vegetables;
  • Consuming foods high in essential fats and Vitamin E such as seeds, nuts, oily fish and avocados;
  • Adjusting carbohydrate intakes according to the training but not removing as this is likely to lead to a depressed immune system
  • Additionally, for female athletes particularly it is essential that during this off-season, nutritional intakes and body composition allow for regular menstruation.

Which Nutritional Biomarkers Are Important To Measure?

Ferritin (Iron)

Ferritin is critical in keeping the amount of iron in the body balanced (homeostasis). Iron is needed for several critical processes within cells and ferritin makes sure it is available for them. Increasing research has shown that iron has a role in many conditions in the body too including inflammatory, malignant conditions such as cancer and neurodegenerative diseases. Women are more susceptible to iron deficiency due to the iron lost during their menstrual cycle.

Vitamin D/Calcium

Vitamin D is needed by the body to facilitate the uptake of calcium from the diet. It is also needed for the regulation of phosphate from food, too. Therefore, it has a key role in maintaining bone health as well as the proper functioning of our immune system, muscle function, energy levels and reducing inflammation. Those who live in countries where sunlight might be limited or spend little time outdoors may actually be at risk of a vitamin D deficiency.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 plays a key role in several physiological functions. It is needed for the maturation of red blood cells, if it is not present then this can lead to pernicious anaemia which can have neurological side effects.[3]
Vitamin B12 is also required for cell metabolism and function, so deficiency can have detrimental effects on the body’s organ systems. The body can store vitamin B12 which means deficiency may occur over a prolonged period.

What Will A Blood Test Show?

Blood tests are an ideal way to get a quick snapshot of your nutrient profile, and the Forth Edge app display allows you to see how your levels compare not only to the recommended range for your gender and age but also to other similar Forth Edge users.

Regular blood tests allow you to monitor your nutritional levels and understand what is normal for you. It also helps you see if changes in your diet are having a positive impact.

What Do High Or Low Results Mean For These Specific Biomarkers?

Ferritin

Low levels can lead to low energy levels, fatigue, and headaches, whereas high levels can indicate inflammation as a result of injury, intense exercise, or infection.

Vitamin D

Low levels of vitamin D can result in fatigue, depression, increased risk of bone injury, and viral respiratory tract infections.

Calcium

Low levels can result in reduced energy, increased bodily inflammation, and stress fractures.

Vitamin B12

Low levels can cause fatigue, weakness, loss of appetite, unexplained weight loss and constipation.

Tips To Improve Nutrition Based On Your Results

1. Low Ferritin

Increase intake of dietary iron if your ferritin or red blood cell biomarker levels are low. Good sources include red meat, fish, poultry, dark leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, and pulses. Plant-based sources of iron such as dark green leafy vegetables, nuts, seed, pulses, and fortified cereals may be absorbed better in the presence of vitamin C.

Try eating fortified breakfast cereals alongside a glass of orange juice or swap chips for a jacket potato with a of green leafy veg – be sure to eat the skin of the potato. Avoid taking these foods in the presence of tea which is high in tannin and interferes with absorption of iron.

Leave at least 30 minutes between having your breakfast and having a cup of tea.

2. Low Vitamin D

Most of the body’s vitamin D is produced in the skin following exposure to sunlight, so people living in the UK are more prone to be deficient in this vital vitamin.

Levels >75nmol/L are recommended for optimal health, or >90nmol/L for athletes.

As it is difficult to increase levels of vitamin D through diet alone, supplements are usually required.

There also seems to be emerging strong evidence that supplementing an athlete who has sub-optimal levels of vitamin D has real benefits to performance, particularly in strength, power, reaction time and balance.

Vitamin D supplements are readily available but always make sure that you buy from a reputable source.

3. Low Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 can only be derived from animal sources such as meat, fish and dairy. Therefore deficiency can be common amongst the vegan and vegetarian community. As such it is recommended to take vitamin B12 supplements. If your diet is high in vitamin C this can also limit the normal absorption of vitamin B12. Therefore, you should keep your intake of vitamin C within normal parameters and perhaps consume it separately to vitamin B12 where appropriate.

4. Low Calcium 

Not consuming enough calcium in the diet alongside energy and protein intakes can cause the bones to have a low calcium content, which may be a risk factor for bone diseases or problems in later life.

Improve The Efficiency Of Your Immune System

Nutrition is an important factor in our health and immune status. If we are deficient in some nutrients, then this can make our immune system weak. Micronutrients including zinc, selenium, iron, copper, vitamins A, C and E, B6, and folic acid all have important influences on our immune responses. Therefore, it is essential to maintain a healthy and balanced diet incorporating all of these micronutrients.

Getting enough sleep will help your body produce T cells which are key to the immune system. In addition, ensuring you do not over train and building in enough rest periods will reduce the stress on your body which can have a negative impact on your immune health.

Have Sufficient Energy Availability

Ensure you meet your energy demands when training by consuming enough protein, carbohydrates, and fats.

It is important to remember that you can still be a normal weight but not be meeting your nutritional requirements. In female athletes, a lack of periods is caused by energy deficiency or RED-S. Poor energy availability causes the body to focus on processes and functions key to survival. In women, this often results in a lack of periods.

Muscle recovery can be aided by eating a nutritionally balanced diet and ensuring you get sufficient recovery periods between exercise.

Conclusion

Regularly measuring biomarkers key to health can help improve overall sports performance. Having scientific information about your body’s hormones and nutritional levels can help you identify areas for improvement and enable you to change your training and meal plans to improve results.

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