Proper nutrition can help you
your athletic goals.
By Karen Tenelli
The house is still dark when your alarm goes off. You’ve got a full day planned: a workout early this morning and practice later in the afternoon. No one said taking your sport seriously would be easy, but you wouldn’t have it any other way. First, though, you need some breakfast.
Whether they’re trying out for the varsity or just trying to look and perform their best, the world is full of workout warriors. And what all these dedicated athletes eventually learn is that the road to excellence runs through the kitchen, no matter what activities they engage in.
“Nutrition is an incredible resource. The regeneration that takes place between workouts is just as important as the workouts themselves,” says Kevin Dunn, CSCS, owner and CEO of TEST Sports Clubs in Bridgewater, New Jersey (testsportsclubs.com). “It’s probably the most overlooked component to becoming an elite-level athlete—to give your body the absolute best chance it has.”
Cole Farrand knows what giving it your best shot means.
Becoming a professional football player “was always a dream of mine growing up,” says Farrand. After being elected captain in his junior and senior years at the University of Maryland, where he played linebacker and was a 2014 Academic All-Big Ten honoree, Farrand, 24, has been on the New York Giants practice squad and is training at TEST’s Football Academy—which helps prepare promising college prospects for the pre-draft NFL Combine—for another crack at a pro career.
When it comes to breakfast, “I usually have a peanut butter and jelly on whole wheat—natural jelly, natural peanut butter,” says Farrand, who lives in the nearby town of Green Pond. “If I wake up late and forget the PB&J I don’t have the energy I need.”
Farrand isn’t the only athlete who has experienced firsthand how crucial it is to eat in the morning. “Of all the nutrition mistakes you might make, skipping breakfast is the biggest,” writes sports nutritionist Nancy Clark, MS, RD, in Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook (Human Kinetics).
Eating breakfast is just one part of a smart dietary strategy, which should combine nutrient-dense foods, adequate hydration and all-natural supplements to help you maintain energy and focus while building muscle and reducing recovery time. As Dunn puts it, “The shakes and supplementation work very quickly.”
Such a program lets you maximize every ounce of inborn athletic talent in service of your goal—whether that’s making an NFL roster, getting a college scholarship or winning your local soccer or softball league’s championship trophy.
Powering Through Workouts
Most of the regulars are already hitting the weights by the time you roll into the gym, and they don’t let you forget it. But you don’t mind the kidding; they know you’ll do what it takes to excel. First you plan your workout, not only what exercise sequence you’re going to follow but also what you’re going to consume before and during to keep your muscles stoked.
If you exercise intensely (and if you don’t, why bother at all?), starting your gym routine without nutritional support is just like failing to warm up first—you’re asking for trouble.
Getting the maximum benefit from your efforts requires electrolytes, substances that help your body maintain proper fluid balance and your muscles (including the most important muscle, your heart) function properly. A good pre-workout shake supplies not only such standard electrolytes as sodium and potassium but also electrolyte sources such as coconut water powder, a natural hydration agent that, in addition, provides bioactive enzymes to support proper digestion.
Taking the right mix of protein building blocks known as amino acids is another way to support superior hydration. These include L-glycine, which helps build muscle while assisting in blood sugar regulation, nervous system function and red blood cell maintenance (a key to getting
oxygen to hard-working muscles). L-citrulline, when combined with malate, has been found by scientists to improve performance. In addition, a group of related substances called the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) help sustain both hydration and muscle creation.
Finally, a pre-workout product should help kick-start energy production so you can squeeze out that last mile on the treadmill or rep on the bench. In studies, caffeine has been found to increase endurance and green tea extract to raise the rate at which fat is burned (an important consideration if you’re trying to reduce bodyfat content). What’s more, a specialized apple-based extract called ElevATP is designed to increase levels of ATP, a substance muscle cells use to create energy.
It’s important to replenish your body’s nutrient stores during long gym sessions. For example, Farrand works hard at TEST: an hour of running and then lifting after a short break. He says, “I will have a shake between workouts; I burn a lot of carbs in the running part so I have to
replenish carbs before I go to the lifting workout.”
Carbohydrates are crucial because they help the body create more glycogen, the form in which the body stores energy-fueling glucose inside the muscles.
“Carbs are muscle-sparing; you’re feeding your body what it needs to recover instead having it break down protein,” Dunn explains. He says some athletes avoid carbs while training, which only leads to their bodies breaking down muscle for glycogen. That’s why well-formulated protein powders include cutting-edge carbohydrate combinations, such as waxy maize and low-DE maltodextrin, to quickly replenish glycogen.
Tearing Down, Building Up
Time to head out of the gym after working up a good sweat—whew! But first you need a shake break to give your muscles what they need to grow.
