If you are exercising intensively you need to start thinking about nutrition. Whether you are trying to lose fat or build more muscle, or both, then getting your diet right is vital for success. For bodybuilding, training for kickboxing competitions, football, athletics or any other active sport, you need to get your nutrition right.
Here we look at nutrition for fitness in general, then we take a look at how martial artists and runners manage their nutrition. Finally we look at some supplements and share some warnings.
To maintain a healthy weight all you really need to do is eat a reasonable well balanced diet and stay within your daily calorie needs to avoid gaining weight. However, if you are looking to lose fat while building muscle, nutrition becomes more complex.
Nutrition for Exercise and Sports
Pre Workout Nutrition
What you eat before your workout affects how much energy you have. If you eat too little then your muscles may become fatigued too soon. If you eat too much you risk gaining weight.
You should consume your pre-workout meal 2 hours before your workout to ensure that it is fully digested and that the energy and nutrients are being passed on to the muscles. If you allow the glycogen reserves in your muscles to deplete, you not only become more sluggish when working out, you also start to burn muscle tissue for energy, which is a bad idea if you are trying to get fit.
It is in the pre-workout meal that you should consume slow release carbohydrates. So this is the ideal time for a large healthy salad with many mixed leaves and vegetables. Low GI carbs are the most important food choices pre-workout. You also need to be consuming a healthy supply of lean proteins from eggs, poultry, lean meats and fish.
If you are still digesting your food when it is time to workout you will suffer an energy loss as your body will be focusing on supplying blood (oxygen) to your digestive system and not your muscles.
You should then eat a snack about 15-20 minutes before your workout that provides a rich source of vitamins and supplements to aid growth and keep your working throughout the exercise. This is a good time to have a strong coffee too as the caffeine boost will give your more mental energy during the workout which will help you train harder.
Carbohydrate Loading For Athletes
If you will be performing a very long and enduring activity, such as a long distance run or cycle, you should take in extra carbohydrate to ensure that your muscles will have all the energy they need. This is known as carbohydrate loading in athletics.
Intra Workout Nutrition
If you are doing a long and intensive workout you need some nutrition during training. If you are weight training then all you really need is some additional fast release carbohydrates to give you an extra boost. Some bodybuilders like to take a branched chain amino acids supplement too. Remember that hydration is also important during longer workouts.
Post Workout Nutrition
Immediately after a workout you need to consume some fast release proteins if you have done a big weight training session and carbohydrates if you have done an intensive cardio session or endurance session.
The timing of the meal after a training session is vital. Research has shown that consuming a high protein snack, such as a protein shake, should be done within 30 minutes of finishing exercising. Later than this, and the benefits of the extra protein become less important. If the exercise was strenuous and lasted longer than 90 minutes, the body’s glycogen stores will also need refueling. Consuming foods and drinks high in carbohydrates right after exercise will help to increase the refueling glycogen stores. Research has found that a high-carbohydrate food or drink should be consumed within two hours after exercise in order to help glycogen resynthesis.
For protein, whey protein shakes are a popular choice as you can consume them quickly and the body digests and absorbs the proteins into the blood system very fast. For carbohydrate a glucose based rehydration drink is best, although an low GI (quick release) food will work.
Post Workout Fluid Replacement / Hydration Drinks
There are many different fluid replacement drinks on the market. The top selling brands include Lucazade, Gatorade, Isotar and Dexters. However, the jury is out on how effective these really are on speeding up hydration and replacing lost minerals. In fact many long distance runners have nutritionists prepare their own home made sports drinks.
If you wish to make your own sports rehydration drink, then the best advice is to experiment. Try starting with the following recipe and then modify as you see fit:
- 2 litres of water
- 150 ml (about half a cup) of your favourite fruit juice
- 5 table spoons of sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon of salt
Reduce the salt or increase sugar depending on your needs. If you sweat very heavily you may lose a lot more fluid and minerals than your running partner.
Workout Nutrition for Recovery
If your workout was very intensive and long then you will need some additional carbs too afterwards. Ideally you should eat these carbs before the main protein meal. If you are not receiving adequate nutrition after your workout then you are not only slowing down muscle growth but also increasing recovery time.
You should try to eat 3g of carbs for every kg you weigh every two hours after the exercise, ideally until bed time. This is to replenish all glycogen reserves which helps to keep anabolism (growth) maximised.
