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Top 3 Things to Change Now to Improve Athletic Performance

By Katie Rhodes | July 25, 2017, 2:13 p.m. (ET)

avocado and nuts 

Have you ever wanted a cheat sheet from a registered dietitian? You are about to get one. Although I customize my performance and weight loss meal plans for each client, I have narrowed down a few themes that have proven to be consistently effective. Why are they effective? Because these strategies have not only been researched thoroughly, they have been proven to be successful time and time again with my multisport athletes. As confirmation, I polled my past and current clients on the top dietary changes that have impacted their health and performance the most. Their answers matched mine and have further encouraged me on the impact of simplified nutrition producing solid results.

1. Eliminating Zero-Calorie Sugar Replacements and Artificial Sweeteners

This can be a confusing topic due to the array of sugar replacements and artificial sweeteners out there. I will stick to the most consistent research topics in addition to what I have experienced to urge you to think twice before grabbing for that diet soda or zero-calorie powder packet for your water. A few main takeaways:

Sweeteners can cause you to crave more calorie-dense foods. When a new client comes to me and says they have, for example, a strong chocolate craving daily, the first thing I ask them is if they consume sweeteners. Because sweeteners are sweeter than natural sugar, consumption can lead to craving calorie-dense foods in a biological attempt to meet the caloric threshold your body has become accustomed to consuming with these sweeteners. When I have worked with my clients on first reducing and ultimately eliminating sweeteners from their diet, they verbalize their “sugar cravings” have been reduced and they don’t feel controlled by them like the had been.

• Sweetener consumption may lead to insulin resistance for a few reasons. First, consistent, long-term consumption of low-dose sweeteners have been linked to the disruption of the gut microbiotia. Why is this important? There has been a lot of research conducted as of recent years on gut integrity and its affect on body weight control, specifically being an active contributor toward the development of obesity and insulin resistance. Second reason, digestion starts in the mouth causing digestive-related sensory mechanisms to signal a specific amount of insulin to be released from your pancreas for digestion based on how much glucose is being ingested and delivered to the gut. If your sensory mechanisms signal you are getting more glucose than you actually are consuming, then it’s kind of like “crying wolf” to your pancreas overtime and your insulin response is weakened. How can a weakened insulin response affect performance? Because you rely on carbohydrates during an intense workout or race, you want your insulin response to be keen to absorb the ingested carbohydrate and convert it to glucose for the instant energy your body is demanding.

2. Increasing Consumption of Healthy Fats

Your body wants to burn fat as the primary energy source at lower heart rates, which is where we spend the majority of our time in each day. Increasing fat consumption allows your body to metabolically rely on fat as an energy source, decreasing body fat mass and your dependency on carbohydrates. Exercising this metabolic system by eating a consistent amount of fats throughout the day (making up roughly 40-50 percent of your daily caloric intake) is essential for a happy metabolism. All fats are not created equal. Stick to mono- and poly-unsaturated fat, or plant based fats, as the primary source to achieve this goal.

Consistent fat consumption can do more than just help with efficient fat utilization as an energy source contributing to weight and overall body fat control. As mentioned in my article “Fat Intake Importance for Endurance Athletes”: If your body is comfortable using fat as a fuel source, it will burn it more efficiently at higher exercise intensities before your body switches to carbohydrates as an energy source. Why is this important? First, your brain and your muscles are competing for carbohydrate during endurance activity. When you are able to utilize fat as an energy source more efficiently, you gain a mental edge. Secondly, the adaptations your body makes by consuming more fat create a glycogen sparing effect during exercise by decreasing carbohydrate dependency. And finally, the more trained you are in endurance activity, the better you are at oxygen consumption (evident through VO2 max testing), which is a key component in fat oxidation. If fat is in abundance, the increased oxygen in your bloodstream will be readily available to break fat down for energy. The increased capacity to oxidize fat is related to increased exercise capacity and improved performance.

3. Timing Meals and Snacks to Regulate Blood Sugar and Satiety

Weight control and energy sustainability resulting from consumption of small and frequent carbohydrate controlled meals is not a new concept, but it is admittedly hard for individuals to maintain overtime. Why is it important? First, this practice keeps your tummy satiated enough throughout the day to prevent overeating at meals. Second, by following this consistent carbohydrate regimen our blood sugar remains level, not too high (as a result of overeating or binging at meals) and not too low (as a result of skipping meals and snacks). Since your brain relies on carbohydrates to function optimally, consuming regular meals and snacks leads to a clearer thought process throughout the day causing you to be more effective at work and home and have sustained energy for optimal results from workouts. You may not always feel hungry to cause you to remember to consume a meal or snack, so set an alarm on your phone or watch if you have to. It happens all the time: I hear from my clients when we get started together, “I haven’t been eating my snacks because I am just not hungry.” And that, my friend, is probably causing your weight loss delay and low energy levels. Eat regular meals and snacks in between meals that contain about 30 percent calories from carbohydrate to achieve this goal. 

Katie Rhodes, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, 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 eight 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 recommended for athletes who are familiar with metabolic efficiency principles. As always, only introduce new fueling strategies in training and adopt only what works for you. The views 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.