Track and field for Masters athletes 9: Sports nutrition, part 1

News Article / February 5, 2021

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This is the ninth in a series of articles covering all aspects of Masters athletes’ training and nutrition for track and field events. In this article, we examine sports nutrition.

By Major Serge Faucher

Thus far in all of my running articles, I solely focused on the training pillar for the development of a competitive Masters athlete. There are two other very important components or pillars needed for success though: proper rest and good nutrition. Without reaching a balance with all three, an athlete cannot perform to his or her top potential. Let us examine the latter in more details.

A solid nutrition plan will help you power through a race, and also help you recover from tough workouts in the weight room. I cannot express how important this is! Like our younger counterparts, Masters athletes have nutritional needs that are normally best addressed by a trained nutritionist. A good nutritionist will look at overall caloric intake to match the expenditure of energy. They should also be thorough, and look at the macronutrients, supplements, and medication use as well.

In this first of a two-part article on nutrition, we will spend some time reviewing standard topics like carbohydrates, proteins and fats, which are all subjects that most of you are quite familiar with already. Moreover, I thought that many athletes could learn a little more on topics such as carbohydrate loading, post-exercise nutrition, and the biological value of proteins. In Part 2, we will take a closer look at subjects that some of you might not be as familiar with such as acidic vs. alkaline foods, and its related Potential Renal Acid Load (PRAL) table among others. Before we begin with the basics, the information contained in this article is based on both my own trial and error over years of training, and currently accepted research on nutrition.

Nutrition basics

For any kind of physical activity, the body requires energy, and this depends on the duration and type of the activity itself. This energy is measured in calories, and is obtained from the body stores or the food we eat. Glycogen, the primary source of fuel used by the muscles, enables you to undertake both aerobic and anaerobic exercise. For those who did not know, a calorie is the amount of heat energy required to raise the temperature of 1 g of water 1°C from 14° to 15°C. If you plan your nutrition, it must provide an energy balance and a nutrient balance. Those nutrients are:

  • Carbohydrates – the primary source of energy;
  • Proteins - essential to growth and repair of muscle and other body tissues;
  • Fats - one source of energy and essential to fat-soluble vitamins;
  • Minerals - inorganic elements critical to the body’s normal functions;
  • Vitamins – they have roles in many chemical processes in the body;
  • Water - essential to normal body function and as a vehicle for carrying other nutrients;
  • Roughage - the fibrous indigestible portion of our diet essential to the health of the digestive system.

Energy requirements

Like fuel for a car, the energy you need has to be blended. Most dietary guidelines will recommend the following blend based on many factors like your body type, metabolism, and type of activity undertaken (power lifter vs. marathoner) for example:

  • 45-65% Carbohydrates;
  • 10-35% Protein;
  • 20-35% Fats.

So what does a 78 kg athlete like me require in terms of carbohydrates, fats and protein intake when training for, let’s say, 45 minutes each day? To obtain an estimate of my daily calorie requirements and the number of carbohydrates, protein and fat, I can use a variety of online calculators or one of the many apps available. Depending on the tool used, numbers may vary. In this case, I would need:

  • Basal metabolic requirement - 2,500 calories;
  • Extra requirements - 500 calories;
  • Total requirements - 3,000 calories;
  • Carbohydrates - 370 grams;
  • Protein - 150 grams;
  • Fats - 85 grams.

That, folks, is a lot of food! Three thousand calories is not easy to reach when you eat a clean diet. Equally difficult is trying to eat 150 grams of protein daily and pay for it. It can get expensive to eat that much protein each and every day! If I decided to switch to poutine, hot dogs, and smother everything in gravy, I would get to 3,000 calories easily, but it would completely defeat the goal of fuelling for performance. Since junk food is not the focus of this article, let us start with some of the basic nutrients to “cleanly” fuel your body. You might be interested in the program / workshop Top Fuel for Top Performance, which is designed and tested specifically for the Canadian Armed Forces. It is an integral part of the Strengthening the Forces Health Promotion initiative to improve the health of military personnel. I took it several years ago, and got good information in how to properly fuel your body.

NOTE – The basal metabolic rate (BMR) is the total number of calories that your body needs to perform basic, life-sustaining functions. These basal functions include circulation, breathing, cell production, nutrient processing, protein synthesis, and ion transport. Depending on what application I use, my BMR varies anywhere from 1,800 to 2,500 calories.