Be Careful With Post Workout Shakes
We already mentioned these, but they need explained a little more. You have to be careful with any supplements such as shakes. A very common mistake that people make is consuming too many calories when working out, and shakes are one of the easiest ways to exceed your daily calories needs.
If you are trying to lose weight (lose fat) then ensure that you calculate total calories consumed each day very accurately. A post workout whey protein shake is the best way to get a quick hit of protein after a workout but you must ensure that you are not overeating if you want to lose fat.
Best Post Workout Protein
Whey Protein shakes are the best post-workout supplements as they are the quickest the digest and absorb into the blood supply, which means that the proteins and amino-acids are distributed to the muscles to aid recovery and growth.
There are many brands on the market, really the most important factor is ensuring that you are getting a 100% whey protein as some of the “muscle building protein” shakes also contain carbohydrates, which although are essential also, can push you over your daily carb / calories limits without you realising.
Best Post Workout Carbohydrates
This is actually one area of exercise nutrition that is under debate still. Should you take extra carbs after working out, or is it counter productive? Some nutritionists believe that loading up on carbs after a workout aids protein synthesis, i.e. it helps the body to create proteins to start rebuilding muscle tissue.
“In conclusion, coingestion of carbohydrate duringrecovery does not further stimulate postexercise muscle proteinsynthesis when ample protein is ingested.“
The best scientific research to date is the Dutch study on protein synthesis which concluded that carbs after a workout did not increase protein synthesis at all.
Count Your Calories Before Eating Your Carbs and Proteins
Remember, if your goal is to lose fat then is it absolutely vital that you control calorific intake. Refer to the calorie table to determine your needs and keep calories below your maintenance level. Although getting the balance and timing of proteins and carbohydrates is important, do not forget your ultimate goals. If you goal is to lose fat, get ripped muscles or a 6 pack, then you have to control your eating.
Martial Artists Diet
Martial arts training requires a strict and well balanced diet just like any other sport. Martial Artists need a diet that provides adequate energy, in the form of carbohydrates and fats, as well as essential proteins, vitamins and minerals.
Most martial artists aim to consume a diet that consists mainly of carbohydrates – around 55% to 60%, (10% to 15% from sugars and the rest from starches). No more than 30% of Calories should come from fat, and 10% to 15% from protein.
Carbohydrates for Martial Artists
Many people think that protein is the essential ingredient for building muscle. However, protein only repairs and grows new muscle tissue. To fuel muscle, we need glycogen, which is provided by carbohydrates. When a person eats carbohydrate, it is broken down into glucose molecules. Glucose is the only form of carbohydrate used directly by muscles for energy.
The glucose is carried in the bloodstream to the muscles and used to produce muscle contraction. Any glucose that is not used is stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles. When you start exercising, the glycogen reserves in the muscles are broken down to provide energy. However, the body can only store a limited amount of glycogen, usually enough to provide fuel for 90 to 120 minutes of exercise.
For exercise that lasts longer than 90 minutes, the athlete would benefit from consuming carbohydrates during the exercise in order to help maintain their blood glucose levels. Another method athletes use is carbohydrate/glycogen loading, which helps to increase the amount of glycogen stored in the body.
Studies have shown that exercise increases protein breakdown and, therefore, dietary requirement. The exact amount depends on the following factors:
- The type, intensity and frequency of exercise. The longer a person exercises, the more protein is broken down. If not enough protein is consumed to compensate, or if a person trains too frequently, this net loss of lean tissue will eventually affect performance. This is known as overtraining.
- How long a person has been training. Studies have shown that new students have higher requirements per kg of body weight than more experienced athletes. However, as the body becomes used to training, it becomes more efficient at recycling proteins.
- Calorie and carbohydrate intake. If a person does not eat enough calories to meet their needs, protein will be broken energy rather than being used for growth and repair. This again is a form of overtraining caused by poor nutrition.
Too Much Protein Makes You Fat
Eating more protein alone will not increase the size of muscles – many people head off to the protein shake store when they start training, without realising that they are not actually training hard enough to warrant the need to drink them! Muscles develop from training and exercise.
A certain amount of protein is needed to help build the muscles, but extra servings of protein foods or protein supplements do not assist in muscle development. Extra protein is not converted into muscle and does not cause further increase in muscle size, strength or stamina. Protein cannot be stored in the body and excess protein will be burned for energy or stored as body fat. So, be warned. Too much protein makes you fat!
