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What to eat and when to improve your training and performance?

As Crossfitters many of us eat to perform. To assist you in your journey we ask The Natural Nutritionist Steph Lowe on what to eat and when to improve your training and performance.

First things first, a carbohydrate is a sugar is a carbohydrate. The term carbohydrate refers to organic compounds with only carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms and sugar, or sucrose, is just one of many. Each has their own distinct structure, hormonal response and health impact, but for the point of this discussion it is important to remember that:

  1. Refined sugar and excess fructose are highly inflammatory, which from an athletic point of view is the enemy to recovery and subsequent performance.
  2. Excess carbohydrate consumption can inhibit our body’s ability to burn fat, which is the limiting factor in endurance events.

And because I know you’re now curious, to increase your fat burning ability and therefore your fuel capacity:

  1. Make refined sugar free eating a priority.
  2. Reduce your fructose intake.
  3. Rely less on starchy processed carbohydrates. Fact. You definitely don't need to be following our traditional (and now almost obsolete) food pyramid, or guidelines of up to ten times your body weight in grams per day (i.e. 10g/kg BW/day). I promise.
  4. Train on an empty stomach a couple of times a week. More on this to come.

What to eat and when to improve your training and performance? | Wodnut

A day-to-day intake heavily reliant on starchy carbohydrates (e.g. breads, rice, cereals, potatoes, sugary sports drinks and lollies) will not only limit your fat burning ability, but may also result in an inadequate protein intake and a diet lacking in many essential trace nutrients, vitamins and minerals. This most certainly will have a negative effect on your recovery and performance.

To increase performance and recovery however, the right types of carbohydrates can be extremely beneficial. Here’s why:

Firstly, carbohydrates are more oxygen-efficient than fat. Put simply, more energy is produced from the same amount of oxygen when carbohydrates are broken down. Why is this important? Oxygen availability is limited and determined by your own individual maximum oxygen uptake (VO2max). The consumption of carbohydrates during exercise of extended duration therefore, tops up your individual supply and acts to extend performance. Without this, your body will simply run of fuel and eventually come to a complete stop, otherwise known as “hitting the wall”.

Secondly, carbohydrates are the only macronutrient that can also be broken down rapidly without oxygen, to provide large amounts of extra energy during intense exercise. This anaerobic metabolism is vital to maximal performance for bouts between fifteen seconds and three minutes in duration. It is for this reason that athletes such as sprinters and weight lifters should consume carbohydrates prior to exercise, in order to supply adequate fuel for the following exercise effort.

Lastly, carbohydrates act to optimise muscle and liver glycogen stores (basically the carbohydrate you eat stored in your body) and enhance recovery from training. So the key to carbohydrate intake is nutrient timing – when you eat them and why.

How to increase your performance and recovery with nutrient timing?

Follow these three essential steps to extend your performance and optimise your recovery from both training and competing:

1. Fuel correctly pre-exercise when your sessions are greater than 60 minutes

Training on an empty stomach is essential to turn you into a fat burning machine, but when your duration extends beyond 60 minutes, such a strategy is likely to negate your performance. Body stores alone are insufficient to supply the energy needs during longer sessions or events.

The solution? Eat a small amount of carbohydrate prior to your session. This is the perfect time to eat fruit, as the sugars will be broken down, utilised as fuel and not shuttled off to the liver for fat storage. Which, we know, is what happens when we consume fructose in excess, or at the wrong time.

2. Fuel correctly during exercise when your sessions extend towards 90 minutes and beyond

In order to prevent the dreaded “wall”, muscle glycogen stores must be topped up regularly during extended exercise. The amount of carbohydrate, however, is extremely relative and depends on duration, body weight, training status and goals. It is for this reason that I suggest you work closely with a Sports Nutritionist for a personalized program, but here is a general guide to get you started.

3. Fuel correctly post-exercise EVERY SINGLE TIME

As an athlete, recovery is an integral part of your program. Make it your goal to eat in the 30-minute window post-exercise, when your body is primed for nutrient uptake and carbohydrates consumed can be used to begin the recovery process. Carbohydrates are essential post-exercise to replace muscle glycogen and ensure you begin your next session with maximal stores.

If fat loss is your goal, start with 30g and assess your recovery and subsequent performance.  If you didn't feel well fuelled or found you did not recover as well as usual, simply increase by 10g following your next session. A little trial and error goes a long way.

Otherwise, aim to consume your body weight in grams (i.e. 1g/kg BW) of carbohydrate in your post-exercise meal. A quick example is a banana and a glass of coconut water or a fruit based smoothie. 

What can I eat?

Sweet potato is the perfect post-exercise carbohydrate. Full of relatively fast-acting carbohydrates, plus vitamin A, B and C, one cup contains approximately 50 grams of carbohydrate.

Fruit fits in nicely post-exercise too. A medium banana contains 30g of carbohydrate, so pop one in your training bag or car, so you never miss the “window”! It is important to note however, that fructose alone takes longer to resynthesize muscle and liver glycogen than does glucose or sucrose. The solution is to combine carbohydrate sources; so accelerated synthesis can take place. Eat a banana and a homemade snack, like my Paleo Zucchini Muffins, both of which are perfect portable snacks. You may also like Wodnut's Paleo Carrot and Walnut Muffins.

If you are finding it hard to quit sugar, choose starchy vegetables that do not provide the sweet craving you are trying so hard to avoid. You can even eat white potato post-exercise! Remember it’s all about nutrient timing.

What about sports drinks?

The short answer is no. They are full of artificial sugar, preservatives and colours, and there are much better options:

  1. Coconut water: the natural sugars and electrolytes are great during, or after, an intense exercise session. Be mindful though, coconut water is high in potassium and contains minimal sodium, so should not be your sole means of replacing sweat losses. In addition, one serve contains 15g of carbohydrates, so it is not to be treated like water. A couple of times a week is sufficient.
  2. Juice: yes, if you like, you can drink juice. It’s far cheaper than expensive sports drinks and all natural, but please save it for during exercise and in the “window” only. Ideally, make it fresh and keep it to two pieces of fruit, with the rest vegetables.
  3. Make your own: 750ml of water, 1 tablespoon of maple syrup, the juice of one lemon and a pinch of sea salt. This is perfect for on the bike or recovery from your longer sessions. Lemon is the highest electrolyte containing citrus fruit, so why not also had some to your juice.

What about carbohydrate loading?

To put it simply, increasing and maximizing muscle glycogen stores takes weeks of consistent training and focused post-training nutrition. Carbohydrate loading only acts to increase your weight in race week and/or your potential for GI upset on race morning or even during the race. No thank you! It is your post-exercise recovery that is essential for optimal glycogen stores.

Bottom Line?

Base your carbohydrate intake on exercise duration and personal goals. Make your post-exercise nutrition as important as the training session it follows. Fuel naturally and your performance will speak for itself. You really are what you eat.

Steph Lowe

The Natural Nutritionist - Steph Lowe BSpExSc GDipHumNutr NSA. Steph Lowe has a degree in Sport and Exercise Science and a Graduate Diploma in Human Nutrition. Steph specialises in sports nutrition, high performance weight loss, and teaching you how easy natural nutrition can be. She has extensive experience working with teams, elite athletes, corporations, schools and the general public in the area of optimal nutrition. Outside of food, you will find Steph swimming, riding or running as she is a keen triathlete. She recently completed the Hawaiian Half Ironman and is now in training for Shepparton 70.3. For more information and delicious gluten free and sugar free recipes please visit www.thenaturalnutritionist.com.au.

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