Along with consuming healthy foods, there are more specific nutrition strategies that can help maximize the effectiveness of sports training. The following are some guidelines for how much to eat and when.

First and foremost, it needs to be emphasized that athletes NEED TO EAT. The body needs energy to stay healthy, recover from workouts, and strengthen itself. People tend to think that those bodily processes are guaranteed to happen. It’s important to realize that the body controls its own energy expenditure, and there are numerous factors that affect it. Food intake plays a huge role. When the body has the appropriate fuel, it maintains a high metabolism. This is associated with what is called an anabolic hormonal environment, meaning that the body is building itself up. If the body is not well fed, it shuts down non-vital processes to lower metabolism and conserve energy. Basically it switches into survival mode. This is associated with a catabolic hormonal environment, meaning the body is breaking down its own tissue to get energy. The non-vital processes that get shut down are things like muscle building and tendon repair, processes that are crucial for successful sports training. It is important to avoid that scenario. With that in mind, athletes should aim to eat a lot and have a high metabolism, whether the goal is to lose, gain, or maintain weight. For example, an athlete could maintain weight eating 3000 calories and burning 3000 calories each day. That same athlete could also maintain weight eating and burning 5000 calories every day. The second option is much better, because it means the body does a lot more work on itself. Eat a lot, burn a lot. Feed the machine. That is the correct approach. Not eating enough is a common nutritional mistake, and a terrible one at that.

Now let’s talk about nutrition timing. (Just as a disclaimer, the physiology described here is over-simplified.) Glycogen is the body’s best source of energy. More specifically, it is the best energy for muscles and the brain. Sounds pretty important, right? Glycogen is made from carbohydrates, which is why carbs are the most important macronutrient for athletes. The body maintains stores of glycogen, but they are not unlimited. They actually get depleted in several hours or faster if physical activity is involved. Depletion of glycogen stores is what triggers the survival mode mentioned above. Since those stores are limited, it does not work to just eat a ton in one meal and then go all day without food. If glycogen stores are filled, carbohydrates get stored as fat. So eating more than enough to fill glycogen stores does not hold off survival mode any longer. To prevent glycogen depletion and survival mode, an athlete has to eat regularly. Going through long stretches with little or no food is bad. With that in mind, athletes should always eat breakfast, always eat a few times during the day, and always eat before bed. Again, this is true regardless of weight management goals. This approach is superior to just eating two or three large meals for the reasons just described and because it allows more stable levels of things like blood sugar, vitamins, minerals, available protein, etc, which is healthier than going through large fluctuations.

When it comes to physical activity, the same physiology needs to be considered. Since physical activity depletes glycogen stores quickly, it is important to be well fueled before, during, and after workouts and competitions. Without fuel, the body will become catabolic. One of the tissues broken down during catabolism is muscle tissue. That means an athlete who is not adequately fed for a workout will be burning muscle tissue at the very time he or she is training to strengthen muscle, a very counterproductive situation. So here are some recommendations. Aim to eat a full meal two or three hours before activity. Don’t have a full stomach going into a workout (this is common sense), but don’t be hungry either. Next, try to keep activity relatively short. If it lasts over an 1.5 hours, try to get some carbs along the way to prevent glycogen depletion. A snack like fruit or a granola bar is good for mid-workout consumption. Gatorade or other sports drinks fill this need as well as long as it isn’t a low-calorie version. To establish the importance of this principle, check out this post from the jump science facebook page. Snickers bar saved my workout. Following a workout it is important to eat to replenish glycogen and stimulate recovery. Post-workout is the time to eat a larger meal. At this time the body is in a state where it wants to respond to the stress placed on it. It is crying out, so to speak, for nutrients. Restoring glycogen is the first priority, so carbs are crucial. Protein is often advertised as the key to recovery, but that’s because supplement companies need to sell it. Check the nutrition label on protein shakes. The good ones contain a 3-4 to 1 carb to protein ratio. That being said, it is also important to make protein readily available for use in repairing structures damaged or stressed by activity. A good protein shake does adequately fill the need for immediate post-workout consumption. But let’s be clear, a post-workout supplement is not at all necessary. It is just a convenient option. You can get the same nutrition from chocolate milk, a peanut butter sandwich, or any food that contains some carbs and protein. There is nothing magical about a protein shake. In fact more natural intake is better, so one can argue that an apple and some nuts is a better option than Extreme Whey Turbo Muscle Blast 3000. Anyway, at least some small amount of nourishment should come as soon as possible after activity. Then a full meal should follow shortly after with lots of carbs and some protein. The body is also primed for vitamin and mineral absorption after physical activity, so it is a good time to eat a lot of fruits and vegetables. In short, try to eat a large healthy meal after a workout.

To sum things up, here are the three main points. Athletes should…
1. Eat a lot and have a high metabolism.
2. Never go hungry. Eat breakfast, eat a few times during the day, and eat before bed.
3. Be well-nourished before, during, and after physical activity.