What you eat on a high-protein diet
- Typical breakfast: bacon and eggs. Try to eat organic bacon, as bacon contains nitrates which can cause long term health problems.
- Typical lunch: small salad and an open double cheeseburger (i.e. hold the bun)
- Typical dinner: steak or fried chicken, with salad topped with cheese or crème fraiche dressing.
For more ideas on what to eat to get more protein, refer to Dr. Atkins Diet Revolution recipe books, as these are jam packed with high protein recipes.
These rules extend beyond martial arts of course. For addition ideas for a martial artists diet take a look at the Bruce Lee diet.
Nutrition For Runners
Whether you are new to running and running to help lose some weight and get fitter, or if you a serious amateur and want to compete in road races, diet and nutrition is vital.
Your diet determines how much energy you have to fuel your muscles when you are running, and also provides the nutrition required to repair and grow new muscle tissue.
Nutrition is also important for ensuring total health, to make sure that your blood flows well and the nutrition passes into the muscles efficiently and quickly. Here is our nutrition advice for runners.
Carbohydrates = Muscle Fuel
Carbohydrates are the nutrients that fuel your muscles. Specifically, muscles store glycogen and use this as fuel. When you exercise your glycogen reserves are depleted and then need to be replaced if you wish to continue to exercise.
The body can obtain extra energy from the fat depots by breaking down triacylglycerols (TAGS) into glycerols and fatty acids. This is essentially how exercise helps us break down fatty tissue.
Also note that everyone maintains the same number of fat cells throughout their lives (more or less). When people become fat it is because they store more TAGS inside the fat cells, because the fat cells take up excess blood sugars (glycogen). So excess carbohydrate leads to accumulation of fat in the fat cells, which is then only released when the body is depleted of glycogen in the muscles.
Your diet should be around 60% to 65% carbohydrate, and ideally these should be sourced from a variety of fruits and vegetables, and not all just staples (bread, pasta, rice). Sweet potatoes are a great source of carbs for athletes as are whole grains.
Proteins Build Stronger and Faster Muscles
While carbs are the fuel for muscles, proteins are what make muscles stronger, they are the building blocks.
Some interesting research was published last year that showed that when protein was added to sports drinks (carb based drinks) athletes did realised an increase in intensity at the end of an endurance race.
“Long distance runners, cyclists and other endurance athletes often refuel mid-race to help maintain carbohydrate levels (glycogen in the muscles). Traditionally drinks are just carbohydrates (glucose, maltodextrin, and fructose) and other some vitamins. However, sports nutritionists have found that adding protein increases performance.”
Your diet should be 15% to 20% protein, and ideally this should be a mixture of casein (egg) and whey (milk by product) and contain a healthy dose BCAA (branch chain amino acids).
The best sources of protein are the low fat and low cholesterol ones, such as lean meats, fish, eggs, chicken and low fat dairy as well as beans and whole grains (to a lesser extent).
How Much Protein Should Runners Take?
Runners do not require as much protein as bodybuilders but still need around 1 – 1.5 grams per kg of bodyweight (about 0.5-0.75g per pound).
Dietary Fat – Keep It In Check
It is still important to not consume too much fat. Keep fat intake to around 20% of calories. Foods should be low in saturated fats and cholesterol. Many foods do contain healthy fats, such as nuts, oils and deep water fish such as mackerel, sardines and salmon. Omega-3 fatty acids are considered very good for health.
Cod liver oil is good to aid joints, many runners take cod liver supplements to keep the joints well oiled.
In addition to cosnuming the correct quantities, and quality, of these macronutrients it is also important that you consume a wide range of minerals and vitamins. Most important for runners are vitamins C, E and A which combat free radicals (which increase during exercise).
Calcium is also essential nutrients for runners as they help to maintain bone density and strength which can reduce risk of fractures. Good dietary sources are low fat dairy, dark leafy vegetables and eggs. Generally a well balanced and varied diet that contains lots of vegetables and fruits will provide adequate calcium.
Iron is vital for transporting oxygen in the blood to the muscles. When iron is depleted you feel tired quicker as oxygen cannot be carried to the muscles to aid aerobic exercise. Best sources of iron are lean meats, leafy greens, nuts and seafood.
