Nutrition in the world of sports performance is traditionally linked to current trends in fad dieting. People will jump from nutritional theory to theory in an attempt to find the ‘missing link’ in their performance or to shed the last extra pounds of body fat. At Training Think Tank(TTT) we believe that while each of these fad diets may have something to offer, they lack universal application. In other words, ‘eating what is convenient’, Paleo, Zone, Flexible Dieting, etc... may work well for some but certainly will not address everyone’s nutritional needs and goals.
It is the position of TTT that an athlete’s diet needs to be individualized based on their goals, preferences, schedule, and genetics. Effective nutrition strategies must take into account both nutrient quantity (macro-nutrient ratios), nutrient quality (i.e. protein bioavailability or omega-3:6 ratios), and micro-nutrition content (vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial phytochemicals). Beyond this, athletes need to consider whether ‘eating clean’ or ‘eating enough’ better suits their performance or aesthetic goals.
The law of individual differences applies not just to exercise prescription but also to diet and nutrition. Our bodies’ reaction to the foods we eat is dictated by an interaction between our genes and the specific nutrients in those foods. This is known as nutrigenomics (a topic for a later blog post), and is partly responsible for the differences we see between two distinct athletes’ body composition and performance when following the same diet. In essence it boils down to this, your diet should reflect your individual needs.
The application of this can be evident in the athlete who wants to get stronger but fears gaining body-fat during the process. Supporting strength gains and altering muscle mass requires athletes to stay in an anabolic state for as much of the day as possible. The Paleo Diet (generally restrictive of more calorie dense foods) or Flexible Dieting with a focus on minimizing fat gain are both targeted at minimizing anabolic processes (growth) and maximizing catabolic processes (breakdown). As a nutritional strategy, choosing a diet protocol that is geared toward weight loss and catabolism while trying to maximize strength gain will inevitably lead to performance loss or stagnation for most athletes. We also recognize that there is a small subset of genetic anomalies who’s physiologies allow them to continue to make terrific strength gains despite running major caloric deficits. However, this is not evidence that we should follow their practices in order to mimic their results.
Body Composition, Performance, and Body Image
There are a number of issues clouding selecting an appropriate diet for your goals. The culture of fitness is permeated by the misconception that body composition = performance and that leanness/aesthetics are a natural result from training. The reality is that while there is a link between elite level athlete’s body composition and their performance levels, performance changes on an inverted U pattern. Many athletes chasing performance are tied so tightly to being lean that they actually sabotage their endocrine systems, essentially blunting their adaptive ability.
Theoretical Relationship Between Body-comp and Athletics Performance
I am convinced that there are male and female games level athletes who maintain body fat levels below 8-10% to the detriment of their performance. These are athletes who adhere to extremely restrictive eating protocols while undertaking 2-3 training sessions daily. While they may subjectively judge the success of their nutritional strategy based on their leanness the end result is sub-par training and game day performance.
Note on Carbohydrate
Everyone responds to carbohydrate intake differently based on natural insulin sensitivity, predominant muscle fiber type, mitochondrial density, resting metabolic rate, and activity level. One thing that I’ve found in working specifically with women in sport is that they tend to fear the carbohydrate. After performing dietary analyses of this subset of athletes, I consistently see a trend of overeating fats and under eating carbohydrates in fear of gaining body fat. The result of this is a hormonal milieu that actually leads to fat storage despite their intentions. For many of these women, even a severe caloric deficit will not lead to changes in body composition due to poor nutritional practices.
In the context of a fitness training program, this can be performance and adaptation limiting. During exercise our bodies use a variety of mechanisms to produce energy from the fuel we eat. There are two major fuel sources that we utilize: carbohydrates in the form of glycogen, and fats in the form of triglycerides. Carbohydrate is the only fuel source for our anaerobic, high powered energy system and is responsible for fueling the majority of the work that we do during fitness training. Fats are the fuel source of an aerobic process called beta oxidation which supplies fuel for lower intensity, longer duration exercise (think HOURS, not minutes) and recovery from higher intensity exercise. If athletes are under eating carbohydrates they are essentially striping themselves of the primary fuel source available for high intensity, high power output work.
Additionally it is important to understand that adaptations to training occur during rest. Carbohydrate levels during rest are essentially a signal that allows our bodies to determine if adequate fuel is available to repair and recover from training. Athletes who are chronically carbohydrate depleted will generally have slower rates of adaptation and will be less recovered between training bouts. *Note: there is some research to suggest that athletes looking to maximize aerobic adaptations to training should train in a glycogen depleted state and focus on replenishing carbohydrate stores immediately post workout. As we have discussed before the application of this would need to be determined on an individual basis and take into account training history, current training cycle, and tolerance to hypoglycemia during exercise.
TTT Process - Hypothesis, Test, Analyze, Retest, Implement
At TTT our driving philosophy when analyzing the success of a training or nutritional protocol is the scientific process. In the case of nutrition this means analyzing the athlete’s current dietary practices, suggesting appropriate changes where needed, allowing those changes time to manifest into adaptations, then re-testing to ensure that they are moving closer to their goal. Without this objectivity, progress in any field cannot be expected, especially in the complicated realm of performance nutrition.