Whatever your sport, good nutrition is the foundation of performance. Without a good base of nutrition, you can find yourself under-energised, under-fuelled and under-recovered — and risk more serious problems.
There’s a lot of information out there about sports nutrition, and it can be hard to separate myth from reality. We’ve enlisted leading sports dietitian Renee McGregor to help debunk 10 of the most common sports nutrition myths.
Read on to find out the truth about sports nutrition, and take your performance to the next level.
MYTH 1: Simple carbs are bad
There’s a lot of noise around carbohydrates — especially simple carbohydrates, or sugars. But carbs are not the enemy they’ve been made out to be:
“Carbohydrate is by far the preferred currency of energy by the body. They are easily broken down and provide energy to the working bodies quickly. While it is recommended that we mainly include complex carbohydrates in our diets, there are some situations where simple sugar is ideal.”
One such place is during exercise, where simple carbohydrates can easily be absorbed and transported to your muscles for a quick release of energy.
Simple carbs also have a key role to play in recovery:
“Immediately post-training when blood sugar is low and glycogen stores depleted, having some easily digestible carbohydrate will raise insulin and allow the body to replace carbohydrate quickly into the body.”
MYTH 2: All you need for recovery is protein
Unlike carbs, protein is more popular than ever. Protein is needed to repair muscle tissue after exercise, but it is carbohydrate which helps deliver protein to muscles, as well as replenishing your body’s energy stores.
“It is really important to include both carbohydrates and protein in recovery, especially in endurance exercise. Ideally, this should be in a 3:1 ratio, carbohydrate to protein or, in sports nutrition we talk about 1-1.2g of carbohydrate per Kg body weight, and 0.4g of protein per Kg body weight. This combination helps restoration of glycogen stores and repair the microtears associated with training.”
Aim to consume a 3:1 ratio of carbohydrate and protein like a recovery shake shortly after exercise to quickly replenish your body.
MYTH 3: Athletes should avoid caffeine
There are many athletes who believe caffeine should be avoided entirely.
Consumed to excess, caffeine can cause jitters and other issues, but a reasonable amount is absolutely fine, and can even give performance benefits:
“Caffeine can be really useful in performance. Science has shown that a value of 1-3mg per Kg of body weight, 30 minutes prior to training or towards the last 20 minutes of a race can help to reduce the perceived exertion and fatigue.”
MYTH 4: Sports drinks will boost performance
‘Energy drinks’ have become a huge market — but they aren’t always necessary, particularly for shorter workouts.
“Full glycogen stores can support moderate-intensity training for 90-120 minutes. If you are going at a faster pace, these stores will be drained quicker. That means when you are doing endurance events over 60-90 minutes, you will need to consider topping up your stores. This may be in the form of gels, chews, bars or drinks. We would normally recommend 30-60g of carbs per hour for activities up to 3 hours and then 60-90g of carbs per hour for events over 3 hours.”
When you do need an energy drink — we’d recommend choosing one that’s 100% natural and avoiding anything that’s neon-coloured and full of artificial ingredients.
MYTH 5: You need to carb load before a race
Carb-loading is part of the mythology of running. The idea is to fill your body’s glycogen stores (its stored energy) to the fullest before a long race.
“While there are benefits to having full glycogen stores, the concept of carb loading is one that needs to be re-thought. There is definitely no need to eat more volume of food but it can be worth thinking about your nutrition for the 48 hours prior to your race as this ensures that carbohydrates are converted to glycogen stores.
Ideally, we would recommend swapping some of your protein and fat intake for carbohydrates. So if you normally eat porridge with nuts for breakfast, try porridge with banana and honey. This means that the volume of your diet doesn’t change but you consume more carbohydrates per gram of food.”
MYTH 6: Fat makes you fat
Like carbohydrates, fats have got an unfairly bad reputation — thanks in part to the low-fat diet trend of the 90s and 00s. But healthy fats are an essential part of a positive diet, promoting healthy joints, skin, hair and more.
Fats are also key for endurance:
“We actually need to include essential fats such as nuts, seeds, avocados, oils and oily fish in order to absorb fat-soluble vitamins such as D and E which are really important for endurance athletes."
MYTH 7: Vegans don’t get enough protein
Here’s one to make the vegans in the room yawn. There are plenty of ways to get protein from a plant-based diet, but ensuring variety is key:
“There is no reason why you can’t consume sufficient protein when you follow a vegan diet. The key thing is to include a variety of sources throughout the day to make sure that you are getting all the amino acids. Grains and pulses, tofu, tempeh and soya are great sources of protein for vegans.“
For recovery, make sure you’re consuming a protein source within 30 minutes of exercise, ideally in combination with carbohydrates.
MYTH 8: Slimmer = faster
Many athletes seeking to emulate an ‘elite’ body type can end up impairing and performance in the process:
“There is a very fine line regarding weight and performance. Lighter doesn’t always make you faster. If you push the body too far to a point where it loses muscle mass over body fat, you not only lose power but also speed.”
It’s important to fuel properly for the exercise you’re doing:
“If you put the body in too big a deficit, it goes into compensatory behaviours, meaning the body starts to down-regulate biological processes, a bit like a smartphone on low battery. If you push your body too far below where it is optimal for you, it will not be sustainable and will have negative consequences to both health and performance.”
MYTH 9: Fasted workout sessions burn more fat
You may see social media ‘influencers’ promoting fasted workouts as a way of burning body fat.
“There is no truth to this but there is a situation known as “training low” where you do a training session in a carbohydrate depleted or fasted state. This allows the body to utilise more fat for fuel but this does not translate to losing more body fat. These sessions need to be no longer than 60 minutes and at a pace where your exertion is no higher than 6/10.
The key aspect of training low which allows for “fat adaptation” is to ensure that you include carbohydrates immediately post-session and throughout the rest of the day. If you do too many fasted sessions or higher intensity fasted sessions, you add a lot of stress to the body which can lead to a higher risk of injury, illness and poor performance.”
MYTH 10: You can out-run (or ride, or swim) a poor diet
It’s no secret that most western diets are less than ideal — containing high levels of sugar, unhealthy fats and processed foods. Eating a balanced diet rich in nutrient-dense foods is the ideal way to fuel your body for training.
Including some treats in your diet is okay:
“While no food is off-limits and it is absolutely fine to include non-nutrient dense foods in moderation if you really want to get the most of your training, then you need to ensure that you make appropriate choices that are tailored to your training.”
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