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  • Taylor Richter, RDN, LD

The Ultimate Guide to Optimizing Nutrition for Peak Performance

If you want to unleash the full power of your training and take your performance to the next level, there's one crucial factor you can't afford to overlook: fueling your workout. The secret to reaching your peak lies in providing what your body needs before, during, and after exercise. Don't worry; we've got you covered with tips to make it all effortlessly simple.


Macronutrients


Let's start with the fundamentals: macronutrients – the building blocks of nutrition that power your athletic journey. Picture them as the essential nutrients your body needs for maximum energy and optimal function. Ready to meet your team?


Carbohydrates


As an athlete, carbohydrates are critical to ensuring you have enough energy to complete your workout or get through a race. Most carbohydrates are broken down into glucose (sugar), which provides energy to your cells. The exception to this rule is fiber, which is not fully digested.


The main functions of carbohydrates include:

  • Providing instant energy. Glucose is the preferred fuel source for your brain, red blood cells, and central nervous system.

  • Storing energy. Glucose is stored as glycogen in your liver and muscles. This is particularly important for endurance athletes because it provides fuel once the glucose from your pre-workout meal is used up.

Eating enough carbohydrates is especially important for high-intensity performance. Although protein and fat can provide the energy needed to perform physical activity, carbohydrates are most efficiently used by the body. They are the only macronutrient that can be broken down quickly enough to supply energy during high-intensity exercise.


Carbohydrate-rich foods include:

  • Whole grains

  • Starchy vegetables (corn and potatoes)

  • Fruit

  • Pulses (beans and lentils)


Protein


Protein is important for athletes because it’s used to repair muscles, aiding in recovery. When protein is broken down, it is turned into amino acids.


The main functions of the amino acids from proteins are:

  • Building new cells. Amino acids are used to create new proteins (such as immune system cells and enzymes).

  • Repairing muscles. Amino acids are used to build and repair muscle and tissues.

Protein-rich foods include:

  • Poultry

  • Fish

  • Meat (pork or beef)

  • Eggs

  • Dairy

  • Pulses (beans and lentils)


Fat

Fats are important for athletes because they provide the body with energy and support cell function.


The main functions of fats include:

  • Storing energy. Your body’s fat stores act as an energy reserve that can be used when you’ve run out of glucose and glycogen.

  • Providing insulation to cells. Your body’s fat stores insulate and protect your organs.

  • Helping absorb fat-soluble vitamins. Fats help with the absorption of vitamins A, D, E and K.

  • Forming part of the cell membrane. The cell membrane provides protection to the cell and serves as a barrier to prevent certain molecules from getting through.


Meal Timing


Just like macronutrients, meal timing also plays an important role in fueling a workout. Having the right components at the right time can change how you feel during your workout and during your recovery.


Pre-Workout Fueling


Fueling up before a workout or a race gives you the energy to compete at your best, plus lessens your risk of injury and increases your ability to recover quickly.


Give yourself the edge with a nutrient-packed meal about 1.5-3 hours before you exercise, containing a perfect blend of carbs, protein, and fats.


Some examples of pre-workout meals include:

  • Egg, veggie and potato scrambler

  • Rice cakes with fruit and nut butter

Studies also show that having a light carbohydrate snack about 30 to 60 minutes prior to exercise can be beneficial for performance. This is also a great option for people who work out first thing in the morning (just say no to fasted workouts!). It’s best to choose foods that are easy to digest prior to exercise.


Some examples of pre-workout snacks include:

  • ½ banana

  • ½ cup of applesauce

  • 7-10 grapes


Post-Workout Fueling


One of the main goals of recovery between training sessions or competitions is to restore glycogen levels in the liver and muscles. Many athletes also have the goal of stimulating muscle repair and growth.


Research shows that consuming carbohydrate-rich foods that can be quickly digested, absorbed, and transported in the blood is the most effective way to replenish glycogen stores after exercise. This is particularly important if you are training on consecutive days, or even twice on the same day.


But carbohydrates aren’t the only macronutrient needed for recovery. It’s important to get enough protein after a workout or race to stimulate muscle repair and growth. In fact, a meta-analysis comparing carbohydrates paired with protein to carbohydrates only after exercise found that eating a meal containing both protein and carbohydrates was associated with better performance.


In general, it’s best if you can eat something with carbohydrates and protein within 60 minutes of completing your training or race.


Here are some examples of easy post-workout meals:

  • Grilled chicken breast with rice and roasted vegetables.

  • Salmon with sweet potato and a side salad.

  • Cottage cheese and fruit.

  • Tuna and crackers.


Hydration for Optimal Performance


Limiting dehydration during exercise is one of the best ways to improve performance. One of my favorite ways to do this is to make sure you’re drinking enough fluids before you start exercising. This means drinking enough fluids to maintain your body weight. It is often recommended to drink half of your body weight in ounces of water each day.


Even a loss of 2-3% body water can affect your performance. So it is very important to get enough water to fuel your workouts. Remember, thirst is not your reliable guide during exercise. Stay ahead of dehydration by drinking proactively. In addition, make sure you increase your salt intake post-exercise to promote optimal rehydration. You can do this through electrolytes like LMNT or Nuun, just make sure that the electrolytes you choose have no added sugar.


Final Thoughts


To perform at your best, you must embrace the power of strategic nutrition. With the perfect combination of carbohydrates, protein, fat, and hydration, you'll maximize your training efforts and hit peak performance on race day.


Are you ready to unleash your full potential? Don't go it alone. As a Registered Dietitian, I'm here to guide you on your journey to excellence. Schedule a complimentary call with me today, and together, we'll make sure your nutrition and exercise work together to propel you to optimal health!

References

  • Slavin J, Carlson J. 2014. Carbohydrates. Advances in Nutrition, 5(6):760-1. doi: 10.3945/an.114.006163.

  • Kanter M. 2018. High-Quality Carbohydrates and Physical Performance: Expert Panel Report. Nutrition Today, 53(1):35-39. doi: 10.1097/NT.0000000000000238.

  • Kerksick, C.M., Wilborn, C.D., Roberts, M.D. et al. 2018. ISSN exercise & sports nutrition review update: research & recommendations. Journal of the International Society for Sports Nutrition, 15, 38. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-018-0242-y

  • Watford M, Wu G. 2018. Protein. Advances in Nutrition, 9(5):651-653. doi: 10.1093/advances/nmy027.

  • Jäger, R., Kerksick, C.M., Campbell, B.I. et al. 2017. International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise. Journal of the International Society for Sports Nutrition, 14(20). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-017-0177-8

  • Ahmed S, Shah P, Ahmed O. Biochemistry, Lipids. [Updated 2022 May 8]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK525952/

  • Kloby Nielsen LL, Tandrup Lambert MN, Jeppesen PB. 2020. The Effect of Ingesting Carbohydrate and Proteins on Athletic Performance: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Nutrients, 12(5):1483. doi: 10.3390/nu12051483.

  • Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. (n.d.). Water. Retrieved May 12, 2023, from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/water/#:~:text=General%20recommendations,exposed%20to%20very%20warm%20climates.

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