How to Fuel an Athlete

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When working with elite athletes, it is not only about eating a healthy balanced diet. Don’t get me wrong of course that is important, but it is equally if not more important the advice you provide considers one main thing – performance! What does that mean? It means optimising intake to ensure your athlete has fuelled and recovered appropriately for their training requirements.

An athlete’s requirements could be considered abnormal when you compare them to the general population. After all, an athlete can train for 4 to 8 hours per day, compared to the average person who may struggle to exercise that much in a week! For this reason, it is important recommendations are being made which consider the individual athlete and what their training and performance requirements are.

Having good overall health and a strong immune system is key to being a good athlete, but performance nutrition is about having many more tools in the toolbox compared to just meeting nutritional requirements set out by the standard guidelines.

Below are my five priority areas to help fuel an athlete.

1. Periodise Nutritional Intake

One of the most important elements of an athletes training program is periodisation. This means some sessions or even whole training blocks are much harder than others. It will also include scheduled rest days and ‘down’ weeks. These intermittent intensities, durations and types of training are important to maximise performance and ensure optimal adaptation.

For this reason, it is imperative an athlete is adjusting their intake to match their output. Different training sessions, mean variations in nutritional requirements.

For the harder, more intense sessions their bodies will use more glucose and glycogen to fuel the session. This means, the individual should be taking on more nutrition prior to, and immediately after, those key sessions to maximise training output, and also optimise recovery.

Some nutrients and foods should be adjusted more than others. For example, carbohydrate intake should be adjusted based on the type of training. This is different from protein intake which should remain relatively constant day-to-day.

2. Maximise Protein Intake– Timing, Distribution, Type

Protein is the key nutrient involved in muscle growth, however, it is not only about the amount of protein you eat, but it is also about the type of protein you consume, when you eat it and the frequency.

Providing the body with 4-6x doses of good quality, high biological value protein across the day will switch on the muscle protein synthesis pathway more frequently than just having 2-3x meals with large amounts of protein. This means you should ensure your athlete is redistributing some of their protein at lunch and dinner for breakfast and snacks.

Research has also shown that the ability to gain lean muscle mass is elevated for 24-48 hours after a training session. This is why it is important for an athlete who is training most days to keep a relatively constant protein intake as their body is always in a state of recovery.

3. Adjust Carbohydrate Intake

Periodising and adjusting carbohydrate intake around training is one of the most important ways to help your athlete get the most out of training, and is also helpful for manipulating and optimising body composition.

While protein intake should remain relatively consistent on all days, carbohydrate intake should not. Different training sessions require varying amounts of carbohydrate and adjustments to intake both prior to training and also during training should be made accordingly. Training sessions which work at higher intensities require more fuel than sessions which work at lower intensities. Please see the tablet below for some best practice guidelines around carbohydrate requirements during activity.

Brief exerciseLess than 45 minutesNothing requiredF45, run, spin class
Sustained high-intensity exercise45 – 75 minutesPreference
Small amounts – mouth rinse
Extended high intensity class
During endurance sports
Including team sports
1 hr to 2.5 hrs30 – 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour
Can be all glucose or mix of glucose/fructose
Sport like AFL, Netball, NRL, Half marathon
During ultra-endurance exerciseMore than 2.5 / 3 hrsUp to 90grams per hour**Marathon, triathlon, ironman

Reference – Louise M. Burke, John A. Hawley, Stephen H. S. Wong & Asker E. Jeukendrup (2011): Carbohydrates for training and competition, Journal of Sports Sciences, 29:sup1, S17-S27

4. Meet and Exceed the Recommended Fruit & Vegetable Intake

Fruit and vegetables are imperative for the human body to function at its best. Meeting micronutrient requirements are essential for supporting every metabolic function the body performs. Inadequate intake can jeopardise metabolic function which will reduce performance and limit results.

A diet rich in fruits and vegetables also helps ensure good health and immunity. Consistency with training is key to improving performance, and nothing disrupts training like injuries and illness.

This is an area you should be referring to the guidelines, to ensure the athlete you are working with is not only meeting but exceeding their 2x serves of fruit and 5x serves of vegetables.

5. Hydration

Human beings function better when they are hydrated. This includes cognitive function, physical performance and metabolic efficiency. Hydration needs are highly individualised due to variations in sweat rates between people, or even for the same person exercising in different conditions. While there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach when it comes to replacing fluid losses from sweat, your athletes should be aware of their own hydration requirements before, during and after exercise. A few useful tips include

• Aim for pale yellow urine over the day
• Start your training hydrated and avoid losing more than 2% body weight
• Replace more than what you have lost in a session – the general rule is 120 – 150%

Don’t forget athletes are human beings as well. Work with them to change the areas they are open to change, or which will have the biggest bang for the buck – meaning the biggest performance impact. Invest time, build rapport with the individual and ensure you understand their sport and training requirements.

To find out more about Jessica, check out her websites: www.jessicaspendlove.com and www.healthandperformancecollective.com

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