Myth-Busting Sports Nutrition
By Jackie Cartier
July 7, 2016
There's a never ending debate going on in the world of sports nutrition—what's the right mix of food to fuel athletes through their workouts and burn fat while they're at it? We're not talking how much food an ultra-runner should consume, but how should the average, play-for-fun and to keep fit, runners, tennis players, triathletes, etc. fuel their workouts?
To get to the bottom of this controversial question we asked Nutritional Weight & Wellness nutritionist Stephanie, a competitive soccer player, CrossFit trainer and Ironman finisher. Stephanie stresses any type of movement is worth it, just get out there! Do you like to walk, bike or maybe hike in a local state park? Whatever sounds fun to you, get out there and do it. But ... what to eat?
To tackle that, we're breaking down three sports nutrition myths that Nutritional Weight & Wellness nutritionists wish more athletes knew.
Myth: It's best to exercise on an empty stomach
The biggest sports nutrition misconception out there is that working out on an empty stomach will lead to greater weight loss. Not a chance! When your blood sugar crashes, which it does with an empty stomach, you're essentially in a fat storage mode—the opposite of what you're aiming for when you exercise. Stephanie shared that if one of her personal trainer clients came in without eating, she'd tell them to go home. "It's just not worth the risk or the effort." Nausea or passing out are not uncommon for those exercising on an empty stomach, let alone not having any energy to complete a good workout.
The goal of every workout is to prevent your blood sugar from crashing. So what are you supposed to eat to accomplish that and feel good while exercising? We'd recommend a balanced meal two to four hours before working out. For extra oomph at game time, athletes across the country are "obsessed" (Stephanie's description) with U-Can® when getting to game time or a big workout. We recommend a full scoop (or packet as linked above) and drinking half the mix before a workout and half during. This keeps your blood sugar stable and helps you finish the workout as strong as you started.
Myth: Carb loading leads to sustained energy and better performance
Another prevalent myth out there is "carb loading." The night before a big sporting event athletes have been known to eat bottomless bowls of spaghetti and bread. What does that do to your body? Not make you run faster the next day, that's for sure! Our liver only stores carbs for twelve hours or so, so when you eat a bunch of sugary carbs (which is essentially what you're doing with pasta) it's not going to help your marathon 14 hours later. Chronic high carb diets like these do keep glycogen carb stores high (your muscles store and use glycogen while exercising) but they also contribute to fat gain and inflammation. Maybe you've heard friends complain of training and running a marathon only to gain weight? This is often the cause of chronic high carb diets.
Stephanie compared the food she fueled with before her first marathon with what she ate before her Ironman—she undoubtedly noticed that real food was the answer. Fueling with pasta for her first marathon, it took her about six hours to complete the 26.2 mile run, and she was drained for days. Compare that to her first Ironman where she swam for 2.4 miles, biked 112 miles and ran 26.2 miles. The night before that race she ate a big salad with sweet potatoes and chicken and 15 hours into the Ironman race she felt better than the marathon. The incredible power of real food!
Of course 15 hours of racing requires more fuel than just one meal. Stephanie ate 30 grams of carbs once an hour (a rotating mix of banana, Lärabar®, dried apricots, U-Can and more) and not once did she have a sugar-laden GU® that many endurance athletes unfortunately rely on.
Myth: Gatorade® is a good source of electrolytes
Unfortunately when many people hear electrolytes they think Gatorade or other sports drinks. Please stop! They are essentially just pure sugar—electrolytes are comprised of salt, potassium, not high fructose corn syrup which those drinks are loaded with!
Electrolytes are important when exercising, but only after more than 90 minutes of working out. It also depends on how sweaty the person is because one pound of sweat loss contains around 500-700 mgs of sodium. So after sweating for 90 minutes you've lost a lot of salt and need to refuel. What should you be drinking to restock your electrolytes? Nuun® and Endura® are both brands Stephanie recommends; with no artificial sweeteners they are great electrolyte options.
And of course, dehydration is a huge factor when exercising. Don't go on the "drink when I'm thirsty" theory because by then it's too late. Fluid intake during exercise should match losses. Intense athlete should weigh themselves before and after a workout. Weight loss after a workout is fluid loss and must be replaced. For every pound of weight lost, take in an extra 2 to 3 cups (12 to 24 oz.) of fluid gradually over the course of the day.
Make your efforts worthwhile
Last but not least, what are you supposed to eat after you exercise, and how soon afterwards should you chow down? Stephanie cautions against waiting too long to eat. She suggests having a meal within 45 minutes of strenuous exercise when your muscles are still sponge-like and need refueling. The best way to refuel is a meal of carbs and protein, ideally in a 3:1 ratio, three servings of carbs to one serving of protein. Research shows the benefits of a 3:1 carb to protein ratio post workout improves recovery (you'll be less sore), increases ability to build muscle, heightens immune function and ability to utilize body fat. Win, win!
Of course, when we say carbs we're not talking deep dish pizza, noodles or toast; we're talking green leafy vegetables, sweet potatoes, broccoli, etc. Too often people looking to get fit by working out are undermining their progress by not eating properly after the workout. Don't let that happen to you!
And remember, you haven't finished training until you've refueled!