Athletes and coaches alike know the importance of nutrition when it comes to optimizing performance, but with so much competing information floating around, it can become challenging to understand what the best approach is. The goal of this article will be to hopefully cut through some of the noise and provide actionable takeaways that will help guide individualized and tailored approaches to helping athletes realize their full potential.
One size does not fit all…
If there’s one takeaway from the following guidance it should be that every athlete is different, and requires an individualized approach to their nutrition strategy. Sex, age, muscle mass, metabolism, genetics, etc. can all impact how our bodies process nutrients in relation to exercise and performance. Oftentimes, athletes and coaches cling to a particular approach because it’s worked in the past, or they want to test out the latest “miracle diet,” despite all signs pointing to its ineffectiveness for that individual.
The overarching goals of coaching athlete nutrition should be trifold. One, they should guide athletes to view food as fuel for performance; two, encourage them to maintain a healthy relationship with food; and three, to help them understand what their body needs to maximize training success.
Asking athletes to track their nutrition intake can be a good way to gain an understanding of what their habits are, and how they’re currently fueling their workouts. I’ve found that oftentimes it doesn’t take long before trends begin to take shape, and to pinpoint negative, unhealthy, or unproductive habits. This is also a good way to look at nutrient timing in relation to exercise, specifically carbohydrates, and their proximity and availability to higher intensity sessions. It’s easy to focus on macros, but the question remains, are they coming at the right time, specific to the athlete’s needs, in relation to performance? This is what’s important.
One of our jobs as coaches is to help athletes balance their busy schedules while finding a training approach that’s right for them. Often, this means athletes are fitting workouts in early in the mornings, or later in the evenings when there are gaps in their schedules. These times are productive for executing planned training sessions, but can sometimes be detrimental when it comes to fueling for performance. For instance, if an athlete performs a hard VO2 Max session but is in a fasted, or glycogen deficient state due to the timing of the workout, this could lead to decreased performance, heightened RPE, higher heart rate, and leave the athlete feeling defeated.
Consider how the proper timing of fueling in relation to specific workouts, and the athlete’s schedule could help set them up for success. The following guidelines can help athletes ensure they have the proper fuel onboard, and provide the coach and the athlete a lens through which to view nutrient timing in relation to key workouts.
- Consume 10-12g/carbs/kg/lean body mass for up to 48 hours prior to a key workout or event.
- Consume 1-4g/carbs/kg/lean body mass/hr for 1-4hrs prior to a key workout.
- Reduce fat, fiber, and protein for 24 hours prior to the workout to minimize the likelihood of GI distress.
Post-exercise nutrition is what most are familiar with. It’s what we’ve been marketed to as the “Critical Post-Exercise Window,” but again, there’s no one-size-fits-all broad stroke that works for every athlete. Some athletes respond well to the higher protein amount that we’ve typically prescribed for Muscle Protein Synthesis (MPS), while others may need more carbohydrates or fat to feel fully recovered. Again, this is where tracking intake in relation to performance and RPE can really help. If an athlete performed a hard workout one day, how do they feel the next day? How did they sleep? How’s their motivation? Fatigue? All of these “softer” metrics can be good indicators of whether or not an athlete’s post-workout nutrition is individually optimized.
So often, athlete’s simply aren’t aware of how they should fuel after a workout. They’re rushing from their workout to work, school, or any number of the other responsibilities. Without proper attention paid to how an athlete eats after a workout, they can easily find themselves in a deficit going into their next session. This circle of poor fueling and poor performance can be hard to escape, so it’s better to get ahead of it as a coach to ensure your athlete is set up for success. Here are some guidelines that can aid in general recovery and performance.
- Consume 1.2+g/carbs/kg/lean body mass/hr for 4-6 hours after intense or extended (90 min) exercise.
- Consume medium to high glycemic index (55+) foods for the remainder of the day following exercise.
- Consume .2-.5g/protein/kg/lean body mass/hr for the remainder of the day following exercise.
Our goal is to do everything we can to guide our athletes to realize their full potential. We write great workouts, help them improve their FTP, threshold pace, VO2 Max, etc., but so often the key to performance doesn’t lie in the metrics. Individualized fueling strategies, with special attention paid to nutrient timing, can be one of the most powerful tools we give our athletes. Moreover, helping athletes understand the importance of a holistic, individualized, and healthy approach to fueling can give them a completely new perspective on their responsibilities as an athlete, and what it means to be successful during their workouts and beyond.