Carbohydrates

There are two types of carbohydrates: complex (starchy) carbohydrates and simple sugars. The complex carbohydrates are the ones that have all the vitamins and minerals in them as well as some protein. Simple sugars are found in food like muesli bars, cereals, soft drinks, juice, jam, and honey. Carbohydrates are the most important macronutrient to consume when it comes to achieving optimal athletic performance, and serve as the primary fuel source for our bodies during physical activity. When we eat carbohydrates such as rice and potatoes, our body breaks them down into even smaller molecules known as glucose. Glucose is then stored in our liver and muscles for later use. The stored form of glucose is known as glycogen, which we’ve discussed at length in previous articles. One thing I was not aware of is that the body's glycogen capacity is limited to about 350 grams. Once this maximum has been reached, any excess glucose is quickly converted into fat.

When we don’t have adequate amounts of glycogen to use during activity, our body then starts to break down protein and fat, which is not advisable if you want to maintain your muscle mass; any loss of muscle matters because it lessens strength and mobility. Protein is the absolute worst source of energy! The amino chains need to literally break for the body to use it as an energy source. Also note that not all carbs are created equal. Fruit, legumes, and starchy vegetables are all excellent forms of carbohydrate; not so much for white bread, crackers, and white pasta!

With this said, please don’t waste too much time trying to calculate your grams of carbohydrate perfectly. Nutrition does not have to be that precise in order for you to achieve your goals. If you calculated 400 g of daily carbohydrate intake for yourself, falling between 380-420 g will be close enough without jeopardizing your goals. If you would still like to count calories, popular smartphone apps like My Fitness Pal and Carb Manager track diet and exercise quite efficiently. The apps use game-design elements and game principles to motivate users. To track nutrients, you can either scan the barcodes of various food items or manually find them in the app's large pre-existing database.

Good sources of carbohydrates include whole wheat pasta, whole wheat bread, quinoa, brown rice, beans, whole oats, or 100% whole grain cereal. Fruits such as fresh or frozen are also a good source. I’m not a fan of canned fruit, even when canned in their own juice, but they may bail you out in a pinch. Milk products are also categorized as carbohydrates. Stick with organic when available. Lastly, vegetables also contain a small amount of carbohydrates.

Fruits and vegetables 

They supply nearly all the essential nutrients to your body, and assist in satisfying your requirements for water. Most experts will recommend four servings of vegetables and three servings of fruit daily. For many of us, it’s quite difficult to reach those seven total servings each day as it requires planning to make it work. As part of this planning, I normally prepare eight salads loaded with raw veggies (for my wife and me) every Sunday evening. This will cover most of the week’s lunches. The way I manage to get close to this recommended number of seven servings is by introducing berries in my morning shake, eating an apple and a banana midmorning and sometime mid-afternoon, have a salad with raw veggies as mentioned before, and throw in some additional cooked veggies with my meals at lunch and dinner. Not always easy to eat properly but you have to make it a habit! 

Carbohydrate loading 

Wikipedia describes carb loading as a strategy used by endurance athletes, such as marathoners and triathletes, to maximize the storage of glycogen (or energy) in the muscles and liver. Foods with low glycemic indices are generally preferred for carbo-loading due to their minimal effect on serum glucose levels. As you may already know, many endurance athletes have large pasta dinners the night before an event. Since muscles also use amino acids extensively when functioning within aerobic limits, meals should also include adequate protein. 

Be aware that large portions before a race can decrease race-day performance if the digestive system has not had the time to process the food regimen. While carb loading is not something I’ve had to do as a sprinter since my events are of such short duration, you may have to do this if you’re a distance athlete. It’s also important to replace the depleted glycogen stores soon after exercising or competing, which leads us to post-workout nutrition. 

Post-workout nutrition

What athletes do immediately after a competition determines how quickly their bodies rebuild muscle and replenish nutrients. Post-workout nutrition has three specific purposes:

  • replenish energy stores (glycogen);
  • repair any damage caused by the workout;
  • increase muscle size (hypertrophy), which, in turn, helps maintain endurance and speed on the track or while practising your chosen sport.

