Tip # 1: Eat Real Food
In simple terms, your body can't do the work of firing, repairing or building muscles without vitamins and minerals. If your body was a car engine – the vitamins & minerals would be the spark plugs. Eating a variety of whole foods gives an athlete the vital nutrients that your body needs.
By consuming foods as close to their natural state as possible – you don't have to worry about trans fats, hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup or MSG. To quote Michael Pollan “Eat plants, not stuff made IN plants”. Optimal nutrition is essential for peak performance and you get that ideal fuel from mother nature.
Tip #2: Focus on Recovery
By recovery, I mean post-workout refueling and for those of you reluctant to read this, rest days. Yes, rest days. That 4-hour workout has left your body in a complete state of depletion and physiological vulnerability. The immediate need is to replenish glycogen stores, begin muscle repair and lower cortisol. Refueling within the 30-45 min window with a carbohydrate and protein rich snack or meal is essential.
When considering recovery – use all the tools in your toolbox. Active recovery, an easy shake out swim, ice, compression, massage, electrical stimulation, recovery boots (circulation compression), foam rollers, dynamic stretching, naps and meditation all work to repair your body and mind. How you recover is just as important as anything you did during the actual workout.
Tip # 3: Hydration is Mandatory
If you want the best out of your workouts and racing you MUST stay sufficiently hydrated (before, during and after). Without going into the water vs sports drinks vs salt tabs debate the basics are simple. Proper hydration involves water, glucose/sucrose and the 5 key electrolytes – sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium and chloride. Be sure you are preloading, maximizing absorption and replenishing fluids and minerals to avoid damage.
You can lose more than 2L per hour during intense exercise and just a 2% loss in bodyweight due to dehydration can reduce athletic performance by up to 20%. Not to mention that during training and competition, for every liter of fluid lost, your core temperature increases, heart rate increases, glycogen stored in muscles is used more rapidly and the production of lactic acid increases.
Tip #4: Protein Propels Performance
Carbohydrates, fats and protein...the nutrition trifecta. I think by now everyone knows they need protein but haven't quite realized that protein deficiency negatively effects training, recovery and overall health. Serious endurance athletes need considerable amounts of protein, far above the normal adult RDA. When you don't get enough, it lengthens recovery time, causes muscle weakness, increases injury rates, hinders sleep and suppresses the immune system.
Protein isn't just an 'after', you need it during workouts that last more than an hour as well. Athletic training extracts amino acids from your muscle tissue and the longer you train, the more tissue is sacrificed. Whether you get it from plants or animals, make sure your protein sources are clean, organic, chemical and drug free and environmentally sustainable.
Tip #5: Be a Guinea Pig
“If world champion ‘so-and-so’ uses Product X and eats only bananas on their rides then I will too.” Time and again I've seen athletes fall prey to the sports nutrition industry marketing hype. We are all unique and what works for one person might not work for another. There is no magic diet, pill or super supplement that will solve all your problems and turn you into superman.
Experiment with foods, try out different hydration strategies, and focus on nailing nutrient timing. Make a training food log and track what you eat, when you eat it and how you feel. Find your solution and keep tweaking it until it works. When in doubt, ask a professional nutritionist for help. Poor race day nutrition has ruined many an athletes’ road to victory. Race day, however, is not the time to be experimenting with your nutrition and fueling.
Tip # 6: Get Some Sleep
“Rest well- train hard!” A Matt Dixon truism, sleep is crucial for peak athletic performance. Quality sleep can improve speed, accuracy, reaction time, muscle repair, mental fatigue and immunity. When you aren't sleeping enough, your body raises cortisol, reduces testosterone and Insulin Growth Factor and decreases protein synthesis.
Most people need 7-9 hours yet the average endurance athlete gets only 6. If you're struggling with sleep create an optimal environment: low light, cool temperature and reduced noise in the room- no TV or laptops. Use sleep tracking or rest apps and try a little magnesium or protein before bed.
To sum up
If you're well fueled, well hydrated and well rested, you can push yourself to new heights in key workouts and races. Over the next few weeks I'll be expanding on each of these points in blog posts with links to resources, research, podcasts and helpful infographics. Be sure to check them out and let us know what you think.