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The Importance of Nutrition in Sports

by Bernard Beverley(more info)

listed in nutrition, originally published in issue 50 - March 2000

...the further up the ladder of exertion you go, it's often good practice to help your body to function at a more optimum level by using a few natural food supplements. No substance on its own outside the drug field will make a dramatic difference to your physical or indeed mental capabilities. However, many will enhance them. The essential difference is that natural food supplements work with the body, while drugs work on the body.

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Until a few years ago, the only sportsmen who took nutrition seriously were body-builders. They were, and still are years ahead of other athletes in their regard of nutrition and how it can affect performance.

However, the other sports are catching up. Now, in activities such as football, athletics, swimming, tennis and most others, nutrition is assuming the same importance as training – and for a very good reason. Optimum nutrition can make a vast difference to how your body responds to training itself, and how you perform in your sport. Based on the assumption that most readers accept that to be true, the question remaining is, what constitutes good nutrition? How can the ideal programme be formulated to give maximum results? Although a good diet is important to everyone, to the athlete it's vital. It can be the difference between winning and losing, in many instances.

It's self evident that the level of nutrition required by the average person is not the same as that of the elite athlete. Nevertheless, it's a matter of degree. The best way to illustrate this is the ski-slope syndrome. Imagine a 45 degree ski-slope. At the base we have the ordinary person. He or she may do some form of exercise, even if it's only walking the dog. At the summit, you have the supreme athlete, who is training perhaps every day and competing possibly once or twice a week, such as a footballer or tennis player. The dietary requirements of each are similar, but not the same. The basic nutrients will serve our average man or woman sufficiently. The elite athlete can benefit from additional items that perhaps offer no real benefit to the person at the bottom of the ski-slope.

Graduated Nutrition

Using the ski-slope analogy further, visualise a spectrum of nutritional items running the length of the slope. At the bottom there are the macro nutrients, which everyone needs – protein, carbohydrate, fat, vitamins and minerals. At the summit are the most up-to-date, state-of-the-art nutrients which offer benefits perhaps only required by the supreme sports performer. Somewhere in between there is an ideal level which would be suitable for each individual – from the person who takes only moderate exercise, to the one involved in the most intensive training imaginable. The key is to identify which level would best suit you as an individual. That is what this article will attempt to do, as well as help you to discover what's best for your nutritional needs.

In order to establish a base upon which to work, it's necessary to establish what nutrition is intended to do. Your body has a number of requirements which have to be met. There are also priorities. The first is the maintenance of optimum bodily function, in other words, good health. All the organs and systems within the body need to operate in harmony, so that the body is in a state of well-being. The heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, the endocrine system and many others all function best when supplied with the nutrients that relate to them. When they are provided, the body moves on to the next field of operation, the creation of energy. That is a primary function and in order to ensure that enough energy is available, the system will go to extraordinary lengths to provide it. If food cannot meet the body's needs it may even cannibalise the muscles using amino acids for energy, if the amount required isn't met from fat, carbohydrates and to some extent, protein.

Once health and energy have been covered, the third area is growth and repair. Every day, cells are broken down and replenished, for which nutrients, protein in particular, are needed. This is where divergence takes place between the person involved in just moderate exercise, and the one doing more. In the former, the rate of breakdown proceeds at a fairly constant pace, but the elite athlete or hard trainer is different. Tremendous amounts of tissue are broken down during intensive training, which must be fully replenished before the next training session. The process is always the same: breakdown, recovery, growth. Your body must fully recover from training before the re-growth can commence. If it doesn't, and you train again while still in a catabolic (breakdown) state, then sooner or later you will end up over-training, and if this carries on, you will go into reverse, losing whatever physical strength and capability you have. Therefore to summarise, the three phases to consider are: optimum health, provision of energy, recovery and re-growth. What you now need to know is the type of nutritional programme, and the various nutritional items within it to accomplish all this. It is important to use just the right level of nutrition that is optimum for you, based on the level of activity in which you are involved, taking into consideration how often you train, how hard you train and a few other factors, for example your age, experience and so on. On that basis, let's move up the ski-slope referred to earlier and review some of the items that relate to our objective.