When talking about post-workout nutrition, there is something called “the window of opportunity”. It opens immediately after a workout, and starts to close quickly. It is most important to get post-workout nutrition within 2 hours afterwards, and preferably sooner. Although the timing does not need to be exact, many experts recommend eating your post-workout meal within 30-45 minutes. In fact, it’s believed that the delay of carb consumption by as little as two hours after a workout may lead to as much as 50% lower rate of glycogen synthesis. Furthermore, consuming a proper ratio of carbs and protein after exercise is essential. Studies have shown that ingesting 20-40 grams of protein seems to maximize the body’s ability to recover after exercise. Try consuming the two in a ratio of 4:1 (carbs to protein). For example, 25 grams of protein and 100 grams of carbs. Finally, replenishing lost water and electrolytes can complete the picture and help you maximize the benefits of your workout.

Proteins

Being blessed with a fast metabolism, I never count calories, but I normally monitor how much protein I ingest each day. Personally, I favour a lower carbohydrate diet, with an emphasis on good quality protein intake because I’m a sprinter, but it’s certainly not the case for all athletes. If I were a long-distance runner, my carbohydrate ratio would certainly be higher. On a typical day when training seriously, I try to eat one gram of protein per pound of body weight. Since I have an ectomorph body type, this ensures that I stay in an anabolic state and promote muscle hypertrophy. I achieved this by ingesting one to three protein shakes throughout the day in addition to my regular meals.

Here’s an example of an average day for me during racing season: I’ll normally start the day with lemon juice in lukewarm water. Twenty minutes later, I’ll follow this with a shake that contains 30 g of whey protein powder. I’ll throw in a few blackberries and ground flax seeds, all mixed in water. This gets me going for about two hours until I eat a small container of mixed walnuts and almonds. Before my mid-morning workout, I’ll have an apple. Immediately following this workout, I will have a banana and chase it down with another shake; whey in water only this time. That gets me going until lunch, where I usually have lean meat, a small serving of carbohydrates, and a salad made of baby spinach and raw veggies. I’ll consume another shake in water midafternoon. Supper is similar to lunch.

The Charles Poliquin approach

Since I start the day with a protein shake and eat assorted nuts around 8:30 every morning, I thought I’d take a moment to talk about one of the best-known strength coaches Canada has ever had: the late Charles Poliquin. The Charles Poliquin diet is based on whole foods and supplements such as vitamin D, zinc, fish oil, magnesium, and BCAAs, which we will discuss in a future article on supplements. Charles preferred a low-carb, high fat, and high protein diet, believing that fat is a better and more stable source of fuel for the body than carbohydrates. He is famous for his “meat and nuts” breakfast if you’ve ever heard of it. This approach reduces one’s appetite, increases focus, improves mood, and accelerates fat loss. Aside from providing steady energy, and just plain feeling better, the meat and nuts breakfast has a profound effect on reducing appetite for the rest of the day.

NOTE - I suggest engaging a qualified sports nutritionist to help you choose how and when to use fat-based or carb-based nutrition as energy sources as you will get different benefits (and different consequences) from each.

So, upon waking, your blood sugar levels are very steady from a night of fasting. The protein and fat from meat and nuts, with the absence of carbs, will result in a very slow and controlled rise in blood sugar levels. This means that the body has no need to pump loads of insulin into your bloodstream to keep them from going dangerously high. Controlling your insulin production is important because if you don’t, it may lead to increased fat storage. The challenge is to learn how to spike insulin to optimally recover from workouts and grow, while also blunting it to stay lean. This is where a good nutritionist who works with athletes can help. While on the subject of protein intake, you might find the following interesting since not all protein sources are created equally, and this will segue to the biological value of foods!

Biological value

When doing research about training, healthy nutrition and more, there's a good chance you've run across your fair share of references to proteins. For those of you who did a little more digging into the subject, there's a possibility that you've heard some talk about this little thing called the biological value (BV) of food. The BV is a scale of measurement used to determine what percentage of a given nutrient source is utilized by the body. The scale is most frequently applied to protein sources. High biological value proteins are provided by animal sources of protein, such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, cheese and yogurt. Low biological value proteins are found in plants, legumes, grains, nuts, seeds and vegetables. Eggs are the protein source with the highest biological value, and our body is able to use up to 94% of the amino acids contained in them, which makes them, in my opinion, one of the primary food for athletes. The following shows the BV for common protein sources.

