The major challenge for most athletes is to remain injury free in the lead up to an event. We know that our success lies in the ability to train day in and day out, to get to the start line in as good a shape as possible. The problem though, is that many of us have dialed in on the training side of things and we don’t think as much about the recovery side of things.
The magic happens in the recovery from training. During our training sessions we break down our tissues and cause microtears, we ramp up our stress hormones and we use fatty acids and glucose as a fuel source in addition to dehydrate ourselves in an effort to regulate our body temperature. In the recovery period our body responds by healing, dampening down our stress response and becoming more resilient – if we have the nutrients on board to support that. If we don’t, then we leave ourselves exposed to potential injury risk which will prevent us from getting to that start line.
The following describes two considerations for athletes to help them manage their day to day injury risk and get the most out of their training.
The first is to eat early to support training. As athletes we have a high metabolic output, and we need additional fuel to support the activity we do. We can run the risk of having low energy availability due to the timing of our training and the ability to take on board the calories we need. This is known as relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S) and is a potential issue for both men and women. If you train early in the morning, for example, with no opportunity to consume anything beforehand, then rush to shower, change, and go to work, it can (for some people) be several hours before they eat breakfast – this isn’t always intentional! This low energy availability in the morning can disrupt hormones, bone, and metabolic health, even if calories are made up for by the end of the day, particularly if you are on the leaner side. Hunger can also be ramped up, and you may find yourself grazing even if you have had full meals. While our bones are in a constant state of turnover (building up and breaking down), studies have shown that a low-calorie intake around training, and going too long without food post training increases bone breakdown, which may have implications for long term bone health.
Post exercise we want to focus on protein and carbohydrate that is quick to digest, and this is especially important if training again within a short time frame. If coming in and consuming a meal within 45 minutes, then you might be fine just headed into that meal without additional fuel. However, if you have more than an hour, a serve of whey protein (that contains a high amount of quick-digesting amino acids to aid recovery) along with a piece of fruit can kickstart that recovery process.
The second tip is to ensure adequate protein across the day. Some athletes focus solely on increasing their carbohydrate load without considering protein in their daily diet. Protein is the nutrient that helps repair and recovery of tissue, but it does so much more than that. It helps with hormone production, provides amino acids that form the backbone of enzymes responsible for reducing inflammation, and can regulate appetite and hunger.
Endurance athletes need at least 1.6g protein per kilogram of body weight, and ideally this is spread across the day to help maximise the potential of repairing lean tissue. Those that participate in heavy training loads (over 8 hours per week) or have multiple sessions per day need to really dial this in to support recovery. Research suggests a minimum of 25g of protein at each meal, and particularly the morning and the evening time may be even more important to hit this load. It might not seem like a lot, but people confuse ‘protein’ the nutrient with ‘protein’ based food – for example, to get 25g of protein you need to consume 110g of steak or chicken, four medium eggs, 180g tofu, or just over a serve of protein powder.
The amino acids from animal-based foods is more easily accessible to the body compared to plant-based sources (unless we are talking about amino acids from a plant-based protein powder which has been isolated from the original source). This means that those who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet will need to increase their protein load by approximately 30% to get the same benefits of animal-based sources. Protein isn’t as readily convenient as carbohydrate, so spending time prepping your food options can alleviate a lot of additional time you would otherwise spend in the kitchen during the week.
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