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Fueling the Victory Lap

performance enhancers

By Sheila Tucker, MA, RD, LDN
Administrative Dietitian, B.C. Dining

Whether it's the serious athlete or the casual calisthenics cohort, fitness aficionados are always searching for that something extra to give them the competitive edge or sculpt their muscles a la Hercules. Slick media ads and paid endorsements by celebrity athletes tout fancily packaged nutrition products as the answer to the athlete's quest...but, is it really? Can you find the competitive edge in a box? Or, is the answer in one of those new fangled versions of a high protein diet? And what about those sports drinks? Read on to discover how to enhance your performance no matter what your sport. A sound nutrition program just may be your ace in the hole.


Food Fuels the Moves

Glycogen is the preferred fuel for working muscles, whether you are running around the Reservoir or running a relay race.  Glycogen stores in the body are derived from a carbohydrate-rich diet containing grains, vegetables, legumes and fruit. Even if you are trying to burn stored fat, the body still needs some carbohydrate from food. Scientific recommendations suggest carbohydrate calories comprise 60-65% of our diet. Translated, that means over half our calories should be fruits, vegetables, legumes ( like chickpeas, lentils, kidney beans) and grains ( like rice, cereal, bread, crackers, pasta). Accomplish this daily balance by having these carbohydrate choices take up 3/4 of your plate at each meal. The other 1/4 of the plate is for protein. Careful to go easy on fried or sauce-laden versions of otherwise lean foods and you'll be batting 1,000.


Is Protein Power?

Much had been made lately of high protein diets and athletic performance. Athletes do require an increased amount of protein than do their couch potato counterparts, but the increase is only slight. The Recommended Dietary Allowance  (RDA) for protein is 0.8 gm/ kg body weight/ day. Bodybuilders and endurance athletes need 1.2-1.5gm/kg body weight/day. Translated into animal protein portions, that means that while most of us get by with 5-7 oz of a protein source/day, athletes need another 2-4 oz/ day. A 3-4 oz portion of animal protein looks like the size of a deck of cards. Hardly the need for a steak-and-eggs breakfast.

Excess protein does not contribute to performance and may even have detrimental health and performance effects A high protein diet puts a strain on kidneys and hydration balance. Excess protein intake leading to excess calorie intake can lead to fat gain, taking an athlete from excellent to ordinary. Amino acid pills, powders and potions that tout 5,000 mg of protein (read 5 gm!) really contain less protein than 1 oz of animal protein or plant protein equivalent. You'll go the extra mile getting your protein right from an original food source.

Athletes trying to bulk up and build muscle must first supply their bodies with adequate calories, the limiting factor in muscle deposition. In most cases, if calorie needs are being met so are protein needs. It is training, fueled by a high carbohydrate, balanced diet, that builds muscle strength and size.


Hit a Hydration Home Run

Dehydration has adverse effects on muscle coordination, endurance and is often responsible for early fatigue. Drinking plenty of water before, during and after exercise is a slam-dunk performance enhancer. Current guidelines suggest 8-16 oz fluid  30-60 minutes  before exercise and 4-8 oz every 15 minutes during exercise. You owe your body 16 oz water for every one pound weight loss occurring during exercise. Weigh yourself before and after exercise and pay up on your water debt quickly. Special sports drinks containing 4-7% carbohydrate have been shown to be beneficial for exercise lasting over one hour. The carbohydrate and the water exert independent benefits to the exercising body. Don't wait for thirst or dehydration will already be compromising your work-out. Drink early and to a schedule, with or without thirst. You don't want to end up a bench warmer.


Ergogenic Acids: Penalty Box or Three-Pointer?

Nutritional ergogenic aids are the trendy way to try and boost energy and performance, but are they safe? Do they really work? So far, the likes of bee pollen, ginseng, royal jelly, carnitine, Coenzyme Q10 and a host of others have failed to have their ergogenic claims substantiated by scientific research.

If you consider taking the next magic bullet, make sure you've done your homework before kick off and ask yourself these questions:

Does it sound too good to be true? Don't leave a pill promoter laughing all the way to the bank. If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Enhance performance takes training &  hard work, not three little pills a day.
Is there published scientific evidence on humans? Labels claiming " university tested", testimonials, anecdotes or one study on hamsters does not qualify as scientific evidence. Investigate further than the slick ad when you are considering a product. Dietary supplements are regulated as food, not pharmaceuticals, and hence do not undergo the rigorous testing and safety checks  you might imagine.
What are the credentials of the product promoter? Are they qualified with appropriate academics or just an "expert" because of their current association with the product. Don't hesitate to ask; it's your body.
How does the nutrition label compare to the product's couch potato counterpart? Many sports bars contain more calories than the same size candy bar. Some gels are the nutrition equivalent of a fistful of gummy bears. Some products are high in fat, which is slow to leave the stomach; a heavy gut is the last thing you need when exercising. Snack on bite-size cereal, fresh or dried fruit, or a cup of low fat yogurt when you need something fast.
Some supplements improve performance because of the placebo effect; they provide a psychological or physiological benefit. While many such products have little negative effect, other than your empty wallet, be cautious to avoid the dangers of relying on nutritional supplements in place of a sound nutrition program.


What's in it for You?

Whether you are looking to shave seconds off your time, serve more aces or are just beginning an exercise program, nutrition is a key player in enhancing your performance.

A high carbohydrate diet is the fuel of choice for exercising muscles. Inadequate carbohydrate intake and insufficient hydration can lead to stale work-outs where your legs feel like lead and you dream of a nap. Adequate daily energy is essential before protein can perform its magic. Set your own training table by filling your plate 3/4 full with carbohydrates (starches, fruits, vegetables, legumes) and the other 1/4 with protein foods. Avoid faddish nutritional supplements. Take the lead and drink plenty of water or sports drinks, especially when you exercise for over an hour.

Good, old-fashioned balance eating together with training and rest are the real performance enhancers. You won't find the competitive edge waiting for you in a box at the health food store.