Basics

The essential nutrients that everybody needs are protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins, minerals and trace elements. Most readers will be familiar with these and prolonged discussion isn't necessary within the context of this article. You need first-class protein, which is defined as a protein containing all eight essential amino acids. Fish, chicken, meat, eggs, milk and cheese are examples. Complex carbohydrates are preferable to the simple form, eg, wholewheat products, oats, potato, rice and pasta. Fat intake should ideally be 50% unsaturated. Olive oil, flax seed oil and similar products are representative of the best form of fat. The ideal diet for a sportsperson is 40% carbohydrates, 30% protein and 30% fat. For the average person training moderately, a diet balanced like that and varied in content is probably all that is needed. A good multiple vitamin/mineral supplement would give insurance against any possible deficiency, but overall, that should be all you require. You may wish to add one or two extra items for particular reasons; more energy, faster recovery perhaps, but on the whole, a regular diet along those lines will be sufficient. The 'special' nutrients form the main body of this discussion, and there are a lot around. There are so many in fact that confusion can arise amidst the many, and often outlandish claims made for some of them. A review of the most discussed should enlighten readers as to what they can and can't do.

Advanced Nutrition

Coenzyme Q10:

For the physically active, Co-Q10 activates cell energy. When you perform any physical act; run, jump, throw, lift a weight etc you are able to do so because you can contract muscle fibres. The harder the contraction, the greater power you can exert – up to a point. The substance that stimulates this contraction is called ATP or adenosine tri-phosphate. Co-Q10 assists the body in producing ATP. Every cell in the body contains this substance, and an athlete may find that supplements of Co-Q10 will enable him to train harder and generate more power. Co-Q10 is also considered beneficial to the heart. The recommended dose is 30-60mg per day.

Creatine:

Few people who read the newspapers can be unaware of creatine. It's been a much discussed subject over the past couple of years and is described in the press as a 'legal steroid'. That's nonsense – creatine has no anabolic properties whatsoever. Amongst the reported users are athletes, footballers and even top women tennis players. Creatine is found in meat, but not in sufficient quantity to make much difference to athletic performance. In fact, creatine is very much like Co-Q10 just discussed and does the same thing. It increases the amount of ATP in muscles, thereby allowing for greater contraction and consequently, increased strength and power. That it is effective is beyond doubt. Numerous double blind tests have proved that it can add strength and energy to an athlete, particularly those in explosive events, as opposed to events requiring endurance. What has been debated most is the amount to take daily. One person who pioneered creatine stated that the effective, and safe daily intake is 3 grams a day. There are no reported side effects at this level, but excessive amounts well above this may cause muscle cramp. Anyone who wants to increase their explosive power and overall strength should give creatine a try. It seems to work for most.

Phosphatidyl Serine:

Some readers may wonder why this nutrient is suggested for sports people. The reason for this is that top performance combines mental as well as physical aspects. PS is a lipid derived mainly from plants; its best-known natural source is lecithin, although the amounts therein are relatively low. The main use is to improve concentration and in older people, prevent memory loss. For athletes, the benefit is that it aids concentration, which is essential in top performers. The recommended amount to take is 100mg per day, and supplements are the only way to get this amount.

Glutamine:

This is the most abundant amino acid in muscle tissue. When you train or compete hard, you break down large amounts and this needs to be repaired before you train again. A high level of glutamine speeds up this process. Although well distributed in protein foods, two grams taken on a workout day have been documented to be beneficial in enhancing recovery. Glutamine is available in capsules or powder from most health stores. In powder form it's tasteless, and mixes easily with water.

