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Fuel for Peformance, part 2.

December 22, 2013

In part 1 of this mini series I talked a bit about eating for performance and what it means to me. I talked a bit about the importance of carbohydrates for my type of training and I also listed some convenient food items that I regularly buy, which I have found easy to prepare and eat, while providing fuel for my activity levels.

Today I wanted to talk a bit more about macronutrients, supplements, nutrition and nutrient timing, metabolic flexibility, hydration, and how all of these things help fuel and aid with performance.


I covered the importance of carbs for performance a bit in my previous post. In a nutshell, carbs are not “the bad guy”; it really just depends on what your activity levels are like. The higher your activity levels are, especially anaerobic activity, the higher your carb requirements will be. Carbs are necessary to fuel performance during intense exercise, and they do a lot to speed up recovery after training so that you can get back in for your next session sooner and have more productive workouts.

If you have high training demands, and you don’t get enough carbs in (and calories overall) your body won’t be able to handle both stresses simultaneously: lots of training and low calories/low carbs. Think of this as something similar to a bank account, you need to have enough funds (or calories and carbs) coming in, if you are going to withdraw funds/have money going out (hard training), or you will end up overdrawing your account (over-training/under-recovering).

On to protein! Protein is another macronutrient that is so important to performance and recovery. Protein is the most satiating of all the macronutrients, meaning it will keep hunger away longer than carbohydrates or fat. Protein also has the highest Thermic Effect in the body, meaning it requires more energy to digest protein than any other macronutrient. It is also the least likely nutrient to be stored as fat. Consuming an adequate amount of protein every day (1g+ per lb of bodyweight) will maintain lean mass and help create new muscle tissue.

Some ways I like to sneak extra protein in:
-I have a protein shake right before going to bed. Any good quality protein powder should be fine, depending on what you personally prefer, but I like drinking casein protein before bed as it's slower absorbed.
-I often get a fried egg added to my food when I order out, i.e. steak and veggies, chicken risotto etc., hamburgers etc.
-I mix in a scoop of protein powder to my bowl of yogurt and berries.
-I add chia seeds, maca and LSA powder to my smoothies.
-I add eggwhites to my oatmeal when I’m cooking it in the microwave.
-I buy higher protein versions of foods, ie chobani yogurt rather than regular greek yogurt, or tuna brands that pack more protein in than other brands etc.

Lastly, we can’t forget the important role of fats in our diet.

Fat is extremely important in helping the hormonal system run smoothly (which is responsible for controlling virtually all healthy functions of the body). Having our hormones balanced and working properly definitely affects our moods, energy levels and overall performance.

As far as our training and fitness goes, the aerobic system depends on fats as the primary fuel for the aerobic muscles, which power us through the day. Fat also helps to fuel our endurance and aerobic based exercise. Following is a portion from this study done on trained athletes and fat intake:

“In trained athletes, intramuscular fat plays an important role in metabolism at exercise intensities as high as 80% of maximal aerobic power. Based on these factors, increasing the fat in the diet (while maintaining adequate intramuscular glycogen) increases VO2max and intramuscular stores of fat (presumably due to increased mitochondrial volume). These two factors result in a significant increase in the time to exhaustion at set levels of exercise (endurance). It also appears that fatigue is associated with depletion of either glycogen or fat. These conclusions hold true for athletes on diets where sufficient calories are taken in to meet demands and for exercise levels below 80% of VO2max, where primarily slow-twitch oxidative fibers are used. These data may not apply in exercise where predominantly fast-twitch fibers are used.”

Your body is capable of obtaining most of its energy from fat for aerobic activities; if your fat burning mechanism is working efficiently. Which brings us to the next point…

Metabolic Flexibility:

Ideally we want to be able to train our body to use both fats and carbohydrates for fuel, depending on our level of activity. This is going to make us so much more efficient at using our body’s fuel sources. I’m going to include some quotes from Mike Nelson’s book Metabolic Flexibility here as he delves into the idea of how to train your body to become more metabolically flexible.

“On a simple level, you want to be able to use both fats and carbohydrates for fuel. So during a lower intensity exercise, such as just walking and moving around doing your daily job, you want your body to be using fats as its primary fuel. But when you exercise, especially higher intensity exercise, you want the ability to shift into using carbohydrates at that point. Using carbohydrates during exercise will actually result in improved exercise (or athletic) performance. What's fascinating is that the metabolism of some people doesn't like to shift from one to the next (they are metabolically IN-flexible) so they actually lose out on the transition. During rest they cannot burn as much fat as their metabolically flexible twin and during intense exercise, they cannot use carbs as effectively either. In fact, their range of fuel uses actually becomes less when they are metabolically INflexible. Not good.”