FOOD

PROTEIN RATING

Eggs (whole)

100

Eggs (whites)

88

Chicken / Turkey

79

Fish

70

Lean Beef

69

Cow's Milk

60

Unpolished Rice

59

Brown Rice

57

White Rice

56

Peanuts

55

Peas

55

Whole Wheat

49

Soy beans

47

Whole-grain Wheat

44

Corn

36

Dry Beans

34

White Potato

34


So why should you care about BV? If you eat a lot of food that has a low BV, then the full potential of proteins will not be fulfilled. Omnivorous diets that contain foods derived from animals and plants provide adequate amounts of protein. However, subgroups of the population who avoid all foods of animal origin may have difficulties in meeting their protein requirements. Vegetarian and vegan diets in particular, may lack the main sources of high BV proteins. People following these diets may have difficulty meeting their protein requirements, especially to support extra needs such as athletes. Therefore, in their case, the combination of proteins from different vegetable sources and a balanced food choice are very important to ensure that required levels of essential amino acids are attained. A person can use, for example, brown rice or supplement with BCAAs to make up for the missing essential amino acids in a plant-based diet.

In order to be able to maintain proper growth and repair of body tissues, two or three servings of animal protein foods or four servings of mixed vegetable-protein sources, such as whole-grain cereals, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, can easily provide the needed protein.

Pay attention to the food labels as you rarely eat straight protein where they may come packaged with saturated fat. Top Fuel for Top Performance briefers will teach you how to read them. If you eat meat, opt for the leanest cuts and steer clear of processed meat products. If you like dairy products, skim or low-fat versions are healthier choices. Beans, soy, nuts, and whole grains offer protein without much saturated fat and with plenty of dietary fiber and micronutrients.

Fat

Dietary fats come from both animal and plant-based foods. Fat supplies calories, helps you absorb certain vitamins, and provides essential nutrients that your body needs to function. In general, there’s disagreement regarding what constitutes a “good” fat and how much of it we should eat in relation to the other nutrients. Healthy fats can help you get leaner by improving metabolism, balancing hormones, and eliminating constant cravings. This can also lead to greater gains in strength, better reproductive health, and reduced risk of depression, cancer, and stronger bones as posited by Charles Poliquin.

The nature of the fat depends on the type of fatty acids that make up the triglycerides. All fats contain both saturated and unsaturated fatty acids, but are usually described as saturated or unsaturated according to the proportion of fatty acids present. Saturated fats are generally solid at room temperature and tend to be animal fats. Unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature and are usually vegetable fats. They come in two forms: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Of note, the two major classes of polyunsaturated fats are Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. Both are essential as your body cannot make them, and are found mostly in nuts, seeds, fish, algae, leafy greens and krill.

Here’s a list of some of the fats I regularly include in my diet:

  • saturated - eggs, cheese, cream, yogurt, meat and butter;
  • monounsaturated - avocados, olives, olive oil and almonds;
  • polyunsaturated - salmon, walnuts, chia seeds and flax seeds, for example.

Another form of fat that we all hear about is called trans fats. They are artificial fats that are sometimes added to food. They are generally not recognized as safe and they should no longer be added to food, although they are found in fast food, pastries, cakes, chocolate, hydrogenated oils, and deep-fried food. Just stay away from those as much as possible.

Conclusion to Part I

In this first of a two-part article on nutrition, we covered some of the basics that you need to know and pay close attention to. Healthy eating is not only doable, it is, in my opinion, vital for all athletes, and especially older ones like myself. Let me reiterate some of the good reasons to eat healthy whether you're trying to lose weight or not: reduce your risk of chronic disease, fuel your performance, improve your skin and bone health, and maintain a good energy level throughout the day.

By now it should be clear to you that proper nutrition has benefits that far exceed weight goals. But the truth is that even the fittest Masters athletes don't have perfect diets. We all have the same struggles with cravings, and are bombarded with a barrage of misinformation about this or that magical formula from sports nutrition manufacturers. It's probably the main reason why sports nutritionists still have a job! We will continue to explore other nutrition topics in Part II which should help you lead a healthier life and be at your best to perform when it really counts.


 

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