Track and field for Masters Athletes 10: Sports nutrition, part 2

News Article / March 25, 2021

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

By Major Serge Faucher

In the previous article on nutrition, we only covered the basics such as carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. I tried to keep it short as most CAF members are relatively well educated on those subjects. The second half of this topic will focus on somewhat less well-known aspects of nutrition; namely the different types of fibre that we consume, the pH of foods and its effect on human health and performance, and vitamins and minerals.

Fibre

Most of us Masters athletes know that we need plenty of protein, vitamins and minerals in our diets to stay in peak condition. While fibre is a dietary component that tends to receive less attention than those mentioned in my last article, it is extremely important for good health, as well. Without sufficient fibre, we may become susceptible to intestinal disorders like diverticulitis or constipation. Dietary fibre is found mainly in fruit, vegetables, whole grain, and legumes. It includes the parts of a plant foods that your body can’t digest, and is made of carbohydrates that the body can’t absorb. They can be put in three categories:

  • Soluble;
  • Insoluble; and
  • Resistant starch.

Soluble fibre

Soluble fibre is the kind that dissolves in water and thickens up to become viscous and gel-like to act like a trap in collecting certain waste material. This effect is considered to be important in producing many of the physiological benefits of fibre including minimizing blood sugar spikes, cleaning the arteries, and lowering cholesterol for a healthy heart. Soluble fibre includes pectin, β-glucan, psyllium and gums, and can be found in foods such as:

  • Cereal grains like barley;
  • Oats;
  • Lentils;
  • Seeds and nuts;
  • Other fruits and vegetables such as apples, pears, and carrots.

Soluble fibre can heavily shape our gut microbiota profile (the trillions of bacteria in your digestive tract that help you break down food), which may in turn play a key role in controlling stress responses resulting from intense exercise. It is estimated that we (Masters athletes) need about the same daily fibre intake as any other healthy person. The daily recommended amount for the average person is set at 38 grams for men and 25 for women. In short, we’re supposed to eat 14 grams per 1,000 calories. Strive to get your fibre from whole food instead of supplements as they may lack vitamins, minerals, and nutrients.

If you compete in endurance sports, there is a good chance that you eat very large amounts of calories to have sufficient energy for training. But you must be careful as you can easily find that your daily fibre intake is far higher than is necessary, which would increase your risk of digestive-system distress. On the other hand, insufficient consumption of fibre and resistant starch can negatively affect the gut bacteria and lead to inflammation.

Insoluble fibre

Insoluble fibre absorbs and holds in water, thus promoting bathroom visits by adding bulk to your stool, making it easier for waste to pass out of the body. Whole-grain products are good sources and one cup of oatmeal for example has 4 g of fibre, while a slice of wheat bread has around 1 g. Don’t forget that most fruits and vegetables have significant amounts of dietary fibre as well! Good sources of insoluble fibre include:

  • Legumes;
  • Whole grains (wheat bran, whole grain breads, and cereals);
  • Skin of many fruits and vegetables.

Resistant starch

As described by Wikipedia, resistant starch (RS) is starch, including its degradation products that escapes from digestion in the small intestine of healthy individuals. Resistant starch occurs naturally in foods but is also added to foods by the addition of dried raw foods, and isolated or manufactured types of resistant starch.

Some types of resistant starch (RS1, RS2 and RS3) are fermented by the large intestinal microbiota, conferring benefits to human health through the production of short-chain fatty acids, increased bacterial mass, and promotion of butyrate-producing bacteria. Resistant starch has some of the same physiologic effects as dietary fibre, which is why it functions as a mild laxative and why consuming it in high doses can lead to flatulence. RS has been categorized into four types:

  • RS1 – Physically inaccessible or indigestible resistant starch, such as that found in seeds or legumes and unprocessed whole grains;
  • RS2 – Resistant starch is inaccessible to enzymes due to starch conformation, as in green bananas and high amylose corn starch;
  • RS3 – Resistant starch that is formed when starch-containing foods are cooked and cooled, such as pasta. Occurs due to retrogradation, which refers to the collective processes of dissolved starch becoming less soluble after being heated and dissolved in water and then cooled; and
  • RS4 – Starches that have been chemically modified to resist digestion.

Final word on fibre

Most foods contain a combination of different fibre types, so rather than being overly caught up on isolating one type from another, just focus on getting enough fibre overall through a whole food-based diet that incorporates a wide variety of plants. If you do not currently include much fibre in your diet, avoid suddenly ramping it up as this could have acute negative impacts on the gut. Slowly introduce more fibrous foods and increase as per tolerance.

