Exercise and Sports Nutritionist, Dr Mahenderan Appukutty from the Faculty of Sports Science and Recreation, Universiti Teknologi MARA, Shah Alam shares what athletes can do to fuel themselves for better performance.
Do: Consume a Balanced Diet
There are three essential macronutrients for runners:
1. Carbohydrates are converted to glucose and then stored in your muscles as glycogen. This gives you energy, but it gets used up quickly – in the first 20 minutes of running! After this, your body will turn its fat stores into energy instead.
2. Protein is essential to develop muscles and maintain healthy tissue. Make sure you consume enough protein in a balanced diet; after running, taking protein in the form of milk or protein drinks will help your body repair wear and tear of muscles and aid recovery.
3. Fat is needed to fuel exercise too and also for other bodily requirements. Fat plays an important role as a primary source of energy at rest and during low-intensity exercise. If your body doesn’t contain enough fat, says Dr Mahenderan, it will use up the carbs quickly and burn protein instead, which is needed for healthy growth and regeneration of muscles. It is important to know the amounts and types of dietary fats found in foods.
Don’t…neglect any of these macronutrients. Macronutrients need to be balanced at all times:
- Higher carbohydrate/protein intake typically means lower fat intake
- It is not recommended to totally remove fat from your meals
Dr Mahenderan says the average breakdown should be 70% carbohydrate, 15-20% protein, and the remaining 10-15% should be fat. It all depends on the type of sports and training cycles too; that requires personalized nutritional advice.
Do: Plan for Fuel Before and During the Race
Carbohydrate-containing foods have different effects on blood glucose levels. Foods with a low glycaemic index (GI) are slower in releasing glucose to the blood, whereas foods with a high GI release glucose at a faster rate. Dr Mahenderan recommends taking low-GI food approximately 4 hours before a run or exercise and a lighter snack about 1-2 hours before exercise. This allows sufficient time for the body to convert and absorb the energy it needs. Avoid fatty foods before running or exercise, which will slow digestion. During the run, use gels and sports drinks as they can be absorbed more quickly. As exercise intensity increases, the percentage of energy provided by fat metabolism decreases and the percentage of energy from carbohydrate metabolism increases.
Don’t… overlook the importance of planning for nutrition and energy before and during a race; your strategy should be fine-tuned while training; it’s not advisable to try anything new during a competition.
Do: Hydrate and Replenish
Everybody has different hydration needs; Dr Mahenderan recommends weighing yourself before and after training or running to see how much fluids you’ve lost and estimate how much fluid you need to replace. In addition, sports drinks are an important source of fluids and energy while exercising or running; the carbohydrates found in sports drinks help to replenish your body’s energy supply for better performance. For long training sessions or marathons, refuel at regular intervals; when the weather is particularly hot, increase your fluid and electrolyte intake to compensate for increased sweating.
Don’t… wait until you are thirsty or tired before refuelling; by the time you feel thirsty, you are already dehydrated!
Do: Educate Yourself
Know what you are consuming, read the nutrition labels and work with a qualified nutritionist or dietician to customise a plan that’s suitable for your specific needs. For example, all isotonic drinks provide electrolytes; key words to look out for are potassium, sodium, and carbohydrates for energy. Dr Mahenderan also urges active individuals to meet their micronutrient requirements such as calcium for muscle contraction and to prevent muscle cramps, and iron to assist the body's ability to transport oxygen.
Don’t… rely on unproven remedies or products without scientific evidence.
Do: Take Time for Recovery
The importance of recovery nutrition depends on the type and duration of completed exercise. Immediately after a race (within 60-90 minutes), help your body to heal with protein and carbohydrates – this allows your body to repair wear and tear of tissue due to prolonged exertion. Recovery nutrition is intended to replenish fuel (glycogen) stores used during the training session or competition; take protein to assist with muscle repair and synthesis, and lastly, restore fluid and electrolytes lost in sweat. A recovery plan should be done in stages and tailored to meet an individual’s goals.
Don’t… force your body to start training immediately after a run. Even experienced runners who are fit and in good health would experience fatigue for several days afterward; taking a week to rest will provide you with a physical and psychological break before you begin training again. Rest is very important. Lack of rest and recovery days can lead to overtraining syndrome—a difficult condition to recover from.