With so many voices exalting the virtues of spurious ‘superfoods’ it’s difficult to know what will really help spur us onto faster race times, stronger swims or more fruitful workouts. With a raft of experience honing the diets of elite athletes, sports nutritionist James Collins told us what it’s really worth paying attention to when it comes to eating for exercise…
With the rising popularity of fat- and protein-focussed diets such as Paleo, some confusion has arisen regarding the importance and role of carbohydrates for exercise. “Carbohydrates are still the most important fuel for exercise,” says James, “the more you are training, the more carbs you’ll need to fit into your diet – take a look at my meal plans for runners to help you get the balance right on rest, moderate and heavy training days.”
Practice is key to getting your fuelling strategy right explains James; “Try out different carbohydrate-based foods at different times in training to work out what’s right for you. Also, don’t worry about a little weight gain if you’re carb-loading for an event, the increased glycogen can add around 2kg to your body weight and shows your muscles are sufficiently fuelled.
We’re not talking about the 5:2 diet here. Fasted training sessions are usually performed in the morning before breakfast and mean working out on an empty stomach in a bid to enhance fat metabolism and help your muscles to work more efficiently. “There are key changes that occur in the body in response to endurance training, which allow more oxygen to be delivered to working muscles, producing more energy,” explains James; “Fasted sessions can increase the stress on the body – and will feel harder – but can expedite these responses. This technique should only be used for lower intensity sessions under an hour”
Coffee fans rejoice! A morning cup of your favourite brew can give your workout a boost; “Research continues to show that caffeine before exercise can improve performance by reducing the perceived exertion,” says James, “Everyone has an individual response to caffeine so make sure you experiment with a cup in training before utilising on the day of an event or race.”
Minimise the impact on your body of hard workouts by eating plenty of foods that contain healing antioxidants. James explains; “Particularly heavy training sessions can cause an increase in Exercise Induced Muscle Damage (EIMD), resulting in subsequent soreness in the days after. A recovery meal or snack containing carbohydrates (to refuel) and protein (to repair) is key to start the recovery process, however antioxidants are important as they help to scavenge the additional free radicals caused by exercise that can damage cells. Research has shown that cherries, blueberries and pomegranates in particular can have a positive effect, though go easy on high-dose antioxidants (e.g. vitamin C) which may actually hinder the muscle’s ability to adapt to training.”
The fitness world is full of ‘go-faster’ fads that promise to rev your engine and have you flying over the finish line. Beetroot juice is one of the few products with claims that have stood up to rigorous testing; “Recent research has continued to show that dietary nitrates (in particular from beetroot juice) can be an endurance booster,” explains James, “They work by improving the efficiency of the muscles as the nitrates reduce the amount of oxygen required to produce energy.”
As with caffeine, your reponse to these potent compounds will be individual and James advises experimenting during training sessions to see if it’s right for you; ”Half a litre of beetroot juice is about the right dose, or you can now buy handy shots that are more concentrated and often more palatable! Blood levels peak after 2-3 hours, so time your intake according to when you’ll need a boost!”
From eating before exercise to making sure you’re properly hydrated, keeping a close eye on your nutrition will improve your workouts no end.