Remember that a high-fibre diet will make you “regular”, and lower your risk of colon cancer and other types of cancer as well. Fibre will make you feel fuller longer (it provides no calories due to its indigestibility), and thus help you maintain a healthy weight if you’re looking at getting to your “race weight” for the big track meet or road race.

Be careful with consuming an excess of fibre close to a workout. Two hours prior should be fine as it will give you time to digest. As an athlete you must understand the role that fibre plays in energy availability and digestion. This can help you further fine tune your training or race day strategy along with the proper amount of protein, carbs, and fat. And now…on to the second part of this article!

Acidic food vs. alkaline food

This is perhaps the most important section of this two-part article on nutrition. We look at food for performance as it is the main theme of this series of articles, but also because we want to live a long and healthy life. One of the best ways we can do this is by eating to become more alkaline! Before we dive into which food you should or should not eat based on how they affect your body, let’s once again start with the basics.

The pH scale

The pH scale tells us how many hydrogen positive ions (H+) or hydroxyl negative ions (OH-) are in a food item. The greater number of positive ions, the greater the acidity. The greater the number of negative ions means that the food is more alkaline.

Furthermore, the lower the number on the pH scale, the higher the acidity. The higher the number, the more alkaline it is, and a pH of 7 is viewed as neutral. Our blood is measured on a pH scale that ranges from 0 to 14. Zero is considered most acidic, while fourteen is highly alkaline. The ideal pH of our blood for optimal health is around 7.35, which is neither too acidic nor too alkaline, but close to neutral.

Normally, our blood tries to be in the optimal alkaline state, which is close to 7 as previously discussed. Similarly to your blood, your muscles also prefer to be in a slightly alkaline state. You must remember that everything we eat influences our pH level. However, and this is sometimes misunderstood, the pH of your food doesn’t always correlate with the effect it has on the body once it is metabolized. This is important to remember. Lemon as one such example, is extremely acidic (pH of 2), but it has a powerful alkaline effect in the body.

One great outcome of raising your pH is to increase mineral stores such as magnesium (Mg) levels, which is critical for performance because magnesium is needed in more than 300 different enzymatic reactions in the body, including proper energy production and utilization (more on magnesium in a future article where I’ll cover sports supplements). Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) cannot be used unless it is bound to magnesium, so magnesium is essential if you want enough energy to hit your training hard as when doing short sprints or deadlifts. Furthermore, raising your pH decreases cortisol levels (stress hormone), which is a good thing.

Food is not the only way to increase your level of acidity. Think about a hard workout and the feeling of your muscles burning. That muscle burn is caused by the production of anaerobic energy (without oxygen). This reaction causes the pH of your tissues to decrease, thus increasing in acidity. This increase in acidity causes temporary muscle fatigue, thus limiting contractile force. Therefore, if your muscles have a higher resting pH, it takes longer for you to feel the burn, which means you are able to work harder and longer for more potential output. Think of how this might help you during a race such as the 400 or 800 metres!

Another negative effect of becoming more acidic is that your body will take calcium from your bones to buffer that acidity to become more alkaline. Chronic acidity can lead to deficiencies in essential minerals like magnesium, calcium, and potassium. Note that these deficiencies can lead to short and long-term health challenges as well. We could do a whole article linking cancer with body acidity levels, but it’s not the focus here. For now, just remember that maintaining adequate levels of minerals support good health, proper nerve function, and adequate recovery from exercise.

While I don’t do this year round, I like to drink a tall glass of lukewarm water with the juice from half of a lemon during the competitive season. You could also add lemon juice to a cup of green tea. This is a good way to raise your pH first thing in the morning, as your normal metabolic processes have been dropping your pH as you sleep. Lemon also has antiseptic and antibacterial properties that will help cleanse your digestive tract and stimulate the flow of gastric juices and liver enzymes. Ensure that you rinse your mouth out with water after you drink it, since the lemon juice can eat away at your enamel.

NOTE

This whole discussion on pH got me thinking about ways to delay the onset of rigor mortis in the last 80 m of a 400m race (the same can be said for the last 200m of the 800 m). This is when your legs feel like cement, all the while you are carrying a piano on your back!

