Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Leslie Beck

Embrace carbs to fuel athletic performance Add to ...

For me, the close of the 2010 Winter Olympics means less time on the couch glued to the television and more time devoted to my fitness routine.

As I watched the athletes compete, I was in awe of their incredible physical condition. No doubt the amazing displays of strength, power and endurance we witnessed in Vancouver have inspired many Canadians to kick-start spring training.

Whether your fitness regimen includes lifting weights at the gym, training for a marathon or taking yoga classes, you need to eat right if you want to maximize your workouts and get (or maintain) a lean, strong body.

If you don't fuel your muscles properly, you won't get the results you want. Knowing what to eat - and when to eat it - can enhance physical performance during training and competition.

The foundation of any athlete's diet is carbohydrate from starchy foods (e.g. cereal, bread, rice and pasta), fruit and legumes. Even milk, yogurt and soy beverages supply carbohydrate. Once digested, carbohydrate-rich foods are absorbed into the bloodstream as glucose (a.k.a. blood sugar). Glucose that's not used immediately for energy is stored in muscles and the liver as glycogen, which is used to fuel all types of exercise.

Including carbohydrate-rich foods at all meals and snacks is critical to keep your glycogen stores topped up. And the more vigorous your workout, or the longer your workout, the more carbohydrate you need. Having low glycogen stores will result in early fatigue and less effective training.

Carbohydrate is also an essential fuel for the brain and nervous system, and plays a vital role in sports that require precision, dexterity and hand-eye co-ordination.

While protein-rich foods such as meat, poultry, fish and eggs don't provide energy to working muscles, they serve an important role in a fitness-friendly diet. The building blocks of protein, called amino acids, are used to repair and build muscles tissues that break down during exercise. Replacing valuable muscle protein helps you recover faster and train harder. An adequate intake of protein also helps maintain the body's immune system.

Protein needs increase with exercise, but not as much as you may think. Gone are the days when athletes devoured precompetition meals of steak and eggs. While sedentary folks require 0.8 grams of protein for each kilogram of body weight a day, endurance athletes need 1.2 grams and strength athletes need 1.3 to 1.7 grams.

Most active people get the protein they need from diet alone. For example, a 180-pound (82-kilogram) man who lifts weights at the gym three times a week needs about 106 grams of protein each day. Three servings of dairy and two six-ounce servings of chicken, fish or meat a day delivers 108 grams.

Keep in mind that consuming more than the recommended amount of protein does not lead to further increases in muscle size or strength since there's a limit to the rate at which protein can be synthesized into muscle.

Water is also an essential nutrient for peak performance. Dehydration, even in small amounts, can cause early fatigue during exercise. Athletes should consume at least nine to 12 cups of fluid each day. During exercise, drink half to three-quarters of a cup of water every 10 to 15 minutes.

Sports drinks are recommended during exercise that lasts longer than one hour to replenish lost fluid and electrolytes (sodium potassium, chloride). Most sports drinks also contain 6- to 9-per-cent carbohydrate, which provides energy for working muscles.

Timing is everything when it comes to fuelling and recovering from exercise. Your goal: to allow enough time to digest food so you have readily available energy for your muscles. In general, the closer you get to your workout start time, the fewer calories you should eat. Allow three to four hours for a large meal to digest (e.g. chicken, rice and vegetables), two to three hours for a smaller meal (e.g. a sandwich), and one to two hours for a snack (e.g. an energy bar or smoothie).

The closer to exercise, limit the protein, fibre and fat content of your meal or snack since these nutrients take longer to empty from your stomach than carbohydrate.

To aid recovery, a carbohydrate-rich snack that also delivers protein (e.g. chocolate milk, a banana and yogurt, a protein shake made with milk or fruit) will help replenish muscle glycogen and repair muscle tissue. Recovery foods should be eaten within 30 to 60 minutes after stopping exercise since this is when glycogen- and protein-building enzymes are most active.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based dietitian at the Medcan Clinic, is on CTV's Canada AM every Wednesday. Her website is lesliebeck.com.

Follow on Twitter: @lesliebeckrd

 

In the know

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular