Nutrition Basics for the Everyday Athlete with Amy Meegan

Whether you are semi-professional or a complete novice, knowing the basics of nutrition are essential for every athlete. On a very general level, good nutrition is important for three key areas:

  • Repair and recovery of muscles after exercise.
  • Building immune system and fighting infection.
  • Maintaining vital organs

A good diet will not turn an average athlete into a superstar, but a poor diet may prevent an athlete from achieving their potential. In general, athletes have higher nutritional requirements than those of the general population. This includes higher calorie, fluid and some vitamins and minerals.

 

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are a key macronutrient for athletes. They are the body’s preferred source of energy and athletes should consider their carbohydrates intake pre-exercise, during exercise and post-exercise.

When we eat carbohydrates, the body breaks them down to realise glucose. Glucose is a sugar molecule which provides the body with energy. After this glucose has been utilised, the body breaks down glycogen to release more glucose. Glycogen is a storage form of glucose that is stored in the muscles and liver. Post-exercise carbohydrates are important for replenishing glycogen stores and should be nutrient-dense.

 

Endurance athletes such as long-distance runners, swimmers, and cyclists may take gels during events. Gels are quick-release energy sources in the form of liquid pouches or sweets. Current guidelines advise to start taking your gel after one hour of running. This is when your glycogen stores are likely to be going down. Gels typically contain 25-30g carbohydrates per portion and our bodies can digest a maximum of 60g carbohydrates per hour. Therefore, aim for 2 gels per hour after your first hour of running/cycling/swimming.

 

Protein

The main role of protein in the diet is for growth, maintenance, and repair of muscles and tissue. In simple terms, proteins are the building blocks of their body. Protein can be used as a source of energy for athletes. However, this rarely happens as the body’s preferred source of energy is carbohydrates.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) currently recommends that the general public consume 0.8g protein per kilogram of body weight per day (e.g. 0.8g protein X 60kg person = 48g protein per day). Athletes need slightly more protein in their diets than the rest of the population in order to repair and build muscle. However, to avoid stress and strain on the kidneys, one’s protein intake should not exceed more than 2g protein per kilogram of body weight per day.

Achieving protein requirements throughout the day is achievable through diet alone. It is not necessary to consume protein shakes and/or protein bars.

  • 1 slice turkey/chicken = 7g protein
  • 125g pot of natural yogurt = 6g protein
  • 1 small tin of tuna (100g tin) = 19g protein
  • 1 egg = 7g protein
  • 25g skimmed milk powder (5 heaped tsp) = 9g protein
  • 330ml (1/2 pint) low fat milk = 11g protein
  • 30g low-fat cheddar cheese = 10g protein
  • 60g feta cheese = 10g protein
  • 50g cashew nuts = 10g protein

Be cautious with protein powders and food supplements that claim to stimulate muscle growth. Protein powders are highly processed and are often heated to a point that denatures the protein, making it difficult for the body to recognize and use. The result is elevated levels of acidity and toxicity in the body which can lead to unwanted illnesses and diseases.

 

Fat

Fats are a source of energy for the body. However, as previously mentioned, the body will always prioritise carbohydrates as the main source of energy.

It is recommended that fat accounts for 25-30% of total energy intake. It is important to meet these dietary recommendations as fat in the diet provides essential fatty acids for normal body functions such as eye and brain development and hormone and cholesterol production.

When choosing dietary fat sources, one should always opt for unsaturated fats, as opposed to saturated fats. Good sources of unsaturated fats include avocados, nuts, seeds, olive oil and salmon.

Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

Hydration

Adequate hydration status is of utmost importance for any athlete. Dehydration can impair performance and impact performance. Urine colour is a simple indicator of hydration status – the goal should be pale yellow, not clear and not dark yellow/brown. Don’t wait until you are thirsty to drink, at this point the body is already dehydrated.

In many cases, water is sufficient for post-exercise rehydration. However, if you have exercised for over 60 minutes, if the weather is very hot and/or if you have sweated profusely, sports drinks may be necessary to replace electrolytes (potassium, sodium, and chloride) that have been lost through sweating. For a more natural option, rehydrate with a banana for potassium and a glass of milk or add a pinch of salt to a glass of water/cordial.

 

Vitamins and Minerals

Food is the best source of vitamins and minerals. In general, the body should be able get enough micronutrients from a healthy, balanced diet. However, athletes can be at risk of deficiencies if they are restricting energy intake and/or excluding food groups from the diet. The most common vitamins and minerals found to be of concern in athletes’ diets are calcium and vitamin D, iron, magnesium, as well as some antioxidants such as vitamin C.