So… What if I drank some lemon water a half hour before a race? Would that make my body a little more alkaline in time for the big upcoming effort? What would be the effect on the race? After scouring the internet, I could not find any studies that specifically looked at reducing the giant wave of lactic acid produced in the latter stages of a race by trying to reduce the body’s pH level at a specific time before the effort. The only thing I could find were several references to “gradual adaption through training”, which is what all serious athletes already do anyways.

So I decided that I will conduct my own experiment. In the coming months, I will report back to you the readers with my results. In essence, I plan to take readings of my pH levels 60 min before a very intense effort such as a 4 min Tabata on the air bike, drink lemon water 30 min before the effort, take another pH test just before the Tabata effort, and another immediately after. While this is not meant to be a proper scientific experiment per se, I will do this out of curiosity, and record my results with and without lemon juice over several months, try to maintain the test conditions comparable, and see what comes of it. If anyone out there has any information on this very type of narrow experiment, please contact me.

Potential renal acid load

Instead of simply categorizing a food as acidic or alkaline, the Potential Renal Acid Load (PRAL) measures the exact amount of acidity or alkalinity of a food once it’s been metabolized, which is really what is important for us. To get a little more technical, PRAL measures the acidity or alkalinity of a food based on the amount of minerals, protein, and phosphorus that’s left behind in the body once it’s been metabolized. In addition to the long-term conditions that can result from being too acidic, there are short-term symptoms that may also suggest your body is more on the acidic end of the pH scale. These symptoms include low energy, exhaustion, confusion, anxiety and depression, headaches, colds, and muscle weakness. Keep in mind that this list is not exhaustive. The more reasons to watch what you eat.

PRAL values of selected foods

In the standard PRAL table, a negative value means the food has an alkaline (base forming) load, a positive value means the food has an acid load. All values are per 100 grams of food. If you eat for example 200 grams of walnuts, the PRAL value for the walnut snack is 13.6.

With all this talk about alkaline vs. acidic food, it doesn’t mean you suddenly have to eat a “raw” or “vegan” diet, which is what we tend to think about when most people think of eating highly alkaline foods. Just pay attention to what you eat most of the time, enjoy life with a good glass of wine, and don’t shy away from a fine cuisine from time to time. None of us are getting paid to win Masters-level medals and awards after all!

Some examples of alkaline foods on the PRAL table

Spinach – PRAL Score of -11.8. It is a high alkaline food that is known to benefit bone health because of the calcium it contains. It’s my “go to” for salads. It also contains magnesium.

Bananas – PRAL Score of -6.9. They are pretty much known as “Potassium Sticks,” and are another highly alkaline food that you won’t want to leave out of your diet. Additionally, they’re a great source of fibre, which help promote digestive regularity and sweep toxins out of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract.

Sweet Potato – PRAL Score of -5.6. Sweet potatoes are an alkalizing food that provide your body with plenty of fibre, vitamins, and minerals. Because sweet potatoes are so high in fibre, they have less of a negative impact on blood sugar levels, since fibre helps slow the release of sugar into the bloodstream.

Carrots – PRAL Score of -4.9. Carrots are a high-alkaline food that is famous for improving eyesight based on their vitamin A content. In fact, 1 cup of carrots contains more than 300 percent of the daily recommended intake of beta carotene, an antioxidant form of vitamin A.

Foods to avoid

An acidic environment is considered the perfect setting for illness and disease to thrive in. A good food intake guide for athletes is 80 percent alkaline, 20 percent acidic. If your diet consists of hot dogs or Mac and Cheese, you will not perform to the best of your abilities and that is self-evident! Limit white sugar, alcohol, and factory-farmed animal products. These foods are extremely acidic and must be buffered by your stored minerals. Two good green salads (arugula and baby spinach come to mind) with raw vegetables each and every day helps to do this though. Avoid empty calories that may turn your body acidic. I have a simple solution that helps me with this, which I call it “The Big Three”. I rarely keep chips, pop, or desserts in the house. If it’s not there, you don’t eat it! Furthermore, I try to avoid white bread, white rice, and white pasta. Finally, limit your consumption of alcohol beverages.

Alcohol

Speaking of alcohol, an occasional beer or a glass of wine will not be detrimental and can be part of your 20 percent of acidic food. Alcohol can also be beneficial in small quantities as it contains flavonoids; a substance that prevents the formation of plaque in arteries. But beware that alcohol can increase your risk of injuries. It alters your sleep cycle, which in turn reduces your body's ability to store glycogen; a crucial energy source for athletes. It also increases the levels of cortisol (stress hormone), which slows down healing. Furthermore, alcohol gets converted to fat. As in anything else in life, moderation is key here in that, any fine-tuned body doesn’t need the additional weight. On a personal note, while my wife and I thoroughly enjoy a fine bottle of wine on the weekends, we usually go “dry” 8-10 weeks before a big track meet like the Canadian Masters or the World Masters. From here, let us move on to the final portion of this article.

