The importance of Nutrition for Health and Performance

Food is fuel – in other words, what you put in is what you will get out.  If you eat a poor-quality diet, you cannot expect optimum health or performance because food is more than just calories; it is ‘information’ that regulates almost every function of our body.  From our gut flora to our muscle mass, from our immune system to our brain chemistry, these are just some of the functions that are controlled by every single bite of food we consume. Hence “a calorie is not just a calorie”. This may be the case in a lab when food undergoes a burn test to assess energy value, but it is so much more once you ingest it. It is a form of biological coding. Let that sink in for a minute before reading on.

The Demands of Training

We are designed to move. Frequent movement is not just a weight issue, it is a health issue. Beyond non-exercise activity, there are of course all the additional health benefits to be gained from more structured physical activity, whether that be cardiovascular workouts, resistance training, or ideally a combination of both.  However, training is by its very nature catabolic meaning that the body can break down its own muscle, either for the process of growth and development (a desired effect) or for fuel perhaps because of an insufficient diet (not a desired effect as keeping and developing your muscle mass is an important element of training).

Optimum fuelling is therefore something that we should aim for to ensure that the body has what it needs, both in terms of the macro nutrient intake but also the micro-nutrients that play an important role in our metabolism. Deficiency in these nutrients can interfere with the normal functioning of our bodies and these can lead to issues of repair and recovery which will in turn affect performance. The toll that training (and racing) takes is notable and will use vital nutrients in the process leaving you open to the familiar illness/injury that can stop you from training and therefore impair your performance and ruin your preparation for a potential race/event goal.  Very often nutrition and recovery are an after-thought to the actual training however it is important to see them as an integral aspect of any training regime.

So, ensuring that your diet is optimum is crucial, but what is optimum?

Our diet is made up of macro and micronutrients. Proper nutrition is key for good training sessions and it is important to have a good balance of the macronutrients (carbohydrate, protein & fats) through the day, with the balance changing slightly according to the requirements of the training day.  Let us consider the composition of our diet in terms of the macronutrients. So long as we are not on a calorie restrictive diet in terms of our basal metabolic rate (BMR) - not conducive to training or health - we should find it fairly easy to achieve an adequate macro nutrient intake.

Macronutrients

Protein: the intake of protein in our diets is an essential element that needs to be right and needs to be of primary consideration if we want to feel strong, healthy, and energised. The amino acids that make up protein provide us with the building blocks of life – helping us make muscle, connective tissue, hair, blood, enzymes, neurotransmitters and more. As mentioned previously, we are using these daily both during our training and to run our daily metabolism and replenishing these is essential.  As we age, this becomes even more critical with health and longevity being directly related to muscle mass and strength.

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The Recommended Daily Intake for protein is 0.8g/kg bodyweight however this is the level to avoid deficiency and getting sick, not the amount needed for optimal health and so at the very least, it would be important that the source is 100% best quality. To ensure that we avoid any risk of under-supplying the essential amino acids, this level would need to be increased sufficiently and to optimise muscle mass, a figure in the range of 1.6-2.2g quality protein per kg/lean body mass (preferred calculation) is much more optimal. Further dividing this over the course of main meals will also maximise the muscle protein stimulus response.

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Carbohydrates: it is a good idea to focus on eating carbohydrates, especially starchy carbohydrates such as oats, potatoes, rice, quinoa, butternut squash, ripe bananas, around training sessions. These rich sources of dietary glucose will effectively fuel training and aid recovery. Although it is important to include fruits and vegetables in our diet for the micronutrients that they provide, these forms of carbohydrate should not be a primary source of fuelling as they are generally not dense enough and so are not the most efficient way to fuel your body for training sessions.

Depending on the length and intensity of the session, an ideal pre-run snack or meal consists of 15-30grams of carbohydrates, but you need to experiment to find what foods specifically work best for you. Remember that everyone is different but typically, high fibre, rich, very fatty fried foods are not easily digested and may cause GI issues when running so are best avoided.  Within 30mins of finishing your run, it is important to restore what you have expended, and studies show that this is the time when muscles are most receptive to rebuilding glycogen (stored glucose) stores and this will also help reduce muscle soreness.   An intake of a good balance of the macro nutrients is important and a good guide for post-run food is a 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein to restore energy and rebuild muscles.  As an alternative to foods, a recovery drink will also meet this requirement. Whole natural foods should comprise the foundation of nutrition but supplements in the form of energy drinks and gels etc are available and can have their place too in longer training sessions and events.

Fats: Certain fats are essential to our diet and play a key role in health and wellbeing including serving as an excellent source of energy, regulating hormones, maintaining brain function and absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. If you meet your protein requirements and carbohydrates around training, you can pretty much trust that your fat intake will be accounted for however it is not recommended to have less than approximately 50g per day. Be particularly mindful to include the essential fats in your diet from oily fish and seeds, for example.

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Micronutrients

Although getting all our nutrients from the food we eat is the preferred, it is very difficult to achieve nowadays and most people following a western diet are deficient is some vital micronutrients. Even with a good whole food diet, modern day food production makes it more difficult to achieve an optimal intake of micronutrients from food alone. You would only have to use a food tracking app for a week (or better still, complete a food diary to be professionally assessed by a nutritionist working with you as an individual) to see that this is the case. Dietary Analysis is a service that we offer at Higher Health.

Achieving at least the level of the Reference Nutrient Intake (RNIs) of the vital minerals and vitamins that we need on a daily basis is a start and should be an important focus for any individual (whether active or not). These are based on age, sex and weight and tend to be based upon a sedentary individual so if you are moderately active at the very least, a higher level may be necessary.

As training will further deplete our micronutrients, supplementation can certainly play an important role – it is about giving your body a bit of a helping hand. Supplementation can help you to achieve this greater level of intake however this does not replace good food choices and should be an additional tool, not a replacement for poor diet.  A food analysis will highlight deficiencies for the individual so for the purpose of this blog, we will not highlight all the micronutrients that could be supplemented.

This is very individual and as the vitamins and minerals work in conjunction with each other, it really is not simply a case of buying a supplement off the shelf because you think it is what you need. You also need to be certain that you are buying the most bio-available forms. In this regard we would always recommend that you enlist the skill and knowledge of a nutritionist to guide this - please feel free to contact our Nutritional Therapist at Higher Health for guidance at www.higherhealthandwellness.co.uk

Although not exclusive, there are a few supplements that we will include here that most people would benefit from taking from a health and performance perspective:

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  • Multi-formula: a quality multi vitamin and mineral supplement to address deficiencies and optimise health.
  • Magnesium: also known as the ‘relaxation’ mineral, it is an essential mineral on too many levels to list here (it is involved in over 300 enzyme reactions!) but these include aiding physical performance and recovery.
  • Probiotic: A daily dose of good bacteria to help digestion and improve the healthy bacteria in your gut which reduces inflammation and supports your immune system.
  • EFAs: amongst other things, these play a key role in hormone regulation, brain function, inflammation, and organ health.

Hopefully, you can see that nutrition can therefore play a vital role within each stage of your training and so monitoring and addressing any shortfall can be crucial to health and performance.  The question now: does all the above also apply to our 4-legged friends? I’ll leave that to a canine nutrition expert to share in another blog 😊

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