 

Micronutrient

Food Sources

Calcium

Dairy products – milk, cheese, yogurt

Canned sardines and salmon with bones

Enriched plant milks

Vitamin D

Sunlight

Egg yolks

Enriched mushrooms

Fortified milks and spreads

Salmon, mackerel, and trout

Iron

Red meat

Tofu

Green leafy vegetables, e.g. spinach, kale

Fortified bread, cereal, and milk

Magnesium

Nuts

Seeds

Spinach

Chickpeas

Bran cereals

Vitamin C

Oranges

Strawberries

Tomatoes

Broccoli

Grapefruit

 

In summary, a healthy diet for athletes should include:

  • Plenty of wholemeal/wholegrain bread, pasta, and cereal, lean meat/chicken/fish, eggs, beans and lentils, nuts, dairy, unsaturated fats, fruit and vegetables.
  • Limited amounts of alcohol and saturated fat, e.g. confectionary and fried foods.
  • Variety – different food types and colour contain different vitamins and minerals.
  • Plenty of water – sports drinks only when necessary.
  • Vitamin or mineral supplements, only when clinically indicated.

 

Nutritional and dietary needs and preferences differ from person to person. For bespoke advice on foods for optimizing sporting performance, consultation with a qualified nutritionist/dietitian is recommended.

Amy Meegan, BSc (Hons) Human Nutrition, University College Dublin.

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Wellfest 2019

So this year we trialed the Healing Area at WellFest! Now that we have seen it from both sides I am going to bring you through the highlights of WellFest 2019! It’s a festival geared at those interested in the world of health and fitness – so where else is more appropriate to find two Athletic Therapists! It’s packed with talks, classes, workshops and food vendors.

2019’s Top Five Picks

First up Ben Coomber, a coach who has openly talked about the relationship with nutrition and improvements in performance without a lot of the typical industry ideals of what people should be putting into their bodies and what they actually need to put into the body. He is a very approachable figure even holding a very Frank and honest Q&A with people who had attended his talk and was happy to give personal examples and was happy to answer any questions who could.

Next up is Gerry Hussey, a veteran to Wellfest at this stage and many other events, he is a sports psychologist and over the weekend held or was part of a number of talks. Albeit he takes a more holistic approach he makes really valid points about mindset and control which is valuable to everyone, not just from a therapist perspective. Learning to let go of what you can’t control and learning to believe in yourself were my two biggest take aways. Not just for me personally, but for my clients when they are recovering from injury, this mindset that if you believe in the actions you are taking and put the effort in equal to that belief will lead to improvements.

Huku Balance has brought balance conditioning to a whole new level. Cathal had a very slick set up to showcase the boards which are hand made and also environmentally friendly having his set up on the west coast of Donegal. These boards originally designed to help improve those involved in surfing and skateboarding are brilliant for balance and proprioception, with their unique shapes and size they are perfect to help with lower body rehab all the way to upper body stability work. The aesthetic quality and variability in his products really make them stand out of the crowd.

Yogaru is definitely someone everyone should either look up or make sure to see in future Wellfest events. She takes all the best parts of yoga and makes them accessible to every level. Her explanations of each routine, as well as her yoga card sets, mean that you can either have a full sequence with its difficulty stated beforehand, laid out for you which is great for beginners and intermediate level people involved in yoga. Her sessions and sets are also organised too, with certain sequences being relaxing, some to help energise and some to even help with cramped and tight after a day of desk work.

And lastly Owen Feeney AT with Peter Lacey and ARTI which I know is giving myself a pat on the back but I am really proud that this year we were able to not only attend but work at the event and show the general public what we are all about. Other than my own chance at being the first AT to work at the event there was also a large number of talks and events that truly made the event special and I think that we were able to provide a great service to the event as well as help a lot of people over the weekend.

Really looking forward to what possibilities next years WellFest will bring!

Age is only a number

Recently I spoke about the benefits of exercise and injury prevention for everyone even those well into their older ages. People of every age benefit from exercise and injury prevention at every level but many people after a certain stage let their levels of activity fall away and its this gradual but long term situation where activity levels and different forms of exercise become obsolete in our lives which will only make things harder for ourselves in the future.

This concept that we suddenly reach a best before date is something that has never really made sense. We live for much longer and also work for longer into our lives. As such we should be more active in our later lives as well doing a greater variety of activities into our later lives. But sadly we have yet to keep up with this increase in our life spans with many people continuously doing less by the time they are over 60 years old. The link below shows a woman in her 70’s keeping up with a woman in her 20’s. They aren’t doing the same level of loading in their exercises but the quality of their movements is as good as each other showing that we often make excuses for why we don’t do certain things or as is normal we let injuries and pains persist and live with them even though they lower our quality of living.

https://instagram.com/p/BvCIXZdF3eE/

Exercises involving resistance and loading where the whole body is involved have already been shown to help to maintain body function to a high level as well as to aid issues we often develop such as arthritis and muscle weakening. We as a population still seem to shy away from the activites that involve heading to a gym or asking people of expertise what should we do. This spans mainly from strength and conditioning still being relatively young in its presence in Ireland as well as the strong relationship we have to field and team sports. These sports often have an end date to many people ending these sports shortly after their mid 20’s and the specialisation that often happens in the training of these sports which often leaves gaps in what can be gained from solely doing them.