So what are some ways we can help to train our body to become more metabolically flexible? Well for starters, I personally like training fasted sometimes (ie in the morning before eating), especially if I am doing base training or aerobic based activities. Here’s more from Mike Nelson on training fasted:

"Fasting for a period of time (aka Intermittent Fasting) is one way to train your body to use fats more effectively…In the morning, your insulin levels are already very low due to the fasting period called “sleep.” I use the same method as Paul for those who perform a lot of high intensity training by putting off breakfast until a few hours later. …The main purpose of a fasting period is to train your body to use fat as fuel, since your insulin levels will be very low during the fast. During that time, while you won't necessarily gain muscle per se, you're not really going to lose any muscle tissue either. Your goal is to extend your body’s ability to burn fat. That new capacity will carry over at other times as well, enhancing the amount of energy you derive from fat overall."

I generally time my carbohydrates more around my high intensity training sessions, both before and post-training. I try to eat some protein and carbohydrates before training, as when you do this your insulin levels go up and that pushes the body to use the carbs which is the fuel source you want to use for high intensity activity. I feel much better fueling with carbs for anaerobic based activities.

If your goals are primarily performance-based, and you find yourself struggling with fatigue, low-energy and poor recovery, try increasing your carbs until your performance comes back up. Start by adding more carbs post training, and then pre-training. (Do this gradually, and make sure to test it slowly.) Try increasing your carb intake by about 25-50 grams on your training day. This is a good step to take to ensure that you have ample amounts of energy for your workouts.

If you have fat loss goals as well as performance goals, firstly make sure your protein levels are up to par and then dial back your carbs a little bit (first from the pre-training portion, then post training.) If your performance tanks, you more than likely removed too much carbohydrate. Take this slow as well, and experiment with this. Don’t do anything too drastic.

Good nutrition = better recovery:

I recently came across an article called “3 Powerful Recovery Strategies for Athletes” by Kevin Neeld (a hockey coach). I wanted to include a portion where he talks about eating nutritious foods, and the part it plays in recovery, building muscle and better immune support:

Eat REAL Food, Almost Always: Simply, real food can be hunted or grown. The overwhelming majority of the kids I talk to eat very little, if any, real food throughout the day. Most eat something along the lines of cereal, sandwich with chips, and whatever my parents cook me (typically pasta or chicken…and pasta). Everyone can do better. The overwhelming majority of food that enters your body should be meats, eggs, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and various oils (e.g. Extra Virgin Olive Oil). The food you eat literally provides the building blocks for every structure within your body. If you build your body with garbage, you will feel and perform like garbage. This may express itself in different forms. Some people get fat, some are moody, some have frequent gastrointestinal distress (cramping, bloating, farting, etc.), some have poor energy or attention spans, some have a difficult time putting on muscle mass, and some are more injury prone (among others). NO ONE is unaffected. Think about the meals you have over the last week and how many of them have been comprised of real food. Start by changing breakfast and move on from there. I tell our players that there are times when you don’t have control (or you have less control) over what foods you can eat (e.g. on the road), so it’s important to eat as well as you possibly can during the times when you DO have control (e.g. during the week and during weekends with home games). The goal is to spend as much time eating “right” as possible, so maximizing controllable opportunities is a big piece of the puzzle.

I think that is pretty self-explanatory. Eating nutritious whole foods plays a pretty big role in our performance and recovery, regardless of the sport or training we do. And of course if you train or compete at a higher level, with greater volume and intensity, then caring about your recovery, and what you choose to put in your body becomes even more important.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with caring deeply about your food choices and what you put into your body. I certainly care and I can say for a fact that the food choices I make affect my performance, health and immune system. If I am consistent with making healthy whole food choices over a period of time, I feel good, healthy, energetic, and I perform well. If I start getting slack with my diet and allow myself to eat extra junk food, processed foods, artificial foods, take away foods, etc. over time I notice a decline in my performance, I get sick, my skin break outs, my energy levels plummet and I feel shitty.

Consistency in diet and food choices is where the magic lies for me. The choices you consistently make, and your daily, consistent habits are what will make you into you the person you are. The food you consistently eat, is what makes or breaks your performance. It’s not the occasional treats, the birthday drinks, or the cupcake you ate with your friends last night. None of that matters to me. What matters is what I do the other 85 % of the time.

In saying that, for a lot of athletes, especially men, their caloric needs are much higher than the average person, so if they are filling up the majority of their calories with high-quality whole foods packed with nutrients, they may still need to get extra calories in, in which case they might turn to higher calorie/lesser nutritious foods to fulfill their energy requirements. That is of course a legitimate need. But the main point that I am trying to get across here is that micronutrients and food choices do matter and certainly play a role in recovery and performance, as well as your overall health and immune system, which affects your performance too.

Supplementation and more on Nutrient Timing:

While there is some debate as to when the optimal time is to take in certain nutrients, and the actual “timing” doesn’t matter as much as we used to think it does (the post training “anabolic window” doesn’t matter as much as total protein intake over the whole day) I think the bigger picture for athletes and those concerned with their performance, is that it’s important to get something in within a few hours before and/or after your workout.

