Sports nutrition for optimal physical performance and recovery
By Edan Willing – Nutritional and Dietetic Medicine Student
Whether you are a professional athlete or a social sportsperson, proper nutrition is not only essential for improving exercise performance and recovery but is also vital to help reduce the less desirable metabolic consequences of exercise.
The standard nutrient recommendations for physical performance tend to focus on the macronutrient intake of carbohydrates, protein and fats. These typically come in the form of egg whites, rolled oats, white rice, boiled chicken and a protein shake.
Here is a simple breakdown of the role of each of these macronutrients in exercise:
Carbohydrates act as a critical source of fuel for exercise as they provide glucose which in turn is utilised in energy production. Glucose is also stored within the muscles as glycogen, which is a readily available energy source that can be released at a rapid rate when required by the body.
Protein is essential for the growth and repair of muscles. For short intermitted exercising, protein does not act as the main fuel source. However, when carbohydrate intake is low, protein can be utilised as an energy source by the body. Protein also aids in the balancing of blood sugar levels during exercise.
Fats are utilised as the main fuel source for longer duration exercise such as marathon running. Even during high intensity exercise periods, fats are required to help access muscle glycogen stores.
Whilst it is important to focus upon macronutrient intake, it is also imperative to include a wide range of micronutrients as well as various minerals and antioxidants to ensure the body can run efficiently and has sufficient oxidative stress combatting abilities.
What is oxidative stress?
Oxidative stress occurs when there is an imbalance between the production of free radicals and the body’s ability to detoxify their harmful effects. Studies have shown that contracting skeletal muscles generate these free radicals resulting in overall cellular damage to the body. That is why it is essential that you fuel your body with foods rich in antioxidants to help counteract these excessive free radicals.
There are a variety of specific antioxidants that are easy to incorporate into your daily meal plans. These include anthocyanins which are found in grapes and blueberries, beta-carotene found in pumpkin, mangoes and spinach as well as lycopene, found in tomatoes, pink grapefruit and watermelon.
What about Vitamins and minerals?
These are often overlooked within the athletic world; however, some are critical for a number of reactions involved with exercise. These include:
- B vitamins – in particular thiamine, niacin and riboflavin which are necessary for energy production during physical activity.
- Vitamin D – crucial for calcium absorption which supports bone health and muscular function.
- Iron – carries oxygen via the blood to all cells within the body and is required for enzymes involved in energy production.
- Zinc – necessary for growth, building and repair of muscular tissue, energy production and overall immune protection.
- Magnesium – plays a role in cellular metabolism as well as regulates neuromuscular, cardiovascular immune functions
- Sodium, Chloride and Potassium – critically important for electrolyte balance, nerve transmission and preventing dehydration.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed as to how to cram all of these nutrients into your daily meal plan, there is no need to worry. It is actually quite simple. Especially if you utilise the wonder that is a blender! Below is a post workout smoothie recipe containing a variety of the macro and micronutrients mentioned above.
Recipe: Chocolate peanut protein smoothie
- 1 frozen banana
- ¾ cup of frozen organic blueberries
- 1 tbsp of 100% almond butter
- 1-2 flat table spoon organic cacao powder (depending on how rich you would like it)
- 1 tsp chia seeds
- 1 tsp flax meal
- 1 scoop of protein powder
- 1.5 cups almond milk or coconut water
- Mix all ingredients together in a blender and enjoy!
If you follow these simple nutrient recommendations and focus upon balancing energy intake, with energy expenditure, you will be giving your body the opportunity to prevent energy deficits as well as supporting your bodily processes for optimal physical performance and recovery.
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Purcell, K. (2013). Sports nutrition for young athletes. Paediatrics & Child Health, 18(4),
200-202. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3805623/
Kreider, R, et al. (2010). ISSN exercise & sports nutrition review: research & recommendations. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 7, 2783. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2853497/
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Nutrition Australia. (2009). Sports Nutrition. Retrieved October 14, 2017, from http://www.nutritionaustralia.org/national/resource/sports-nutrition