As athletes progress toward higher levels of competition and training, nutrition plays a much bigger role in their ability to perform and recover. Aside from simply receiving adequate caloric intake, there are other roles nutrition plays and systems that it influences. Being healthy enough for day-to-day living is one thing, but being healthy enough to tolerate the consequences of physical training and also thrive during competition is another.
For competing athletes, this means considering not only pre, but also peri (during), and post-training nutrition. It also means maintaining a healthy digestive tract throughout a high-stress season; and ensuring that our nutrition choices respect our circadian rhythm. If you’re already getting enough calories, hitting your macros, etc., then you’ve built an extremely solid base of nutrition. However, that doesn’t mean you don’t have room to improve.
With that in mind, let’s look at seven nutrition tips to take your game to the next level.
Two Tricks for Better Digestion
Athletes spend a lot of time competing and preparing to compete. This means they typically have a very active Sympathetic nervous system. This can blunt their ability to digest foods and remove bodily waste. Maintaining the efficiency of the digestive system can ensure that food allergies are avoided, harmful matter is not re-introduced into the blood stream, and that our metabolism maintains a healthy bias toward anabolic processes.
With that, here are two daily habits that can make a significant impact on your digestion.
The first comes from Charles Poliquin. Each morning, down a glass of filtered water with lime and salt. I recommend squeezing one whole lime into the glass and adding 1/4 teaspoon of colored salt. Not only does this concoction provide natural electrolytes, but it also improves digestion and reduces inflammation.
My second tip is to drink a tablespoon of unmodified potato starch dissolved into a glass of filtered water. I recommend doing this twice a day, once at morning and once at night, and doing so on an empty stomach. It may sound odd, but unmodified potato starch is a member of a group of starches referred to as Resistant Starches. Essentially, this means they are resistant to our typical digestive processes. Instead of being absorbed into the bloodstream, they become food sources for our healthy gut bacteria in the intestine, allowing those bacteria to proliferate and create a healthier environment. This can have wide-ranging benefits all throughout the body.
This protocol was first introduced to me by a colleague who learned about it as an effective aid for hypertrophy. However, in terms of wellness, it is especially important when using probiotics. This is because these exogenous bacterial strains, while healthy, are not our own, and need help if they are to survive and proliferate in our own endogenous environment which is essentially foreign to them. If you’re interested in trying this tip, learn more here. Unmodified potato starch is relatively inexpensive and has a rather bland, plain taste.
The DYI Sports Drink
There are several quality stacks and supplements that can be great to have on-hand during training. Generally their effects can be summed up as that of blunting muscle breakdown, but peri-workout nutrition can also be used to fuel better performance by replenishing things like electrolytes and providing highly bio-available carbohydrates. Peri-workout nutrition can be especially helpful when training in either a planned or unplanned caloric deficit, such as a missed meal or an early morning practice or lift. The right combination of ingredients can be a powerful tool.
For a peri-workout combination that helps deliver a great workout when calories are needed for whatever reason, try combining a scoop of essential amino acids (EAAs) and a ¼ tsp of pink salt into some coconut water. The coconut water provides electrolytes and a small, low-glycemic dose of glucose; the EAAs help to manage muscle catabolism and can promote protein synthesis; and the salt provides another dose of electrolytes while also improving hydration. Think of it like a super-powered sports drink without the added sugar.
If body composition is an issue, or if you are on an especially restrictive diet, such as the ketogenic diet, rearrange your daily carbohydrates to make room for the coconut water as part of your daily intake. If you’re involved with a less restrictive diet and would like to increase muscle mass, you can add Highly Branched Cyclic Dextrin to the aforementioned mix. This provides extra calories in the form of barley amylopectin that will be efficiently utilized by your working muscles and can help to further inhibit muscle catabolism while providing an energy boost.
The Perfect Post-Training Ratio
There is some debate about the need to capitalize on the 45-minute “post-training window.” But even if it wasn’t that important, the big question is, “can capitalizing on it hurt my progress?” The answer is no. So, take advantage of it and treat it like anabolic insurance! It is better to risk your tissue being over-provided for than under-provided for.
Immediately after training, we want to accomplish a few things. One is to replenish our store of carbohydrate (glycogen) in the muscles. Two is to provide the constituents that will allow for muscle repair. Third, we’d like to accomplish the first two without negatively affecting our body composition. Liquid nutrition that aims to provide a 3:1 Ratio of carbohydrates to a high-leucine protein (at least 2.5g of leucine) is a smart choice at this time. I think for most strength and speed sport athletes, consuming some sodium, 20-30g of a high-leucine protein, and 100g of carbohydrate is a good general rule to follow for immediate post-training/competition nutrition.
Specifically, athletes may also benefit from the addition of proteolytic enzymes with their post-workout nutrition. These enzymes can be very helpful for increasing the absorption of protein. Also, a carbohydrate source that is composed of different sugars (i.e., both glucose and fructose) will be better absorbed than a carbohydrate source that is composed of only one type of sugar (just glucose).
Magnesium/Calcium for Better Sleep
Sleep is huge for athletes. It significantly impacts our production of the hormones we need for recovery, such as Testosterone and Growth Hormone; it clears toxins from the brain, warding off neural degeneration later in life (think Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s); and it also aids with things like memory, information retention and focus. Its importance is paramount.
Calcium and Magnesium are two effective tools for enhancing sleep quality and duration. To make it simple, focus on the intake ratio. Experiment with Magnesium during the day and Calcium at night at a 1.5-to-1 or 2-to-1 ratio. Everyone responds to supplementation differently, and so it may take some trial and error, but a ratio similar to what is suggested here should be a good place to start for most, since Magnesium is important for athletes for a plethora of reasons and deficiency in this micronutrient is rampant. Use a supplement that ends in “ate” as opposed to “ide” for best results with your magnesium, and skip the milk and opt for a plant supplement for your calcium.
Additionally, a natural alternative for better sleep is a small handful of Montmorency Tart Cherries 90 minutes before bedtime. These cherries have been shown to boost melatonin production by increasing the availability of the amino acid Tryptophan. If you are an especially light sleeper, ensure that your last full meal—including water intake—is finished at least three hours before bedtime.
Photo Credit: MRBIG_PHOTOGRAPHY/iStock
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2. Nick Littlehales. Sleep, The Myth of 8 Hours. 2016; pp 122-125
3. Dr. Carol Dean. The Magnesium Miracle. 2014
4. Dr. Joseph Mercola. “Magnesium Deficiency Raises Your Risk of Many Chronic Ailments and Premature Death.” September 2017.
5. JP Catanzaro. Mass Explosion. 2013
6. Charles Poliquin. “Start the day right with Lime and Salt.”
7.Zhang et al. “Extended Wakefulness: Compromised Metabolics in and Degeneration of Locus Ceruleus Neurons.” The Journal of Neuroscience, March 2014.