The general idea here is that following activity, the body is primed to replenish energy stores and shuttle nutrients to the most desirable places. In other words, nutrition can be used to jumpstart the recovery/adaptation process by providing the appropriate nutrients to replenish diminished supplies, as well as the resources rebuilding the structures damaged in the training process.

I recently read the latest research on Nutrient Timing from the November issue of Alan Aragon’s Research Review. I was specifically interested in his article on nutrient timing, especially if there were any differences for athletes and/or those who perform and train at a higher intensity than the average person. Following is a portion of the “conclusion” from the research, as well as an interesting chart he made.

“Protein timing within a narrow anabolic window relative to the training bout (< 1 hour pre- and/or post-exercise) appears to take a backseat to total daily protein. This finding seems to reinforce basic logic. Those who consume enough total daily protein and energy to maximize strength and hypertrophy are likely to spend the majority of their day in the postprandial (fed) state. Another point to consider is that there’s no evidence of an ergolytic effect of protein timed near the training bout, and there is some evidence of positive effects. Therefore, scooting the doses close to training is generally a good idea for maximizing all hypothetical routes toward muscular size and strength. Avoiding lengthy gaps in protein feeding relative to the training bout (e.g. significantly more than 2 hours) can also hedge your bets toward maximizing anabolic adaptations. The degree of timing precision is what’s debatable. People mistakenly debate over nutrient timing importance as if it’s a black and white issue. This is a false dichotomy, since it should be viewed as a continuum. I created the chart below to outline the variable importance of nutrient timing. Notice how the span of applications of nutrient timing diminishes alongside the increase of nutrient timing importance."

Now onto supplements. Supplementation is a very personal decision. Some people don’t use any supplements at all and perform fine without them. Most of the supplements I choose are for health and performance reasons, not because I can’t perform or survive without them, but instead I take them due to the fact that I train long hours each week, so I prefer to “cover all my bases” so to speak, and do any little extra things that I can to help me out as much as possible. This wouldn’t necessarily apply to the average person, however.

Examine.com is an extremely worthwhile website to check if you have any questions on supplementation and would like unbiased data. I downloaded their e-book and it has been an excellent resource for me. In my opinion, the book is basically the most comprehensive and unbiased research analysis, ever, on every major supplement.

The cool thing is that it’s also divided by training/health goals. For example, if you wanted to read about Creatine for strength gains, you could just open up the PDF and click the link for “Creatine” to see the proposed benefits and level of evidence for each benefit. Or, instead you could click, the link to “Strength Training” and see which supplements help with that and how strong the evidence is for each. This is an awesome way to break down the information because you may end up doing a search for a supplement for a specific health or performance goal and actually find out that there are a number of others that are better for you or your personal performance goals. Remember, everyone is different and especially with diet and supplementation, one shoe does not fit all. Find out what works for YOU; don’t just do what someone else is doing and copy them. It doesn’t matter who they are, your body is different! The best way to find out what YOU need is to do the research and then experiment with these things yourself. Don’t just take anyone’s word for it.

The supplements that I take at the moment are: magnesium (I use a powered form from Metagenics (called Fibroplex Plus), probiotics (Ultra Flora Immune) and digestive enzymes (Metagest)—these are also from the Metagenics range (which I highly recommend). I also take beta alanine (via NRG infrared), and 2 different protein powders (I take one right after training which includes dextrose) and I also take an all-natural protein powder, which is the BSC naturals range (they have both vegan and regular protein options) for any other times of day, in smoothes, before bed, etc. I love that this one is all natural and tastes good at the same time. Some other things I take at times are creatine, fish oil, super greens, maca, and things like LSA, chia seed etc…but that’s getting more into a foods, not supplements.


Hydration is another huge factor in performance. I can tell you from personal experience that dehydration at any level, majorly hinders my performance. Here is another quote from Kevin Neeld, which sums up the importance of hydration on performance.

“Even mild dehydration can significantly impair physical and mental performance. This is one of those things that everyone knows, but few athletes are diligent about adhering to. Keep a water bottle with you sip water throughout the day. There are lots of water recommendations, but the easiest way to assess how you’re doing here is by checking your urine color. Clear, consistently, is the goal. Naturally, the more active you are and the more you sweat, the more fluid you’ll need to replenish. If you’re a heavy sweater and/or prone to cramping, it may be worth looking into picking up some Gatorlytes, which are just packets of electrolytes to give you a little extra sodium, chloride, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. Anecdotally, I can tell you that a lot of times when players come to be complaining about early fatigue in practices or games, and a variety of other symptoms like not being able to concentrate or getting headaches, poor hydration is an underlying factor.”

So that pretty much sums up the topics I wanted to cover on fuel for performance. I hope this is a help to you in some way. Please feel free to add any comments or feedback you might have! Alternatively you can contact me at libbywescombe@gmail.com.



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