If you run a lot and sweat a lot then you may lose salts, so sodium is sometimes important. Some sports drinks contain sodium to help rehydrate after an intensive workout.
Protein Should Be Added To Drinks For Endurance Athletes
In November 2012 sports science researchers reported in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research that when protein was added to a carbohydrate based sports drink endurance cyclists experienced an increase in performance.
Long distance runners, cyclists and other endurance athletes often refuel mid-race to help maintain carbohydrate levels (glycogen in the muscles). Traditionally drinks are just carbohydrates (glucose, maltodextrin, and fructose) and other some vitamins. However, sports nutritionists have found that adding protein increases performance.
In the studies athletes were made to exercise moderate intensity for 3 hours (VO2 max 45-70%) and then at a higher intensity (VO2 74-85%) until exhausted.
Athletes were given supplements every 20 minutes through the exercise, eith a 6% carbohydrate supplement or a 3% carbohydrate/1.2% protein supplement (half the carbs with added proteins).
The study found that the athletes taking the protein could work harder for longer, and so concluded that a moderate amount of protein can improve aerobic endurance at high intensities, even though they contain less carbohydrate and fewer calories.
A Warning About Supplements
While supplements are an excellent way to ensure you are getting the optimum levels of nutrition for your athletic requirements, it is very important to ensure that you are taking high quality and safe supplements. Generally supplements are taken to aid either muscle growth and repair or fat reduction. Products for both of these functions can pose health risks and some products are banned by the sporting community.
In December 2010 the FDA provided some new warnings and guidelines for buying weight loss and bodybuilding supplements over the Internet. Dietary supplements are one of the most lucrative markets on the Internet, however many manufacturers ignore the regulations that affect the areas in which they distribute to.
Many weight loss products still contain sibutramine which is now an illegal substance. It is an oral anorexiant, which means that you eat it and then it suppresses appetite. Side effects include increased risk of heart attack and stroke, making this one of the most dangerous weight loss substances on the market.
Popular brands that have used sibutramine are Slimming Beauty, Solo Slim and Slim-30. The FDA reports that there are many other brands that are still using sibutramine or closely related chemicals. It has also been marketed under brands such as Reductil, Meridia and Sibutrex in the past too.
Anabolic steroids (steroid analogs) are present in some bodybuilding supplements. These chemicals can cause acute liver injury and also increase the risk of heart attack and stroke. Basically, they can kill you.
Some of the better known products that have been banned by the FDA that contain steroids are Tren Xtreme, ArimaDex, and Clome. These products contain anabolic steroids or aromatase inhibitors, which prevent anabolic steroids from being converted to estrogen.
Aromatase inhibitors are often used to treat breast cancer and work by blocking the action of the aromatase enzyme which converts androgens into estrogens. Androgens are the male hormones that aid muscle growth, and were actually the first commercial steroids. The most well know androgen is testosterone.
So if you chose to order products online be sure to check the ingredients of the products. It is always best to order from a well trusted source.
Drink Beer after Exercise?
In 2007 Spanish Researchers from Granada University have found that drinking beer after playing sports or exercising is more effective at re-hydrating the body than drinking water. Their findings were announced in a press conference and to date have not appeared in any scientific journal, which may suggest that the research was not verified scientifically.
“Beer, Sport, Health” - Granada University
For some time sports coaches have encouraged people to drink barley based drinks to help to replenish both liquids and calories (carbohydrates) after games and training sessions.
Great Source of Carbs
Beer has turned out to be the source of these carbs as well as a hydrating tonic. There is now scientific evidence explaining why a pint after a tiring session tastes so good – our body’s know that it is good for us!
The research involved a group of students to performing strenuous exercise in temperatures of around 40ºC (104ºF), and then being given either a pint of beer or the same volume of water. The group receiving beer showed improved levels of hydration after activity.
Just One of Two Glasses Needed
Previous studies have shown most alcoholic drinks have a diuretic effect, meaning they increase the amount of liquid lost by the body through urination. However, the first pint or two of beer does not have this negative effect, in fact, the opposite is true. We actually gain more liquid than we lose.
Research actually concluded that the re-hydrating effect of beer was only “slightly” better than that of water, but another benefit of drinking beer is that it contains carbohydrates, which are depleted during exercise. Drinking beer can go some way to helping replenish lost glycogen reserves after exercising.
