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Complete Sports Nutrition: WHAT, WHEN and WATER

Click to order Dr. Wilson’s book

This is an article by Dr. Clyde Wilson, used with permission.

Legal disclaimer: Since we are not doctors, never follow anything based on health-related topics on this or related sites without first consulting with your doctor or other trusted health professional.

There is an obvious need for sufficient calories during intensive training. Not so obvious are how much and how often we should consume specific nutrients. Protein, carbohydrate and water are not easily stored in the body, forcing us to consume them regularly. Hunger and thirst sensations serve as reminders of our needs, but these sensations don't tell us the best combination and timing of nutrients for driving health and performance. For example, we often don't feel hungry right after waking in the morning or after exercise even though the body has low blood and amino acid levels at those times.

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What you should eat: Meal balance

Saying that we should eat "balanced" meals indicates that we have a sense of our need for different kinds of foods. But what "balance" actually looks like on a plate has been debated for over two thousand years since the original Olympians started eating for performance and Hippocrates told us that food is medicine. Clinical and epidemiological research indicate that roughly one quarter of our calories from each food group every six hours is a good starting point to find what works best for each individual. The food groups are protein, produce (fruits and vegetables), fat (mainly unsaturated) and starch (which are legumes, tubers, and cereals).

When you should eat: Caloric pacing

The body has a limited capacity to absorb nutrients into lean tissues at any one time, which is why it is best to pace your calories through the day by having small meals and eating foods that digest slowly. Coarse whole grains digest slower than processed grains and therefore have a greater health and performance impact. Vegetables, particularly when raw, slow the digestion of an entire meal so that more of that meal goes to muscle instead of body fat. This reduces the number of calories an athlete needs to consume to achieve their full genetic potential. The alternative is to take a "sports fueling" approach to your nutrition, leading to excessive carbohydrate, a "muscle building" approach, leading to excessive protein, or a "fat loss" approach, leading to a shortage of dietary fats with very slow exercise recovery. All lead to reduced power, increased body fat, or both, reducing the power-to-weight ratio.

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Water: Fluid pacing

Hydration is the critical last piece. Drink 1 liter or quart (mainly as water) per 1000 Cal that you eat, plus replace your exercise perspiration losses. As with calories, fluids should be evenly paced through your training and your day because we can't store extra fluid in our body for later use.

[WIND: this isn’t quite true: glycogen takes 3 pounds of water for every pound of glycogen. So burning off 1 pound of glycogen releases 3 pounds of water. This is a trick I (Lloyd) uses for double centuries, and it explains why severe dehydration does not occur for some hours even when losing 2 liters of water an hour]

Putting it all together

What you are eating, when you are eating it, and water; all three are needed to provide the basis for your health and sports nutrition. Every athlete has different nutritional needs because of different genetics, training, and food preferences. But the common aspects of physiology that we all share allows us to take what we learn from science as the starting point from which we experiment within our own lives to find what works best for us personally.

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