There is an old Star Trek episode where Kirk and his team visit a planet and inevitably encounter a couple of power-hungry humanoids who capture them. In a display of dominance, the leader pushes a button, which “distills” one of Kirk’s (more expendable) team members into a 6-inch cube, by removing all of the water in their body. He then crushes that cube in his hand as Kirk looks on in dismay. Moral of the story: water is crucial for our body’s survival.
60% of our body weight comes from water. So, in terms of sports nutrition, which is really what we’re going to talk about today, hydration is this most important part. It is absolutely crucial, during high intensity activities or exercise lasting more than 1 hour, that you drink water before, during, and after. Feeling thirsty is not an accurate way to gauge dehydration: if you wait until you are thirsty, you have already lost 2% of your body weight in water.
Instead, drink smaller amounts of water more frequently, for example, every 10 – 20 minutes during intense activity. Drinking cool water can also help bring down your core temperature. If possible, weigh yourself after a workout, and drink 2 – 3 glasses of water for every pound lost. Another good indication of adequate hydration is the color of your urine: if it’s clear, almost like water, then you are well-hydrated.
In terms of food, sports nutrition requires the right combination of carbohydrates, protein, and fat. 60% of your calories should come from carbohydrates from high quality foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, etc. Your body breaks down carbohydrates into glucose, which is used for immediate energy. The rest is turned into glycogen, which is stored in muscle and used for endurance. If your body does not have enough glucose or glycogen, it will then break down protein for energy.
This is why runners carbo-load a few days ahead of a marathon: this provides them with lots of glycogen. During exercise for more 1 hour, you should replenish with carbohydrates (as opposed to proteins), and there are some sports drinks that contain carbs in addition to electrolytes, which are a great solution. Try to avoid, however, eating solid food within 3 – 4 hours before exercise.
20% of your daily calories should come from protein, which is found in meat, dairy, nuts, and beans. Protein is the nutritional powerhouse, helping to build new tissue. If you are physically active, you need more protein, especially if you do high endurance exercise, which will end up burning that much needed protein.
The last 20% of your calories should come from fat. Your body needs fat in order to absorb certain vitamins and minerals, so it’s actually unhealthy to have a completely fat-free diet. However, if your exercise is targeted to burn fat, keep in mind that this can trigger a release of substances called ketones, which can be toxic to the body in high amounts. So, once again, make sure you drink plenty of water in order to flush them out of your system.
So there you have it, sports nutrition in a nutshell. Or, shall I say, distilled down into the equivalent of a 6-inch cube.
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