Of course, it is essential to ensure that consumption is in moderation. If a post workout drink turns into a binge drinking session with the rest of the team, or gym partners, then this will lead to negative effects, and hinder athletic and sporting performance.
Health professionals and sports trainers have been quick to point out that there are many superior products on the market that have been specifically designed to replenish both liquids and nutrients after exercising, and serious athletes should really consume these instead. But for the rest of us, a post workout beer is a great way to cool down and congratulate ourselves for a job well done! Although of course, only take this report with a pinch of salt – the Spanish researchers never did publish a paper on these findings.
Clenbuterol – An Athletic Performance Enhancer
The World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) is reviewing current doping bans and it is thought that the current ban on clenbuterol may be lifted. Clenbuterol is designed to aid people who suffer from breathing difficulties such as those caused by asthma but it is also used by athletes to help speed up muscle development.
Clenbuterol works by causing an increase in aerobic capacity and activates the central nervous system and increases blood pressure. It also speeds up fat metabolism. It has been used as an aid to weight loss, however, there is not actually any conclusive scientific evidence that it is more effective that a placebo.
Alberto Contador tested positive for clenbuterol
In sports and athletics it is used to improve performance, it essentially helps your body to operate at a higher level of fitness. In 2010 the cyclist Alberto Contador tested positive for using clenbuterol in the Tour de France (he has previously won 3 Tour de Frances). Many other endurance athletes have been tested positive over the years for using the drug.
It is thought that the main reason for allowing the drug is because there have been controversial cases where food was allegedly contaminated with the drug resulting in positive tests. Alberto Contado claimed that he was the victim of contaminated food – he only had a very small dosage in his sample. A lift on the ban may see a daily allowance to simply prevent errors from occurring.
There have been many other controversies surrounding this drug and testing. In the last year 5 Mexican soccer players were tested positive and also table tennis player was also found with traces of the substance in their system, however, none of these athletes were banned as it is claimed that the had all eaten contaminated beef and had not been taking the drug deliberately.
Clenbuterol used to beef up stock
The drug is often found in beef in Mexico as farmers use it to increase yield in their stock – the cows simply grow more muscle. It is argued that many farmers are using the drug to boost yields which is why so many athletes keep testing positive.
On June 15, 2011, Wada made a statement on clenbuterol following the media interest where it confirmed that there is currently no threshold under which the substance is allowed. It aknowledged that it is possible for a a sample could contain low levels of clenbuterol as the result of contaminated food but that each case was different and had to be assessed individually.
They made the decision to discuss clenbuterol in September 2011 and then make an announcement regarding the preparations for the 2012 List. The list will be published by October 1. The new Prohibited List should be announced here in the next couple of weeks: http://www.wada-ama.org/en/News-Center/Articles/
Allowing the substance and by setting a maximum level in the system will mean that errors will not be made and innocent athletes will not be severely punished again.
Sports Nutrition and You
Sports nutrition is undergoing constant change. We are still learning how various nutrients affect the growth, development and function of the human body in different ways. Elite athletes need to optimize their fitness routines and nutrition to ensure that they reach their peak performance.
The research and findings from the athletic community and sport sciencists can certainly aid the rest of us in developing fit and healthy bodies. However, it is improtant to remembr that what the athletes are doing is aim to reach their maximum potential in any given activity. To be fit and healthy you do not need to go to the lengths that pro athletes go. Just eat healthy, get a good balanced of nutrients and exercise hard, and most of all, enjoy it!
“Coingestion of carbohydrate with protein does not further augment postexercise muscle protein” synthesis by René Koopman et al. Published in the Am Journal of Physiol Endocrinol Metab 293: E833-E842, 2007. July 3, 2007.
“The Effect of a Low Carbohydrate Beverage with Added Protein on Cycling Endurance Performance in Trained Athletes“ by Ferguson-Stegall, Lisa; McCleave, Erin L; Ding, Zhenping; Kammer, Lynne M; Wang, Bei; Doerner, Phillip G; Liu, Yang; Ivy, John L. Published in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: October 2010 – Volume 24 – Issue 10 – pp 2577-2586.
“FDA: Tainted products marketed as dietary supplements potentially dangerous“ U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Dec. 15, 2010
WADA statement on clenbuterol - http://www.wada-ama.org/en/News-Center/Articles/WADA-statement-on-clenbuterol/
“Beer after sport ‘is good for the body’” – The Telegraph. 01 Nov 2007