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Sports Nutrition Know-How: 3 Ways Athletes Can Fuel Performance

Liz Merritt
August 29, 2017
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When it comes to sports nutrition, arming yourself with the right information is essential to performance success and optimal recovery.

“As athletes, our primary goal is to have the energy for the exercise we are doing, recovering well and getting stronger to do it the next time,” says Bettina Warnholtz, head coach and founder of RaceLab Endurance Sports Coaching.

Balancing Act

Sports Nutrition

Maintaining balanced levels of essential nutrients is critical for anyone who works out.

Maintaining balanced levels of essential nutrients is critical for anyone who works out or trains for a sport. Carbohydrates, protein and fat constitute our energy sources, or macronutrients. Vitamins and electrolytes are the micronutrients that enable the body to utilize the energy provided from the macronutrients. Water is the third essential ingredient.

“We always have to respect our body and what it needs to survive,” Warnholtz explains. “The body doesn’t care if you are exercising, dieting or starving yourself, it will react in a certain way when it is deprived of essential nutrients.”

And that can lead to long-lasting metabolic damage. “If you starve your body, it will defend itself by holding onto fat because it doesn’t know when it will be fed again,” Warnholtz says.

Therefore, the key is to maintain continuous energy levels throughout the day to encourage maximum metabolic efficiency.

3 Keys to Sports Nutrition

Sports Nutrition

Know the right macronutrients for your body and your training demands.

For athletes, this is particularly important, because the body will cannibalize hard-earned muscle mass to survive if forced to by inadequate nutrition.

Warnholtz says there are three keys to maintaining consistent energy and to properly fuel your sports activities:

  1. Knowing the right macronutrient ratios (carbohydrates/fats/proteins) for your body and training demands.
  2. Correct fuel timing around your training activities.
  3. Frequency of meals throughout the day (in general, 3 meals/2 snacks spaced evenly)

It is vital that athletes understand that calories, water and electrolytes provide the foundation of training nutrition during exercise. “As training athletes, we don’t diet and exercise. We fuel and train,” Warnholtz says. “Food is fuel, not our enemy. Quite the opposite. Food is our ally.”

Science of Exercise Intensity

In all cases, the intensity of your workouts matter and will determine the fuel sources that your body will utilize for that particular workout. “You have to fuel your body in order to train a certain way,” Warnholtz says.

She launches into an explanation of ATP – or adenosine triphosphate — is the energy that allows the muscle to contract and release. It’s a bit complicated, but without ATP, our muscles will have no power to perform.

Sports Nutrition

The intensity of your workouts matter and will determine the fuel sources your body will utilize.

“The higher the intensity, the less fat you’re going to burn,” Warnholtz explains. The body relies on glycogen stores (from carbohydrate sources) for fuel in anaerobic and aerobic efforts. At lower intensities, however, the body will tap more into fat for fuel.

If athletes attempt high-intensity workouts in a low-carb state, they run the risk of the body converting protein from muscle into glycogen to fuel the effort.

“At that point, your body is eating muscle, and this can become dangerous,” Warnholtz explains. “The kidneys are overloaded with toxins, and we have lower energy, and an ammonia-like smell is produced by the body.”

Fuel Fundamentals

Warnholtz recommends the following guidelines for fueling pre-, during and post workout. Calorie ranges depend on the gender and weight of the athlete.

Pre-Workout

  • Low-intensity – no pre-nutrition necessary
  • High intensity up to 1.5 hours – 100-200 calories 45 minutes to 1 hour pre-workout
  • 2-5 hours high intensity – 300-600 calories 1.5 to 2 hours pre-workout
  • 5+ hours high intensity – 600-1,200 calories 2.5-3.5 hours pre-workout.
Sports Nutrition

Macronutrient ratios are highly individualized and depend on the athlete, the current training phase and the athlete’s individual goals.

Macronutrient ratios are highly individualized and depend on the athlete, the current training phase and the athlete’s individual goals.

To make the workout more comfortable, avoid high-fiber foods or other foods that may be difficult to digest.

And make sure to include 20-24 oz. water with 300-900 mg of electrolytes, depending on the athlete. 

During Workout

Low Intensity1 1.5 hours

  • Nutrition: none needed
  • Hydration: 12 – 24 oz. / hr.
  • Electrolytes: depending on temperature

2 5 hours

  • Nutrition: 80 to 180 calories / hr.
  • Hydration: 16 – 28 oz. / hr.
  • Electrolytes: 300 – 900 mg./ hr.

5 plus hours

  • Nutrition: 200 to 300 calories / hr.
  • Hydration: 20 – 32 oz. / hr.
  • Electrolytes: 400 – 1200 mg. / hr.
  • .

Medium to High Intensity1 1.5 hours

  • Nutrition: 80 – 120 calories / hr.
  • Hydration: 16 – 28 oz. / hr.
  • Electrolytes: depending on temperature

2 – 5 hours

  • Nutrition: 120 to 200 calories / hr.
  • Hydration: 16 – 30 oz. / hr.
  • Electrolytes: 300 – 900 mg./ hr.

5 hours plus

  • Nutrition: 200 to 400 calories / hr.
  • Hydration: 18 – 32 oz. / hr.
  • Electrolytes: 400 – 1200 mg. / hr.

After Workout 

Sports Nutrition

A post-recovery protein shake or small meal is recommended within 30 minutes of completing your workout.

30 minutes post-workout – Recovery shake or small meal

  • Carbohydrates: 1.0 –2 g / kg of bodyweight
  • Protein: 20 grams
  • Electrolytes: 300-900 mg
  • Water: 20-32 oz.

2 hours after hard or long workout – full meal/ whole food

  • Carbohydrates: 40-70%
  • Fats: 30-20%
  • Protein: 30-10%
  • Continue electrolytes during the rest of the day
  • Continue water during the rest of the day

At the most basic level, general nutrition knowledge helps athletes understand that energy is essential to performance. Says Warnholtz: “It’s important to know what will give us energy and to make sure that energy is going to be delivered the right way to our bodies.”

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