NADH:

B vitamins in general play a role in the creation of energy. There are eleven members of the B complex: some help the body digest carbohydrates, while others help to utilise fat. The co-enzyme version of some B vitamins is of particular value in promoting energy. NADH is the active constituent of niacin (B3) and has received a lot of publicity of late. It is even being promoted as a supplement for people suffering from the most wearying of maladies, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. (See also article re. CFS and NADH on page 30.) When you suffer from that, everything is an effort and you simply cannot function. NADH has been reported as having, in some instances, a remarkable effect in restoring energy to people who took 10mg a day over a number of weeks. If it can do that for those with a severe lack of energy, athletes and the very active could benefit in the same way. It is a better conversion of food into usable energy, which niacin helps to do anyway.

The co-enzyme form is just that more effective. It is worth a try…

OKG:

Some years ago, a new supplement, ornithine, was introduced. The end product of arginine amino acid, it was promoted as being good for muscle growth and strength and some tests showed that it could be, in very large amounts. These amounts were too high to be practical, so ornithine faded away. Then a combination of ornithine and glutamine was tried. Ornithine alpha-ketoglutarate was the name or simply, OKG. Taken at levels of 2-4 grams a day, it has the effect on some people of increasing power, training energy and drive. The only way to get this nutrient is in supplement form.

Whey Protein:

If you need a protein supplement at all, the best is whey protein. If your diet is high in protein foods, then no supplement is usually required, but some people do need extra. Whey is derived from cheese and has the highest biological profile of any protein food, even eggs. The term biological means how near the amino acid structure is to that of human muscle. A total of 70% of body cells are made up of three amino acids, leucine, isoleucine and valine, which are often termed branched chain amino acids or BCAAs. Since they play a key role in muscle recovery, BCAAs assume a greater importance than most other amino acids, although all amino acids are needed. Whey protein has a higher level of these key aminos than any other food. So, if your diet isn't as high as it might be in protein, and you decide to take a supplement, whey protein isolate, not concentrate, is recommended.

Summary

As stated at the beginning, for many if not most people, a good varied diet is often all you need, even if you indulge in active sports. However, the further up the ladder of exertion you go, it's often good practice to help your body to function at a more optimum level by using a few natural food supplements. There is nothing wrong in doing this; you're not attempting to force your body into doing more than it's capable of; rather, you are helping your body to do what it is capable of doing better. No substance on its own outside the drug field will make a dramatic difference to your physical or indeed mental capabilities. However, many will enhance them. The essential difference is that natural food supplements work with the body, while drugs work on the body. All of the items covered are natural and carry no known side effects if taken at the levels suggested.

The best way to try any substance is to take a single product for 4-6 weeks and observe the effects. Have you more energy; can you train harder; do you feel better…? At the end of the trial period, stop, take a week's break, then try another product, having noted the response to the previous item. Once more give it 4-6 weeks, stop, take a week's break, and try the next one on the list yet again noting down your response. Continue like this until you have tried the ones that most appeal to you. At the end of the trial period, you will have a very good idea of what works for you, and what doesn't. Once you do know this, and the same principle will apply whenever any new product comes on to the market, then you will be able to formulate the most effective nutritional programme made exclusively for you. The end result will be that you will be much more capable and effective, whatever your sport.

Further Reading

Passwater R. The New Supernutrition. Pocket Books. ISBN 0671 700715. 1995.
Colgan M. Optimum Sports Nutrition. Advanced Research Press. 1993.
Lininger S. Ed. The Natural Pharmacy. Prima Publishing. ISBN 076 15 1967 X. 1999.
Zane F. Zane Nutrition. Simon and Schuster, NY. 1986.
Beverley B. The Modern Way to Muscle Growth. Europa International Publishing. 1982.
Phillips B. Sports Supplement Review. Mile High Publishing, PO Box 277, Golden, CO. 1997.

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About Bernard Beverley

Bernard Beverley was a senior nutritional adviser with Europa International Ltd for over twenty years. During that time, he wrote seven books on the subject of nutrition, along with numerous articles on health and fitness. To purchase any of the author's books, please contact Europa International, Tel: 01253 774000.

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