Key considerations for an elite performers training diet
Phase 1: Forming the training diet
Many forms of media give misleading messages about what we should concentrate on within our diets, to make the difference in performance. This article will outline some of the key and often ignored principles, from my experience of working with elite athletes and of course current research.
Ultimately, many elite performers will live and die by their body composition, specifically their fat and muscle mass. Manipulating body composition is all too often the focus of generic nutrition strategies, to the detriment of the forgotten elements that can really make the difference in performance and physical adaptation during a hard training phase.
Understanding your body’s physiology
There is often a misconception with performance nutrition that suggests world class athletes should count calories. This is undeniably counterproductive! Whilst counting calories will govern overall energy intake, the focus should be to get the amount and quality of the macronutrient feedings right – these are the elements that will promote the body’s adaptation to training. Athletes should strive to have ‘a handle’ on the following vital elements:
Carbohydrate: Firstly, how does the athlete tolerate carbohydrate feedings (at different glycaemic indices)? Does excess fat storage become a problem, especially when trying to stimulate insulin post-training? It is key that a performer can ‘cycle’ their carbohydrate intakes, during different periods of training to support training volumes, but also manage body composition.
Protein: As a starting point ensure the appropriate dietary protein intake to maintain a positive nitrogen balance (NBAL). The anabolic gains can then be optimised by structuring feedings of high biological value amino acids, with carbohydrate and other micronutrients around training.
Fat: Ensure an optimal essential fatty acid (EFA) intake reducing the omega-6/omega-3 ratio to nearer 3:1, from the higher 10:1 often seen in western diets. During times of increased training stress, an increase of the omega 3 fatty acid, Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), can reduce inflammation in athletes.
Other key considerationsHydration statusMost athletes are familiar with the risks of dehydration for an endurance athlete such as reduced cognitive function and the premature onset of fatigue. There are also potential problems for strength and power athletes, as a negative ‘hydration status’ can drastically influence the hormonal environment post training. Dehydration can increase the catabolic hormone circulation of cortisol and norepinephrine, reducing the anabolic influence of testosterone, thus potentially compromising the muscles adaptation to training.
The potential for relieving muscular cramping is another area of interest with magnesium.
This is a real multi-purpose mineral, which has been causing quite a stir recently, because of its potential impact on training, for both strength and endurance athletes. If the elite population are anything to go by, most performers aren’t getting enough of it. It has a key role is protein synthesis, electrolyte balance, energy production and bone health.
During exercise, magnesium is transported from the blood (plasma), to areas of greatest need including either muscle or adipose tissue. This plays an important role in breaking down fat into free fatty acids (lipolysis). Within the muscle cell, magnesium is a factor in ATP (adenosine triphosphate) resynthesis, but also with the ‘translation phase’ in protein synthesis.
The potential for relieving muscular cramping is another area of interest with magnesium. It is proposed that magnesium plays a role to counteract calcium’s excitability of the muscle during contraction. When calcium is released (during contraction), it is suggested that magnesium deprivation, causes calcium to be retained in the muscle, resulting in hyper-excitability which may lead to cramping over prolonged periods. Adding wholegrain, mixed nuts and seeds, and pulses to the training diet, can help to reach daily requirements of 300mg (men) and 270mg (women), providing an optimal status.
A hot topic in sport and general populations worldwide at present, due to the high prevalence of deficiency and insufficiency reported worldwide. Vitamin D’s crucial role with calcium and parathyroid hormone (PTH) in bone formation, is well accepted. An individual’s Vitamin D status can also impact upon controlling inflammation and immunity. New research has indentified a Vitamin D receptor (VDR) in muscle tissue. Potential links to circulating Insulin Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1) and protein synthesis are also being investigated.
Potential links to circulating Insulin Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1) and protein synthesis are also being investigated.
Vitamin D is synthesised from sunlight exposure to ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation. Because of this, there are many cases of deficiency/insufficiency at this time of the year. Dietary sources are low and limited in comparison to sunlight exposure, but fatty fish (including wild salmon and sardines), cod liver oil, fortified milk, margarine and cereals, can help to maintain levels.
From marathon running to resistance based training programs, during heavy training blocks, oxidative stress can inhibit training volumes. It is now well established that both resting and contracting skeletal muscles produce reactive oxygen species (ROS) and these can damage the ‘contractile machinery’ within the muscle. Low levels of ROS are needed for force production within the skeletal muscle, but high levels can reduce force production and cause muscle damage, inflammation and subsequent muscle soreness. This can impair maximal contraction up to 48 hours post-training!
Antioxidants (enzyme and non-enzyme), protect against oxidative damage (oxidation of substrates) and help keep homeostasis muscle fibres. Rather than just the recommended ‘5 a day’, look for fruit and vegetables with a high ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity) value. Caution should be taken when supplementing the diet with high doses of antioxidants for long periods, as they may interfere with cellular signaling pathways and dampen physiological adaptation to training.
Whilst iron also acts as an antioxidant, optimal iron ‘status’ is more important to an athlete as it is forms an essential part of oxygen transport proteins 1) hemoglobin, in red blood cells, 2) myoglobin, transporting oxygen for energy production within the muscle. Iron is also has a key role in, thyroid hormone metabolism and erythropoiesis (red blood cell production). With red meat (haem iron) the best absorbed, vegetarians can often need careful planning to hit iron targets, as there are many compounds that interfere with absorption of plant based (non-haem) iron.
Periodising your training diet
Once there is consistent structure to the training diet. The next step is how to periodise your diet, to match the demands from training. Typcally different focuses that will demand periodisation, within a training cycle are; muscle protection, immunity, weight loss/gain to coincide with the training, competition/performance strategies. Before this can take place, outcomes of training and training diet need to be monitored (objectively and subjectively). Both monitoring and periodisation will be covered in future articles.
In summary, we are often focused by hitting are training targets, but if we truely want to maximise our adaptations, we should also be hitting the ‘key targets’ within our training diet.
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A collection of Competitive Athlete articles and selected content from various online sources to help you achieve your winning goals