Nutrition Framework for Performance

By Katie Rhodes | June 06, 2016, 1:14 p.m. (ET)

ApplesLet’s get right to it. Nutrition and fueling for races has undoubtedly become overcomplicated to the point where most athletes narrow their focus on training as the standard for how they will feel and perform. Why? Well, because it is more easily measured and tangible. There you are, in the mirror, where you see and touch your muscle tone. Looking good! There is your performance time and heart rate on your trusty wristband. Killing it! Heck, head down to your gym and your scale will estimate your body fat versus lean muscle mass. Nutrition, on the other hand, is a little more complicated. Yes, you can see the food going in your body, but what is actually happening. Getting back to the basics of food and tweaking to find what works for you produces results. Nutrition and fueling doesn’t have to be overwhelming or complicated, but it does take preparation and patience. As a client of mine put it after cleaning up her nutrition, “You can’t out-train a poor diet.”

Fueling During Exercise

Fueling during exercise and for race day is dependent on individual and situational variables such as gastrointestinal tolerance, metabolic efficiency, lean body mass, duration and intensity. There are different trends of fueling, but the tried and true practice is consuming within 45 and 60 grams of carbohydrate after the first one to one and a half hours of activity. Your body is an amazing machine that is efficient at storing energy in the form of glycogen until consuming carbohydrates for energy is needed. Notice I said carbohydrates, not calories. Using calories as a measurement tool for fueling is not wrong; it just isn’t as efficient when understanding your fueling. Carbohydrate is the macronutrient utilized as the main energy source during exercise. Protein is an inefficient energy source and there is enough fat available when it is better utilized as an energy source (at lower intensities). Fat, protein and fiber slow down the absorption of carbohydrates, therefor keep those three elements at a minimum during activity. What forms of carbohydrate fuel works for you? Trial various sources (solid, liquid or a combination of both) to find what you tolerate and allows you to feel your best during activity. Journal what you consume, the amount and describe how you felt to be able to see trends and note what works for you.

Base Nutrition

Focusing on fueling only around race day or during training sessions will not produce optimal results. Your base nutrition, or your everyday nutrition before fueling and recovery nutrition, is what brings out an athlete’s potential. Your body wants to work like clockwork. That is why you see improvement in gastrointestinal issues, energy, sleep patterns, satiety and performance when you fuel appropriately. Most athletes are lacking adequate micronutrients in their diet and diet consistency.

Let’s look at the importance of micronutrients. Micronutrients allow the mitochondria within cells to work more efficiently. Mitochondria are the energy factories within your cells that produce ATP, the source of energy for body processes affecting functions such as, cognitive ability, metabolism and muscle function. That is pretty important, wouldn’t you say? Fruits and non-starchy vegetables are micronutrient dense. Consuming your micronutrients through whole foods is utilized by the body much more efficiently and in levels appropriate for optimal function compared to supplement consumption. Micronutrients are packed with essential vitamins and minerals, including antioxidants; essential meaning your body relies on you to consume them. Other than energy production, these vitamins and minerals do wonders like reduce cramping and inflammation and improve immune function, muscle function and circulation. Micronutrients contain exogenous antioxidants your body needs to combat free radicals that cause oxidative stress within your cells resulting in skeletal muscle damage, among other negative results. This is why I recommend my clients to consume as many non-starchy vegetables as they want, whenever they want. The benefits far outweigh the unlikely risk of overconsumption.

Nutrition consistency in regards to calories, macronutrients and how often you eat is key for optimal body function and performance. When working with athletes, my first goal is to discover the calories and macronutrient percentage breakdown that makes them “tick” within a meal plan that also ensures steady energy throughout the day. Diet manipulation to get to this point requires patience since every person, athlete or not, is very different and ideally involves the direction of a registered dietitian. Find what works and stay consistent. Avoid skipping meals and consume a balance of lean proteins, starchy and non-starchy vegetables, fruit, legumes, whole grains and healthy fats (avocados, nuts, nut butters, olives, fish, etc.). And stay hydrated. If you consume a balance of whole foods you will consume a lot of dietary fiber, which requires adequate water for optimal digestive function.

Katie Rhodes, owner of OWN-Nutrition, is a registered and licensed dietitian in Little Rock, Arkansas, with a Master of Science in clinical nutrition. Through her experiences training elite athletes and working in the clinical setting at Arkansas Children's Hospital and the Central Arkansas Veterans Association, Rhodes understands that what we are putting in our bodies directly affects our performance, quality of life and longevity. She's worked with triathletes for six years on their nutrition year round as well as focusing on race day nutrition. Rhodes primarily works with clients remotely, through phone calls and Skype for communication, to supplement unique, personalized nutrition plans.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.