Farrand admits that nutrition wasn’t “something I was focusing on as much as I should have” at Maryland. But he noticed that once he reshaped his diet, “my recovery was faster, I wasn’t sore even though I’m working hard. When you give your body the fuel it needs the recovery is better, you’re getting better muscle growth.” It’s a hot topic; according to the American Council on Exercise, “How we recover will become as important as how we train.”
Post-workout recovery is important because that’s when muscle gains are really made. Overloading muscles—forcing them to do more work than they can handle comfortably—puts them into what’s called a catabolic state, one in which muscle tissue suffers tiny areas of damage known as microtears. This explains why you increase the amount of weight you lift and/or the number of repetitions; it is what causes the microtears you need to ultimately build mass. That mass gets built when the body goes into an anabolic state, one in which the body responds to damage by fixing the microtears—and creating even more muscle tissue in the process.
“The recovery side is often overlooked,” says Dunn. “I think nutrition planning is the key to help your body grow and to get out of that catabolic state.”
Leucine, one of the BCAAs, is especially crucial to protein synthesis; research has shown that BCAA supplementation helps speed recovery (Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 5/8/12). To get the greatest benefit of BCAAs after a workout, have a shake with a 12:1:1 ratio of leucine to the other BCAAs, isoleucine and valine (as opposed to the 4:1:1 ratio used in many pre-workout supplements). When combined with another amino acid, glutamine, a leucine-loaded shake can promote faster recovery with less post-exercise soreness.
Don’t forget to eat something at midday, too. “Lunch refuels morning or noontime exercisers and offers fuel to those preparing for afternoon sessions,” says Clark. If finding the time is a problem, she suggests cooking enough at dinner to have leftovers for the next day’s lunch.
Performing Like an All-Star
Time for practice. The others may moan about the repetition. But you know taking practice seriously is the only way to bake those skills into muscle memory so you can out-hustle the competition when it’s time to keep score for real. But first you need to refuel again.
Getting the most out of your practice sessions means not just training harder, but smarter. For example, TEST Football Academy has its athletes focus on movement patterns specific to whatever positions they play; they then add strength to the movement and finally speed and explosiveness.
What’s more, Dunn says TEST uses a sophisticated heart-monitoring system that measures key items such as exercise intensity and calories burned to help determine optimal food intake and signs of overtraining, which indicate a need to back off. “There are trainers who want to run them through a wall every day,” Dunn says. “That’s a recipe for disaster.”
In the same fashion, it’s important to choose well-designed protein supplements, such as mass-gain protein powders, to get the most out of your nutrition regimen. “I like whey protein because it’s fast-releasing,” says Dunn. “Right after the workout it’s important to have that whey protein in their systems because it digests right away.”
High-quality supplements use a blend of wheys, such as whey protein isolate, hydrolysate and concentrate (along with milk protein concentrate and isolate), for peak absorption, glycogen replenishment and protein creation. Including carbohydrate in the formulation has shown beneficial effects on recovery in studies (Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2/12/13). As Dunn puts it, “Carbohydrates are your friend, proteins are your friend.”
Taking two scoops of a mass-gainer protein powder between meals can help keep muscle recovery going strong all day.
Finding supplements that are free of banned substances such as steroids and masking agents, used to hide evidence of doping, is critical—you don’t need a suspension by your sport’s governing body to slow you down.
Look for products verified by INFORMED CHOICE (informed-choice.org), a program that tests for such substances and checks that manufacturers meet high quality-control standards. For Dunn, the type of third-party testing INFORMED CHOICE offers “is absolutely critical for someone relying on my judgment that a product is not only effective but banned substance-free.” Higher-quality supplements are formulated with clinically researched ingredients.
Becoming Even Better Tomorrow
You’ve just walked through the door to your place. It was a long day, but a productive one. Now it’s time to get some dinner, then grab a little downtime before lights out.
The typical pattern of eating your biggest meal at night is one Clark recommends you revise. “I invite you to starting putting dinner at the bottom of your meal priority list and placing more focus on breakfast and lunch,” she says.
“At home I will have some whole wheat pasta and some chicken,” says Farrand. “I’ll probably have a protein shake before I go to bed.”
While eating heavily in the evening should be avoided, having a bedtime shake is often a good idea. Dunn says a shake made with micellar casein, one of the slowest-absorbing proteins available, “is almost like having an IV drip of protein released throughout the evening.”
Getting that shuteye is crucial. “It’s important that we understand the sleep patterns in athletes—factors such as stress management, their family life, do they have a child at home, do they have support—so they can get that eight to ten hours they need,” says Dunn.
Besides putting in the time and effort, giving your body the fuel it craves is the only way to sustain peak athletic performance. As Farrand says, “If you want to be in top physical shape you’re going to have to be aware of nutrition and how you treat your body.”
All-natural sports supplementation, paired with a well-designed diet and workout program, helps you turn sweat and determination into the results you’re looking for.