Vitamins and minerals

What are vitamins and minerals? Basically, they make our bodies work properly, and are normally obtained from the foods you eat every day. They play an important role in energy production, hemoglobin synthesis, bone health, immune functions, and will help protect your body against oxidative damage. They are also there to assist your body in the repair of muscle tissue during recovery from exercise and injury.

Active Masters athletes such as yourselves may incur losses of these micronutrients at a faster rate than your sedentary counterparts. As a result, you may very well need a greater intake of vitamins and minerals to cover the increased needs for building, repairing, and maintaining your body mass, which means eating a balanced diet. Unfortunately, it’s pretty clear that the vast majority of Canadians don’t eat a balanced diet. So most of us will resort in taking supplements to fill that gap. How much supplementation should you take? As I’ve said in my last article, find a knowledgeable sports nutritionist, and figure out what your specific needs are.

Vitamins

Vitamins are organic substances made by plants or animals that fall into two categories: fat soluble and water soluble. The fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D, E, and K dissolve in fat and can be stored in your body. The water-soluble vitamins like the B-complex and C vitamins need to dissolve in water before your body can absorb them. That means that your body can't store these vitamins. Any vitamin B or C that your body doesn't use will just pass through your system. This means you need a fresh supply of these vitamins each and every day.

Minerals

Minerals are inorganic elements that come from the soil and water, and are absorbed by plants or eaten by animals. Approximately 4% of the body's mass consists of minerals. The body of an aging Masters athlete needs larger amounts of minerals to maintain muscle mass and stay healthy. They are classified as major minerals (body needs more than 100 mg/day), and trace minerals (body requires less than 100 mg/day). The major minerals are sodium, potassium, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, manganese, sulphur, cobalt and chlorine. Trace minerals are iron, zinc, copper, selenium, iodine, fluoride and chromium. Minerals serve three roles:

  • They provide structure in forming bones and teeth;
  • They help maintain normal heart rhythm, muscle contractility, neural conductivity, and acid-base balance; and
  • They help regulate cellular metabolism by becoming part of enzymes and hormones that modulate cellular activity.

As stated earlier, minerals cannot be made in the body and must be obtained in our diet. The daily requirements of minerals required by the body can be obtained from a well-balanced diet but, like vitamins, excess minerals can produce toxic effects. The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of some of the most popular minerals for men and women are shown in the table below:

Minerals

Men

Women

Calcium

700 mg

700 mg

Magnesium

300 mg

270 mg

Potassium

3500 mg

3500 mg

Zinc

9 mg

7 mg

 

Recommended dietary allowance

According the Canadian Government website, the recommended dietary allowance is defined as the average daily dietary intake level that is sufficient to meet the nutrient requirement of nearly all (97 to 98 percent) healthy individuals in a particular life-stage and gender group. If you are someone who exercises almost every day or are a high-end Masters athlete, your requirements may exceed these figures, which will lead us to our next article that will have us examine the world of supplements.

Conclusion

In this second article on nutrition, we covered topics such as the types of fibre that we need to be healthy, some information on the pH of foods, and we wrapped up with a few notes on vitamins & minerals. For us Masters athletes, a healthy diet and a proper nutrition plan prevent health problems, and will supply our bodies with the right balance of carbohydrates, proteins, minerals and vitamins. Eating healthy means a lifetime of making the right choices and decisions, and of course, planning. Most of us seasoned athletes may not have learned about good eating practices early on in our lives, but that can be easily rectified with a bit of research, thus establishing good dietary patterns for the rest of your life. Eating nutritious and healthful food while maintaining good body weight will contribute to a better performance on the track, and in the gym. You will feel and look your best!

If you are someone who is fit, it is also possible that your nutrition plan involves taking a variety of supplements. Supplements are products used to improve a diet, and often contain vitamins, minerals, herbs or amino acids. We’ll take a deep dive into that world in our next article as there are so many conflicting views on the subject. My hope is that I can help you understand how and where your diet breaks down, and how you can use supplements to fill in those gaps, resulting in a healthier and fitter you.

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