The 2nd annual Maine Coach and Athlete Cross Country Clinic was on August 18th, 2008 at the University of Southern Maine. This is the second part of my reporting on the clinic; the first part was about injury prevention and treatment. This part covers the presentation on nutrition and fueling.

Nutrition Basics & Fueling for Performance

The second presentation of the night was presented by Karen Hodge Knapton from Whole Health Consulting, who covered what a basic and healthy diet should consist of for an athlete.

“You cannot expect to start the season without a healthy diet.”

It takes months to prepare the body through healthy eating, and you can not concentrate solely on race day. To that effect, you need to be aware of the 6 basic nutrients that make up your diet.

  1. Water
  2. Vitamins
  3. Minerals
  4. Carbohydrates
  5. Protein
  6. Fats

Water is the most important nutrient in your diet, and is second only to Oxygen for keeping you alive. Without water, we would die within 3 days. How much water we need as individuals is going to vary, but for most athletes they can get by on 90 to 120 ounces per day. That 90-120 oz includes the water that is to be found in the foods you eat, so you don’t have to drink it all from the tap. Dehydration is a cumulative effect, and it takes days to dehydrate or to rehydrate your body, so you need to pay attention to getting enough into your system. Extra care should be placed on drinking water before, during and after exercise.

Vitamins & Minerals will come mostly from 9 to 13 servings of fruits and vegetables each day. You should strive for around 2 and a half cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruit, which in the grand scheme of things is not really very much but is still more than the average American diet. One of the side effects of training is that your immune system is going to be compromised, and restoring the vitamins and minerals will help it recover. Try not to rely upon supplements for your vitamins and minerals, though, because they are no going to contain fiber (which will exercise your internal organs) and they will not contain phytochemicals (which ward off degenerative diseases.)

Carbohydrates should be the backbone of an athlete’s diet, with between 6 and 13 servings per day coming from mostly whole grains. Carbs are the only thing to fuel working muscles, and are needed to refill the glycogen stores in your body. Glycogen is the only fuel that your brain can utilize, so it is especially important for student athletes to get enough carbohydrates in order to not only finish their workouts but to be able to pay attention in class.

Protein should be only 12% to 15% of your diet, which is only somewhere between 5 or 7 or 12 grams total. Protein is necessary to repair, maintain and promote muscle growth, but your body can’t store protein so only a small amount is necessary. Excess protein is excreted through your urine or is stored in your body as fat. There is a lot of wear and tear on your internal systems in order to break down and process any excess protein, so you don’t want to eat a lot of it at any given time. That small amount of protein can be plant based if necessary; it does not have to come from an animal.

Fats are important because they help your body to absorb vitamins and minerals.

Getting all 6 essential nutrients in each meal is not very difficult to do, but it requires a small amount of planning and preparation. If you only grab whatever is easily to hand, then the balance in your diet is going to get all out of whack and will make it more difficult for you to get through your day.

It is especially important to leave enough time in the morning for breakfast. If you do not eat breakfast, then you are going to bonk in practice and you will not be able to get your work load in.

“The only thing that makes you faster is hard work.”

Supplementation has its place, but is no substitute for working out and will not be a miracle cure. A sound basic diet, on the other hand, will allow you to do the hard work that is necessary to improve.

If you are taking supplements, then it can be more difficult to determine how well hydrated you are because they can discolor your urine and make it more difficult to monitor your output. The best way to determine how much water you need is to monitor your sweat rate by weighing yourself before and after working out to see how much water weight you lose during the workout.

Your tolerance to coffee or other sources of caffeine are going to be very individualized, so you will need to see what sorts of effects it can have on you through trial and error if you plan on including caffeine in your diet. There have literally been thousands of research studies done, so you can find relevant research to back up just about any result that you might find through your trial and error.