I just completed a 4-day intensive sports nutrition course put on by the Dietitians of Canada Sports Nutrition network, in conjunction with Sports Dietitians Australia, so I’m feeling pretty jazzed about this topic right now. The tough thing with sports nutrition is that a lot of the research and guidelines are for high performance athletes – people who train at least once a day, if not two or three times, so translating that to regular folks who “only” exercise a few times a week doesn’t always make sense. With that in mind, here are some sport nutrition myths that tend to get tossed around when people are looking to get the more from their work outs.
1. Bodybuilders must be healthy – why else would they look so good?
We live in a society where we’ve associated looking good with being healthy. Someone lost weight – they must be healthy! Someone is muscular – they must be healthy!
Possible steroid use aside, many bodybuilders are often on crazy diets – slashing carbs and dehydrating themselves – in the days leading up to competition to get their physique to look a certain way. During the conference, I learned that some distance athletes will get down to a “competition weight” so that there is less of themselves to carry through the long race, only to return to their normal weight as soon as the race is over.
Bottom line – if it’s not sustainable, it’s probably not healthy.
2. It doesn’t matter what I eat – I can burn it off.
It’s easy to use exercise as an excuse to not pay as much attention to our nutrition. (“I was on the elliptical for half an hour – I totally deserve this donut!”) The reality is, we spend more time eating than we do moving. Even an elite athlete who trains multiple times a day will “only” have 700 training sessions per year, compared to around 2,000 eating occasions per year! So, keeping good eating habits, whether it’s a training day or a rest day, is important to make sure your body is getting the right fuel to help you achieve your best. We also tend to overestimate the amount of exercise that we do, while underestimating how much we eat, meaning it might take longer to “burn off” whatever “nutrition sin” you’re trying to erase than you think.
Of course that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have any treats at all. It’s just that exercise does not fix a poor diet – fixing your diet fixes a poor diet.
3. You need to eat lots of protein in order to gain muscle.
Most bodybuilding websites would have you believe that you need to eat somewhere close to 2 grams of protein per pound of body weight in order to gain muscle. (Conveniently, they often recommend that you achieve this by buying the protein powders from their website!) The reality is, even elite strength athletes don’t need more than 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight to get the most out of our performance. Our bodies can only use about 20 to 30 grams of protein at a time for muscle growth; the rest is converted into energy, with the extra nitrogen being removed from our body as waste. Protein shakes are a pretty expensive (and not very tasty) source of energy, if you ask me!
For any type of activity, carbs should be your primary source of energy, as it is the most efficient source of fuel for the body. Making sure that you’re getting enough carbs with your protein means that your body will use these macros for what they’re best at (and it’s easier on your wallet!)
4. You need to start eating right after your workout in order to recover.
More and more research is showing that it’s not what you eat before your workout, it’s what you eat after that matters. One presenter at the conference put it this way – we train so that we can get better, but you can’t go through the hardest workout of your life, and then expect to run your PB right after. After you train, proper rest and recovery allows your body to repair and adapt itself, and that’s how you get better.
Still, that doesn’t mean you need to start guzzling a protein shake or rip open a pack of protein bars as soon as you put down the weights – it’s true that for athletes who have hard workouts every day, or multiple times a day, starting the recovery process right away is important, but for people who might have a day or two between workouts to recover, the timing is less crucial. As long as you have a balanced meal or snack within two hours of your workout, you should be fine. Why waste your money and stomach space on a shake when you can take the time to sit down and enjoy real food?
5. Forget water – you should be drinking sports drinks, protein shakes or coconut water during your workout.
It irks me a little when I see the water bottles or blender bottles filled with multi-coloured liquids when I workout at the gym. With lots of sleek marketing using celebrity athletes, it’s easy to think that sports drinks or protein shakes will give you the energy or the “edge” for your workout. Commercial sports drinks are intended for vigorous activity lasting longer than 60-90 minutes. These contain carbohydrate in the form of sugar, which helps replenish glycogen stores spent during the activity, as well as electrolytes like sodium and potassium, which may be lost through sweat. Protein shakes come in many different forms, but are basically intended to be a liquid protein source. They usually also contain carbohydrate in the form of sugar to mask the bitter, chalkiness of pure protein, though some are artificially sweetened. Many will also throw in some supplements, like creatine or BCAA, for an extra boost.
If you’re just hitting the weights for less than an hour at a time, just drinking water is fine. You’re probably not working out hard enough or long enough to need the carbs and electrolytes in a sports drink, and having protein during a workout is not going to help you. In fact, since it’s slow to digest, it might even give you stomach upset and make you feel sluggish.
Many people are turning to coconut water as a “natural” alternative to sports drinks. Compared to sports drinks, however, coconut water generally has too much potassium and too little sodium and carbohydrate to help you rehydrate properly. That being said, if you find that having something with flavour helps you drink more, then sports drinks or coconut water might be an OK choice, especially since drinking something other than pure water helps your body hold onto it more. (Think of how much fluid you retain when you eat salty food.) Just make sure the extra calories are in line with your other health and nutrition goals.