Registered dietitian Gemma Sampson takes on the four biggest myths about sports nutrition.
Britain’s on a health kick, with spending on gym memberships up by 44 per cent in 2015. It’s no surprise then that sports nutrition is all the rage as this new generation of gym bunnies try and squeeze the most out of their sessions.
But between people looking for a quick fix for their sports nutrition needs and companies desperately trying to flog their wares – a lot of false information is thrown about.
In this guide, registered dietitian Gemma Sampson lays out the facts and tackles four of the biggest sports nutrition myths that could be hampering, or even cancelling out your hard work at the gym.
I'm doing sport. I need a sports drink to stay hydrated and energised.
Unless you’re a professional athlete, or training seriously for an endurance event, probably not. When your training session lasts less than an hour, water is going to keep you hydrated perfectly. Most commercial sports drinks contain both carbohydrates and electrolytes and are designed to provide fuel to working muscles when burning large quantities of energy.
This is perfect for endurance athletes requiring a constant supply of fuel to the muscle to avoid running out of muscle glycogen (the main store of energy used by your muscles during exercise), but not so perfect for the weekend warrior, those lifting weights in the gym, going out for a run once or twice a week or wanting to lose a little weight. The additional calories within sports drinks may be providing unnecessary energy that you won’t use – cancelling out the benefits of your training and limiting the results you see on the scales (or tape measure).
Being adequately hydrated is important for sport, since dehydration can lead to impaired performance. But for most people with shorter training durations, water will do the trick just fine.
During summer, when the temperatures are soaring or when you’re sweating loads during a session, you may find a benefit in using an energy-free source of electrolytes to keep you well hydrated. These often come as convenient tablets that dissolve into bottles of water for hassle-free hydration.
The best training gains only come with sports supplements.
While there are hundreds of sports supplements available on the market, there are very few that have been found to really achieve what they say they can and some supplements like mac root powder actually have a high risk of contamination of substances that could lead to a positive drugs test. Critical information to know if you are competing professionally.
The gains that can be achieved from a supplement are usually quite small when compared to making changes to your overall diet quality - not to mention significantly more expensive.
It may not seem as sexy, but thinking ‘food first’ before supplements will give your body the best opportunity to perform and achieve your goals. No matter how hard you try, you can’t out-train a bad diet and performance will always be limited by a poor diet.
Start by eating regularly with wholesome, real-food ingredients - plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, lean meat, fish, poultry (if you eat meat), beans, nuts, legumes, wholegrain and dairy products.
Get the basics right before spending your hard-earned cash on expensive powders that can only offer marginal gains (at best) - which often only benefit those performing at an elite level.
Nutritious food doesn’t have to be boring and flavourless either. Experiment with different herbs, spices and sauces from different cuisines to incorporate these ingredients into your meals throughout the day and dare to venture beyond the bland and boring broccoli, boiled chicken and brown rice.
I train loads, so I can eat whatever I want.
Training all the time but not seeing the results you expect? Chances are your diet is letting you down somewhere. It’s easy enough to think that you can get away with eating anything you want when you up your activity levels, but most people tend to overestimate how much energy they’ve burnt during training, while at the same time, underestimating the amount of food and energy they’ve eaten.
The more you train, the more efficient your body also becomes at utilising the food you eat, which means that it can go longer and harder on much less. This is one reason why results can peak over time, requiring you to do more in order to get the same effect.
Start with the basics and take a good hard look at any extras or treats that might be regularly appearing in your diet. Whether it’s the muffin you eat after a training session because you ‘earned it’ or when you mindlessly snack on packets of crisps mid-afternoon due to boredom at work. These optional extras could be the reason why you aren’t seeing the results you expect.
It’s not a case for cutting them out entirely, as often, going cold turkey on comfort foods can trigger an unhealthy spiral effect of deprivation, bingeing and guilt. Instead, you should work on being more mindful about the reasons why you’re reaching for those discretionary foods and consider whether you are hungry and need a proper meal or nutritious snack, or whether it’s underlying boredom or just force of habit.
I must have a snack or protein shake within 30 minutes of finishing training or I'll miss the recovery period.
You can’t train properly at the gym without walking out with your protein shake in hand, right? Many people are aware that it’s important to refuel after a training session to allow muscle glycogen stores to recover or allow muscle protein synthesis to occur. However, unless you’re at the top of your game, that doesn’t mean resorting to expensive protein shakes or processed bars and drinks.
The 30-minute recovery period is most critical when training hard, multiple times a day, most days a week. Particularly in endurance events, where muscle glycogen stores are depleted. If you're an elite athlete training intensively two or three days a week - day in day out - recovery is critical to ensure your muscles get adequate time to refuel with glycogen.
For most people, training a few times a week with 14 hours or more between sessions, eating a normal meal or snack containing carbohydrate and protein within an hour of their training session is sufficient.
While there is a place for supplements, shakes and sports drinks when exercising regularly, getting the basics right with your everyday eating habits and eating plenty of wholesome nourishing food will give you the most bang for your buck. For specific advice on how you can achieve your sporting related nutrition goals, see a sports dietitian or sports nutritionist registered with the SENr (The Sport and Exercise Nutrition Register) for reliable information you can trust.
Gemma Sampson is a dietitian specialising in sports nutrition, and has experience in a wide variety of clinical roles helping people with conditions including coeliac disease, malnutrition and cancer. Gemma’s passion for helping others achieve a healthier lifestyle led her to found Dietitian without Borders – a site born out of her love for travel, nutrition, food and sport.
If you’ve had any experiences with supplements, shakes or sports drinks you’d like to share – or sports nutrition questions you’d like to ask – be sure to leave us a comment below, or give us a shout on Facebook or Twitter.
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