Sports Nutrition- Are you adequately fueling your activity?

Guest post written by Megan Medrano, RDN

Is anyone else here ready to change the conversation around what sports nutrition is and isn’t? Or just simply confused on what it is and isn’t?

If you do any type of quick search of the term “sports nutrition”, you’ll probably find:

1) Someone talking about cutting macros.

2) Protein powder.

3) Gym selfies with said protein powder in hand while talking about cutting macros.

When I think of sports nutrition, I think of something totally different… I think of rejuvenation. I think of recovery. I think of building the body back up after it so graciously did some productive work for you. Before we dive in further, let’s reflect on what sports nutrition actually is.

First, let’s talk about the Stress Adaptation Cycle. Essentially what happens is that when you stress your body (aka a workout, game, race, lift, etc), it is stressed. Your muscles suffer micro-tears, your stress hormones rise, inflammation increases, and your body is just overall in a state of fatigue. Unlike other stressors, stress from movement is what we call a productive stress – meaning that when you build the body back up, it actually gets stronger and more capable.

After exercising, your body is in a bit of a hole. This isn’t a “bad” hole per se, but still a hole. In order to get stronger/faster/more capable, you HAVE to build it back up. The stress you just subjected your body to wasn’t worth much if you don’t build it back up. Building it back up is what we call recovery. Recovery includes getting adequate sleep, resting your sore muscles, hydration, managing mental and emotional stress, physical therapy if needed, hydrotherapy…and FOOD!

This is where “sports nutrition” comes in. Good sports nutrition is all about respecting your body enough that you thank it for the work it just did by feeding it adequately. Like we said earlier, after working out, your body is in a hole. It cannot be built back up without sufficient nutrients to rebuild.

The nitty gritty of sports nutrition comes when we look at optimal fueling strategies to get the body to recover faster, so that you can go back to work/exercise faster, and thus improve performance gradually over time. Think about how long it would take you to run a mile if you could only run 0.01 extra miles per day. Forever. Whereas with good sports nutrition (discussed in a second), your body can recover faster (like now being able to run an extra .3 per day), and thus you can reach your goals more quickly.

When we think about sports nutrition though, diet culture likes to go STRAIGHT to the nutty gritty before laying a foundation. When I work with clients, I use some type of hierarchy to discuss sports nutrition nutrient needs:

1. Energy

The very first foundational piece of sports nutrition is simply consuming enough energy. It’s difficult for most athletes to accomplish this step for multiple reasons, but the biggest being diet culture, pressures to lose fat mass, and lack of hunger cues from extensive exercise. Most athletes would benefit from working with a sports dietitian purely for this step. If you skip steps without accomplishing this first one, you’re not going to see the true benefits of good sports nutrition practices. This is the foundation.

2. Macronutrients

After you have enough energy… THEN and only then can we talk about macronutrient timing and recommendations. The reason this must come second is that if you don’t have enough energy, your body will just take what you give it and covert it to what you need. Take protein and energy for example: If you consume adequate protein but not enough energy, your body will just take the protein you’re consuming + what is stored in the muscles and break it down for energy. Now not only does the protein you consumed not get to do its intended function (build muscle), but you also further compromised recovery. Specific macronutrient requirements should always be discussed with a qualified sports dietitian, not your random weight lifting coach at the gym. Counting macros is a diet for exercisers. Being mindful of macronutrient content for performance gain is for athletes.

3. Micronutrients

Finally we’re onto the last gentle sports nutrition principles. Personalized conversations about individual nutrients should also always happen with a sports dietitian! Most of us can acknowledge that there are some foods that have more physical health-promoting actions than others – but only when done in the context of having a healthy relationship with food and body. Working with a qualified sports RD can help you learn how to integrate specific foods that might speed recovery, of course when done with enough energy.

There are some signs that point to inadequate fueling that you may have experienced. (This is not an exhaustive list.)

Signs you’re not fueling enough:

  • Your performance declines or remains stagnant, despite dedicated training

    • Poor training response is often a side effect of poor recovery and not fueling adequately. You may be doing a great job at breaking your body down (i.e. your workouts), but if you don’t build your body back up even better than you broke it down, performance won’t improve. A big reason why athletes stay stagnant is because they aren't recovering/fueling enough!

  • You require more/longer recovery time than others

    • If you notice your teammates can recover more quickly after hard workouts than you can, it might be because you are underfueling. Food is required for recovery. Pursuing intentional weight loss WILL directly inhibit your recovery time because your body doesn’t have enough nutrition to repair how it naturally wants to.

  • Small injuries continuously pop up

    • You may be the queen/king of rehab, but if you can’t stop the continuous stream of small injuries, aches, and pains, it might be because your muscles and bones don’t have enough nutrition to heal!

  • Frequently sick

    • As an athlete, you’re beating your body down every day. It’s common for athletes to have weaker immune systems, especially when there is not enough nutrition to allow everything to heal after exercise.

As you can see, this is starkly different from diet culture’s assertion that sports nutrition is all about cutting calories, macros, and body fat. On the contrary, sports nutrition is all about supporting your body & working in relationship with it to allow you to do the things you’re asking it to do. You owe it to your body to treat it with kindness after all it does back for you.

For more about sports nutrition and eating disorders, you can follow Megan here.