Eat Smart, Train Hard

Top athletes and even lower-level sportsmen and women who take their sport seriously need to train a lot! In order to train a lot they need to be able to recover quickly between sessions and there are a number of things that can be done to speed up this process. One of these is to get their nutrition right.Blog-nutrition

Before we dive head first into the detail behind what foods you need to eat, it is important that we set the context for what we mean by recovery and in what contexts this applies. Recovery is ‘the natural process by which the body heals itself.’ Obviously, in recent months, there has been a lot of press coverage about the illegal substances that athletes have used to enhance their performance and train harder.

This article steers well away from advising any ‘unnatural substances’ and focuses on what you can do with everyday foods to help you overcome the effects of your previous training session.

In terms of recovery, it focuses on the physiological factors that influence your ability to train again that day or on subsequent days. It must also be made clear that this is about sports performance and not body composition or training for aesthetics.

There are a number of ways in which eating well can help you to recover after a training session:

1) It will speed up glycogen re-synthesis (or in simple terms it will top up your energy stores)
2) It will aid with muscle repair
3) It will help to maintain a strong immune system.
4) It will help replace lost fluids

Let’s look at each of these in turn.

1) Glycogen re-synthesis
After exercise, particularly prolonged exercise sessions like long runs or intense sessions such as intervals or circuit training, the muscles’ supply of energy can be depleted and in need of topping up. This can take anywhere from a few hours to seven days to achieve depending on how long and intense the training was, what levels were like before the session, the extent of muscle damage, fitness levels and of course what and when you eat after your workout.

So how can you top your stores up quickly? The key here to many people’s surprise is to consume high Glycaemic Index carbohydrates. These are carbs that release their sugars quickly into the bloodstream. Usually you’d see advice to avoid these foods but when your sugar stores are low your body is very receptive to storing energy so you need to feed it as quickly as possible. Studies show that combining high GI carbs with protein helps it to absorb even more quickly, so that Snickers Bar is a pretty good choice after exercise if you’re going to have one. Be careful though as often after hard exercise you can feel very hungry and people tend to eat more calories than they need.

2) Muscle repair
During exercise, especially resistance training or plyometric sessions, muscles can undergo substantial damage to the fibres. This is felt by the athlete over the next 24-72 hours as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) and it hurts! It can limit the ability to train hard for a good few days so anything that can be done to speed up repair or protect against it can help.

Consuming enough quality protein is one thing that can help as it forms the building blocks of muscle and is used to build stronger, fitter muscles after the session. The essential amino acids (the ones that the body can’t make and can only be gained by eating) are most important here. Consuming foods that are ‘high biological value’ or ‘complete’ proteins can help with this. These are foods containing all of the amino acids required and include animal produce such as meat and fish, or vegetarian produce such as tofu, other soya products or quinoa.

Blog-Skittles
3) Immune function
Training hard is stressful on the body so it can lower your immune function. You can help to protect against this by consuming a diet high in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. The different colours in fruits and vegetables represent the different antioxidants in the foods so eating a diet based on the colours of the rainbow (Skittles don’t count!) may be beneficial in guarding against colds and other illness. Antioxidants have also been shown to decrease DOMS as well so this may also aid in training harder more often.

4) Fluid replacement
If you train hard you sweat, not always a pretty sight but essential for keeping you cool during exercise. When you do this you’ll obviously lose a lot of fluid in the process and you’ll need to replace it in order to keep your performance at optimal levels in your next session. At least 60% of your body is water and 75% of your muscle is made up of the life-giving liquid so it’s pretty important stuff! Research has shown that small levels of dehydration (around 3%) can lead to almost a 20% decrease in strength in the lower body. Similar results are seen for endurance performance.

How do you know if you’re dehydrated? There are two simple methods; one is to observe the colour of your urine. It should be straw-coloured, if it is dark then you’re likely dehydrated. The second is to weigh yourself before and after training. You won’t have changed weight due to fat loss in just that one session (sorry to disappoint you) so any change in weight will be down to hydration levels. If you are dehydrated you need to replace 125-150% of the fluid you’ve lost in the 2-4 hours after the session as not all of it will be absorbed and much is used elsewhere. Remember that fluid is found in large quantities in food too, namely fruit and vegetables so don’t forget that eating can play a big part in hydrating you.

As well as what you eat, when you consume it plays a vital factor too. As they say, timing literally is everything! For the first 30-minutes after exercise, our body is very receptive to replenishing its stores and repairing itself. It stays highly responsive for around 2 hours after a workout so think of this time as your ‘golden window of opportunity’ to re-stock your carb stores and begin muscle repair by getting your protein and antioxidants in. Some research has even shown that consuming protein before a session can aid with muscle repair as it means that the amino acids are readily available in the bloodstream once you’re finished having already being consumed.

So what do you need to remember?

1) High GI foods and complete protein can help after training as the body is keen to top up on muscle stores of glycogen and start repairing muscles.
2) Taste the rainbow – antioxidants can play an essential role in decreasing DOMS and keeping your immune system strong.
3) Drink through food – hydration is essential for performance and whilst drinks are essential, foods such as fruit and vegetables play a role as well.
4) Timing is everything – recovery may even start before the session but don’t miss out on your 2-hour golden window of opportunity; the first 30-minutes after exercise are the best time to eat.

As you’ll be dealing with a whole host of different people you’ll need to work with them to take the following into account too when suggesting eating ideas:

Taste and palatability of food, especially their likes and dislikes
Access to food including cost
Variety, after all it is the spice of life!
Health & wellbeing
Eat, drink and train hard!!

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