The three principles of sports nutrition are as follows:
- Nourish your muscles
- Hydrate effectively
- Promote workout recovery
If you are seriously into sports, then you may want to work with a sports nutritionist. In general, however, you can take good care of your body by making sure that you're well informed. Here's a quick guide to what you need to know.
Nourish your muscles
When you hear the term "nourish your muscles," your first thought may well be "protein". Protein does indeed have a huge role to play in muscle health. It isn't, however, the be-all and end-all of muscle health. It's only a relatively small (but essential) part of the story.
The role of complex carbs
As a rule of thumb, complex carbohydrates should make up about most (i.e. about two-thirds to three-quarters) of any meal. If this sounds like a lot, keep in mind that the phrase "complex carbohydrates" includes just any non-protein-based, healthy food.
The apparent sources of complex carbohydrates are grains, cereals, rice, pasta/noodles, and potatoes. Less obvious sources of complex carbohydrates include most fruits and many vegetables.
Carbohydrates are the body's fuel. It doesn't matter how much muscle you build. That muscle is only going to work if it has power, and that power comes from carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates are "slow-burning" fuel. They will keep you going over the long term.
Simple carbohydrates (sugars) get to work quickly and are used up quickly. They can have their place, but it's essential not to overuse them. It's vital to avoid "empty" calories as much as possible. Yes, everyone can have the occasional sweet treat. Just make sure that these treats are the exception rather than the rule.
High-quality protein is vital.
Traditionally, protein has meant meat, poultry, and fish. For many people, meat, poultry, and fish still are their key sources of protein. Increasingly, however, sportspeople are turning to plant-based sources for some, if not all, of their protein. The good news is that even vegans can often get sufficient protein from plant-based sources, possibly with the help of a supplement.
The bad news is that on its own, plant-based protein may not deliver enough calcium or iron. If you're a vegetarian, you may be able to get all the calcium and iron you need from dairy. That said, you may find it helpful to use a supplement. If you're vegan, you may struggle to get enough calcium, let alone enough iron, particularly if you have an active lifestyle.
On the plus side, plant-based protein, essentially by definition, is lean. If you're getting your protein from meat, poultry, and fish, you may need to avoid excessive fat. Usually, the most practical (and affordable) way to do this is to focus on white meat and fish. Keep red meat to a minimum.
Fiber also matters
If you're eating a balanced diet, then the chances are that you'll get the fiber you need as a natural outcome of that. For example, complex carbohydrates tend to be from whole grains, and these are also a great source of fiber.
In sports nutrition, fiber matters because it's essential for a healthy digestive system. Basically, if you lack fiber, you're unlikely to get the full benefit of whatever else you're eating.
In principle, the most effective form of hydration is water. In practice, water should definitely form a key part of your overall hydration. There is, however, very much a place for other liquids.
Water and health
Water, on its own, replaces liquid. A lot of the time, that's exactly what you want. Modern life can be dehydrating even without exercise. For example, heating and air-conditioning both dry out your skin and make you want hydration. Water on its own, however, doesn't provide the nourishment the way some other liquids do.
Natural soft drinks such as milk (dairy and plant), fruit juices, tea, and coffee all offer some benefits in addition to pure hydration. You do, however, need to consume them mindfully.
For example, while dairy milk can be a great source of protein, it can also be relatively high in fat and sugar. Fruit juices also tend to be high in sugar, while many teas and coffees are high in caffeine. Store-bought tea and coffee may also contain high amounts of fat and sugar too.
Fizzy drinks and alcohol
For the most part, fizzy drinks and alcohol are best avoided or consumed in moderation. The one possible exception is proper sports drinks (not energy drinks). These can have their place especially as a convenient way to rehydrate and replace key nutrients after intense exercise.
It is, however, essential to make sure that you're buying a high-quality drink created for athletes. A lot of so-called "sports drinks" are essentially just regular fizzy drinks. The "sports" element is pure marketing.
Monitoring your hydration levels
It's fine to drink when you're thirsty. Ideally, however, you should be monitoring your hydration levels, so you avoid feeling dehydrated or at least excessively thirsty. Your skin's responsiveness is generally a reliable indicator of your overall hydration. Basically, the quicker your skin bounces back after you pinch it, the better hydrated you are.
Encourage post-workout recovery
When your muscles have worked hard, you want to promote their recovery. This is the time to pamper them with simple carbohydrates and easily digestible protein. You can definitely get this through regular food. It can, however, be a lot simpler, more convenient, and more effective to use post-workout supplements.
High-quality post-workout supplements are literally created to give your body exactly what it needs to recover after a workout. What's more, they're formulated to fit in with modern lifestyles. For example, putting together a post-workout recovery drink can be done in, literally, moments.
Post-workout supplements can also be easier on your stomach than regular food. Often, after a workout, you'll crave nourishment but not want to eat solid food. A post-workout drink can be the perfect solution. Alternatively, you could have a drink and a snack or just a snack if you prefer.