Photo by Oskar Karlin
Performance nutrition is defined as using food and fluids strategically, to optimize training and performance. For many, this may require seeing food in a new way: eating to optimize training and work, rather than training just so we can eat. In order for nutrition to be performance focused, goals for training and competition must be set to drive one’s nutrition plan. For triathletes, this frequently includes goals such as increased stamina, improved body composition, or racing without GI distress or muscle cramps. This mentality towards food can be extended into our performance at work as well. Goals for the workplace might include improved cognitive function and steady energy levels—both which allow for a more productive, enjoyable day.
Nutrient timing is a key aspect of performance nutrition. Simply put, this is about identifying key time points within the day where food or fluid consumption will impact your training goals, an aspect of competition, or your performance at work. In the case of food, this will also involve determining the best type of fuel source for achieving energy demands and your main performance goal.
Meals or snacks can have a fast, moderate, or slow rate of digestion and absorption depending on the ratio and type of carbohydrate, protein, and fat that the food and fluid contain. Here are some examples of nutrition strategies that can apply simultaneously to performance goals in training and performing well at work.
The power of low-glycemic foods
Low-glycemic foods (like most vegetables, fruits, and whole grains) optimize our energy. Improvements in the ratio of muscle to fat mass result in an enhanced power to weight ratio, which is critical to an athlete’s success in triathlon. Reducing fat mass and increasing muscle mass is best achieved through energy intake via moderately sized, low-glycemic meals or snacks that are consumed every three to four hours throughout the day. In addition, low-glycemic foods consumed prior to exercise have been shown to increase time to exhaustion, allowing for a high quality training session. In addition, focusing on a nutrition plan that is based on low-glyemic foods can also optimize mental energy at work. Maintaining stable blood glucose levels can help in tasks that require sustained attention and complex analysis b
Hydration for recovery and mental performance
Good hydration is critical for a number of physical reasons, but many don’t realize the significant impact it can also have on mental performance. Have you ever been in the middle of a workday and wondered why you feel so tired and sluggish, despite eating regular meals? Dehydration might be the culprit. Dehydration by more than 1 percent of body weight leads to decreased cognitive function and mental energy. By consuming small amounts of water or other low-calorie fluids every 15 to 20 minutes, we improve our mental function and our physical recovery. Fluids help remove waste products from the body that are generated by normal metabolism and exercise. They also help to optimize muscle recovery by keeping body temperature at its optimal point.
Timing caffeine ingestion
When we feel good, we perform well in training and at work. Caffeine is a nutritional supplement that acts as a stimulant to the central nervous system and helps to sustain mental and physical performance. It increases the release of beta-endorphins (especially during exercise), which not only promote a feeling of well-being but, perhaps surprisingly, can also help us to relax later in the day.
Caffeine enhances physical performance through the recruitment of muscle fibers and by liberating fat for use as a fuel source. Up to 300 mg of caffeine can be safely consumed by healthy individuals on a daily basis. While some love to get a strong “hit” of caffeine in the morning to get them thinking or moving, a more strategic and timed use of caffeine depending on when we need it the most might be best. Throughout the work day, consumption of caffeine in small, even doses may help to sustain cognitive function and mood by ensuring that we don’t experience withdrawal symptoms, and so that we leave work feeling good enough to train. In the case of a long distance triathlon, gradually increasing the amount of caffeine with each ingestion of carbohydrate can help to sustain focus, energy and muscle recruitment over a prolonged period of time. When the going gets tough in the later stages of a race, we need all the “feel good” energy we can get!
Performance nutrition is about designing what you eat and drink to gain an advantage in physical and mental performance. Develop a new mindset towards your food to achvieve the goals you have for training and work. Start today by identifying three key goals you have for your own performance and see how you can purposefully eat and drink your way to success.
Krista Austin is a physiologist and nutritionist who consults for the Nike Oregon Project, numerous track and field athletes, USA Triathlon, among others. She’s worked as a physiologist for the U.S. Olympic Committee and as a performance nutritionist for the English Institute of Sport and England’s Cricket Team. She has a PhD in exercise physiology and sports nutrition, a master’s degree in exercise physiology, and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. Visit her online at www.performanceandnutritioncoaching.com