So we come to the main point, if age doesn’t really stop us from being able to do these activities and they have also been shown to help a number of health-related issues why do we still just accept this decline in our activity levels? Why do we happily accept the old story of, “well I’m getting on in age now”. There’s a phrase often used that we are only as old as we feel, so then we should never let ourselves be fooled into thinking old age means not being able to handle exercise. So take those chances and try new types of activites and training and always treat your body with the respect it’s due, it may be older now but it got you all the way here surely you owe it some TLC.

Saying goodbye to rugby…..Again!!

So where do I start? This year I returned to playing rugby for the first time in five years. I had been away from the sport as a result of a Talor dome fracture of my ankle which occurred during a rugby match of all things. I ended up doing the usual where I spent a very long time after getting my initial scan where the prognosis of the injury changed from week to week. After doing this for nearly 5 weeks I decided to stop going to the hospital and decided to sort myself out as I had reached a point where I had to meet with new doctors each week and have a new diagnosis each time. I spent the following year rehabbing my injury but had reached a roadblock. I wasn’t able to walk more than five minutes without my ankle swelling up and I would be in excruciating pain. At the time the ankle would lock up and cease when I was walking.

I decided to then get a scan which was quickly followed by surgery a month later after I finished my second year of college. I had my surgery which was meant to be quick keyhole surgery, lasting a little over two hours. Over four hours later and I woke up very tired and very sore. I hadn’t realised what was going on and after several days of severe pain, I had the written description of the surgery. I was shocked, to say the least, my surgery involved the removal of 2 pieces of cartilage, a new piece of bone, a shaved down Achilles tendon, a reconstructed deltoid ligament complex and 2 pins and wires now inside my ankle. As you might expect I was pretty surprised and also rehab time was slightly increased.

So after a long return after injury, complications, college, and rehab, I was able to play again. My first season back started off slow, taking a long time before I was able to play and keep up with the pace of the game like I once could. I had already thought that rugby was something I could never play again so to be able to return to it. The comradery and social aspect was also something that few other sports can equal when it comes to rugby. Sadly in my last game of the season, I picked up another injury.

The term ignorance is bliss could never have been truer in this instance as nearly immediately after the initial shock I knew exactly what had been injured in my leg. I sat in a daze on the side of the pitch as the last minutes of the game ticked down and I was carried to a car and driven home so I could make my way to a clinic to have my knee scanned. I sat in my little cubicle knowing that rugby was now sadly something not that I physically couldn’t do again but something I shouldn’t play again as I had become self-employed I suddenly came to a very abrupt realisation that I now couldn’t work and was now unsure as to when I could return to full work.

After chasing an MRI down for several weeks, I was able to get the results that I had already known in my own head. I had damaged my ACL, MCL, and cartilage. This would stop me from being able to do pitch side work with my teams for a long time but by the time I had received my results I had returned to clinical work out of necessity to pay the bills. I still have to wait to see if surgery is necessary but I have retired from rugby for what seems like the second time in my life but this time because I sadly realise that my life has changed in what I can and should do, which sounds terribly pessimistic but I love my job and I nearly took this injury harder than when I found out I needed surgery to my ankle previously.

I think it is more the choices you take, so I choose to be able to be an active therapist where I work in my own clinic, with my own teams and be involved with events all over the country, which is what my job lets me do. My job gives me massive amounts of freedom to enjoy the other aspects of my life around it. But I am not leaving rugby behind fully as I have also decided that I will train to do coaching so that I can still be involved with my club and be able to use what I have already learned with the teams I have worked with still enjoy rugby but from a safe distance from now on.

Giving Blood

Recently I gave blood. This is not something special or something new, or at least that’s what I believed when I went into the clinic. Due to my job, I understand the physiological makeup and function of blood and its importance but that is about as far as that goes. I’ve never received blood or been in a position where I would have to worry about it. I have had surgery and done all the rehab imaginable but I had thankfully never been in a position where I needed to receive blood. I have given blood Continue reading “Giving Blood”

Hiking as a form of rehab

Hiking has easily one of the most popular outdoor activities in Ireland after field sports. Irelands landscape allows for some of the most enjoyable and challenging hikes possible. As enjoyable as hiking can be, due to the environment in which it is done in, it can also help train or challenge several different aspects of our health. The long-distance pushes our cardio, the changes in incline and decline push our entire lower bodies and backs, the altitude makes it tougher on our respiratory Continue reading “Hiking as a form of rehab”