Active men and women have a number of nutrition and energy issues in common, especially if they participate in competitive sports. The previous two columns in this series (Parts I and II) addressed nutrition and food issues in active women. This column will help both active men and women learn how to time their food and fuel intake to improve their workouts and perform their best during competition. Encourage the active individuals with whom you work to make a few of the changes recommended in this column. They will notice an improvement in their ability to perform intense physical activity, in the speed of their recovery from exercise, in their alertness during the day, and in their overall health and well-being. The final column in this series (Part IV) will address some of the common nutrition and feeding issues of active men.
Common Fueling Issues
Fueling Early in the Day
Probably one of the biggest mistakes athletes make is to fail to fuel their bodies early in the day. Because of our hectic lifestyles, it is not unusual for active individuals to skip breakfast, especially if they don't work out until later in the day. Skipping breakfast usually means that the active individual will only get one meal before their afternoon workout. Thus the athlete comes to practice or training without adequate fuel to perform at his or her best, while increasing the risk of injury. Eating before leaving for work or school is probably one of the most important habits an active individual can develop. This meal refuels the glycogen stores, especially in the liver, and provides the body with energy until a mid-morning snack or lunch is eaten. If an individual works out in the afternoon, as many college athletes do, it is imperative that he or she comes to the afternoon practice well fueled. Athletes should have at least two meals and one snack before going to an afternoon practice; more frequent eating may be required for some athletes and will depend upon their energy needs and weight goals.
For the athlete who works out early in the morning, the evening meal becomes critical to a high-performance morning workout. Some athletes cannot eat before a morning workout; thus the evening meal must provide enough energy, especially carbohydrate, to replenish muscle glycogen. If possible, encourage your athletes to drink and eat a small snack before leaving the house to exercise (e.g., juice, toast, energy bar, or sports drink).
Fueling During Practice or Training
All athletes need to drink before, during, and after exercise to stay well hydrated. Most active individuals, regardless of their competitive level, need to learn to drink consistently; it is not something that comes naturally. For some individuals, both fluid and food may need to be consumed during exercise training or practice. Whether food is consumed during practice will depend upon the sport, the level of energy consumed before practice, and the length of the training session. Providing energy during exercise may be as simple as making sure that a sport drink is available for consumption, especially on hot days. However, if the training session is long (e.g., one to three hours), a more substantial food source may be required (e.g., energy bars or drink, dried fruit or nuts, fresh fruit, or bagels and peanut butter), especially for those athletes who fade quickly when energy stores begin to decline.
Fueling After Exercise
For many athletes, the majority of the day's energy (i.e., calories) is consumed in the evening after exercise training is over. Unfortunately, this dietary pattern has a number of problems. First, the athlete is not fueled for the afternoon training session so he or she cannot perform to his or her potential. Second, to maintain one's body weight, adequate calories must be consumed. If the time for eating is limited during the day, some athletes will find it difficult to consume enough calories to maintain weight. Finally, waiting to eat the majority of the calories at the end of the day means athletes come to the post-exercise meal extremely hungry. Getting a lot of food quickly (e.g., fast food meals, chips, fries, shakes, or candy) becomes the priority over the nutritional quality. Fueling after exercise is important to make sure adequate energy, carbohydrate, protein, and micronutrients are consumed to replenish muscle glycogen stores and repair muscle tissues. The post-exercise meal prepares the athlete for the next exercise event, especially for those athletes who work out twice a day or early in the morning before breakfast. Finally, the post-exercise period also is the time to consume adequate fluids and rehydrate the body, especially when exercise is performed in hot environments.
If your clients are serious about improving in their sport and training at a higher level, then fueling properly during the day is a must. The timing of meals and snacks needs to be planned around their exercise schedule. Athletes should come to practice or the gym ready to work out. Listed below are suggestions you can share with your clients to help them fuel effectively for their sport. Encourage them to make moderate changes in their diet and experiment until they find what works for them.
* Eat breakfast. Don't skip the first meal of the day, regardless of when you get up. For most people, breakfast is the most nutritious meal they eat during the day. Current research shows that breakfast eaters have a superior nutritional profile, eat more calories during the day but are less likely to be overweight, and have improved cognitive function (e.g., better memory, concentration, and test scores) (1). Breakfast also can positively impact health and well-being. Thus, eating breakfast is one of the simplest ways to improve nutrition and overall health.
* Plan ahead and learn to cook. What will be available for breakfast? What can be prepared for dinner? Making positive changes in your diet requires planning. Prepare a shopping list and use it! Don't shop when you're hungry. Learn to prepare a few simple meals with three to five ingredients and keep these ingredients on your shopping list. This way, there is always a healthy meal just a few minutes away. If your life is hectic, buy foods you can take with you and eat on the go. Although this is not ideal, it is better than skipping a meal completely. If you skip meals to lose weight, you may find that eating three to four small meals a day will help eliminate out-of-control eating.
* Don't get too hungry. Becoming fatigued due to lack of food and fluid dramatically reduces your ability to concentrate and exercise hard. Eat before you get too hungry to avoid having an energy crash.
* Keep a water or sports bottle handy. Not drinking enough is a common problem for most active individuals. In fact, dehydration is the most common nutrition issue people experience related to sport. Drinking frequently is one of the best nutritional changes you can make.
* Carry food with you. Always keep a quick snack with you. This way, if you don't have the opportunity to eat as planned, you can avoid an energy meltdown. Some suggestions for foods to go include fresh or dried fruit, nuts, energy or granola bars, sports drinks, bagels, or yogurt and yogurt drinks. If you travel frequently, planning meals on the road (e.g., where to stop and what to order) will dramatically improve your ability to compete at a higher level.
* Learn to eat out wisely. According to the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Economic Research Service (ERS), in 2003 Americans spent at least 49% of their food dollars away from home, with 80% of these dollars spent in restaurants of all types, including fast food restaurants. The other 20% was spent in retail stores, delis, snack bars, recreational vendors, and cafeterias (2). Based upon these data, you are going to eat out. Learn to make wise nutrition selections. Find the restaurants and eating establishments in your area that provide healthy food options and highlight two or three items on the menu that are best nutrition buys. Share this list with your friends and family.
Help your clients understand the importance of fueling their bodies throughout the day. Remind them that timing of meals and snacks is just as important as selecting what they eat. They need to come to their exercise sessions well fueled and hydrated. Finally, help clients learn to plan ahead so that food is available when they need to eat, especially for breakfast, and teach them how to eat out wisely.