We are told that we all need to cut back on the salt. And for most people – this is very prudent advice – especially those who are inactive or eating highly processed diets – which generally delivers too much salt. Excess dietary salt can increase blood pressure, which is linked to an increased risk of stroke and heart attacks, and can also strain the kidneys. Cutting back on sodium and increasing the intake of potassium-rich foods could reduce stroke by 21% studies show. (Read: Shifting the balance of sodium and potassium).
But is a ‘healthy low salt diet‘ – truly healthier for everyone?
Certain people might actually need a little more sodium than they are getting – including those suffering from adrenal fatigue/hypofunction, chronically low blood pressure, and endurance athletes.
Sodium is an Electrolyte
Salt is a combination of sodium and chloride – which are two important electrolytes. Electrolytes are electrically charged ions in our blood – they regulate our fluids balance, blood pressure, are needed for the proper functioning of nerves and muscles, and energy production – they are kind of like our ‘spark plugs.’ When an athlete works out – they sweat – which means they lose fluids and electrolytes. So if an athlete gets depleted of electrolytes (including sodium) – they could start to feel fatigued, weak, sore and generally could run out of steam. If allowed to progress – it can become more serious, even dangerous.
If an athlete has worked out hard for more than an hour – especially in hot conditions – plain water is not likely enough to properly and fully rehydrate. In fact, guzzling a lot of plain water when someone is dehydrated can lead to a condition called hyponatremia – which is a low concentration of sodium in the blood. Generally chronic hyponatremia (which develops more gradually) produces milder symptoms, while the acute type can be very serious, potentially leading to brain swelling and coma. According to the Mayo Clinic, “A normal sodium level is between 135 and 145 milliequivalents per liter (mEq/L). Hyponatremia occurs when sodium levels fall below 135 mEq/L.”
Dehydration can cause muscle aches/cramps, headache, and nausea. If caught early when symptoms are mild, these generally will respond to a rehydration drink or salty/mineral-rich foods paired with water. But if an athlete displays any signs of serious dehydration or hyponatremia – including disorientation, slurred speech, weakness, or strange behavior – seek medical treatment immediately as it can be a life-threatening situation.
Some signs you could be deficient in organic sodium – muscle weakness, spasms, or cramping; loss of flexibility; headaches/migraines; heart burn or digestive issues; stiff or painful joints; fatigue; restless legs; osteoporosis; and hardening of the arteries.
Not all salt is created equal
Foods with naturally occurring organic sodium or a high quality unprocessed salt like pink Himalayan, Celtic, or Real Salt brand are not the same as table salt. Processed table salt typically has anti-caking agents, and processing removes all of the trace minerals, which makes the remaining sodium and chloride less bio-available to the body – and it is more difficult to excrete excesses too. It may not be possible to always get the good quality salt – but it is the only kind we use in our house. Note: unprocessed salt generally should have some color – pink, grey, etc. Potassium-rich foods help to balance out our sodium levels.
The best thing for an athlete to do – is to follow the good ole’ boy scout motto – and be prepared. Come to your workouts and competitions well-hydrated, and have everything you need in your bag to stay that way.
Products to consider packing in your bag:
You could also make your own homemade sports drink by combining 8 oz water (or coconut water), with 8 oz. fresh juice (such as orange), 1/8 tsp high quality salt (300 mg of sodium), and 1/2 tsp honey or your favorite natural sweetener. Here are some other homemade sports drink recipes to consider trying too.
Some other considerations:
Research shows that the majority of kids today are chronically dehydrated, with 1/4 drinking no water all day long! Young athletes need to take their hydration seriously. One reason that kids may not be drinking enough water – is because they are not thirsty! You might find that adding a little more sodium-rich foods to the diet can help to re-stimulate the thirst mechanism. On hot days, I often put a small pinch of Real Salt in my kids water bottle that they bring to school, especially the morning after a hard workout. I also like to use a trace mineral supplement called SpectraMin which contains 63 ionic trace minerals and helps support hydration, it also pairs well with a product called Rehydration – which together helps to encourage thirst and get the fluids and electrolytes into the cells.
Some additional reading/articles:
Article written by Nutritionist Sara Vance, author of the book The Perfect Metabolism Plan A regular guest on Fox 5 San Diego, you can see many of Sara’s segments on her media page. She also offers corporate nutrition, school programs, consultations, and affordable online eCourses. Download her free 40+ page Metabolism Jumpstart eBook here.
©2015, all rights reserved. Sara Vance.
I just watched the Showtime documentary Stop at Nothing the other night, this powerful film profiles Lance Armstrong’s obsession with winning, fame, and power.
Watching that film got me thinking about the one thing that all serious competitive athletes have in common is – they have a very powerful desire to win. In order to win, an athlete knows they need to set goals, train hard, and that means that they need to be able to push through pain and overcome adversity. Often they have to make sacrifices in other areas of their lives to truly commit to their chosen sport.
The better an athlete gets at their sport and the tougher the competition gets – the harder it gets to stay on top. I understand the immense pressure Lance Armstrong and other serious athletes are under to win.
Unfortunately, Lance chose to take the illegal and unethical path of using banned substances to gain an unfair edge. It eventually cost him everything – his Tour de France titles, all his lucrative contracts, and the respect of the world. His actions and choices led to disgrace. I hope one lesson that young athletes can learn from Lance’s mistakes, is that it is not worth compromising your character to win, and that trying to rely on the “quick fix” might come back to bite you in more ways than one. Because even some of the legal substances that athletes think will help them gain an edge can potentially lead to deficiencies in other areas of performance or recovery, and potentially even serious health trouble (ranging from dehydration to cramping and even organ dysfunction). Just because a product might make your muscles look bigger, does not mean that they are necessarily stronger, or will make you be able perform better.
The good news, is there are a number of natural and healthy ways for athletes to gain a competitive edge today. One area that all too often gets overlooked is the power of using foods to improve performance and recovery. And the cool thing about nutritional approaches? Beyond the performance & recovery benefits, they can also offer other health benefits ranging from disease prevention to brain function and balancing mood. The first step is simple –
Just get the junk out!
Realize that the majority of people (yes, even athletes too) are eating way too many processed foods and getting too much sugar (read about what happened to a man who ate 40 teaspoons of sugar a day in just 60 days – which is a little more than the average teenage boy gets). The more processed foods in your diet – the more energy the body has to expend on detoxification, the more bogged down the body will become, and the less energy you will have for your training. Processed diets are nutritionally deficient – and athletes need nutrients to perform and recover. Another thing that happens to the body when the diet has too much sugar or processed ingredients – inflammation. An athlete’s enemy, inflammation leads to swelling, pain, and can degrade performance, range of motion, flexibility, and recovery. Inflammation raises our risk of overuse injuries, asthma, and almost every major disease. Simply cleaning up the diet and staying properly hydrated, and getting more plant-based foods, high quality grass fed or organic proteins, and cutting out the junk – will give an athlete an edge over the competition.
Got a clean diet and ready to take it a step further? Check out these superfoods to see if they can help to take you and your performance to the next level.
5 Performance-Enhancing Superfoods:
Although not typically the first thing that comes to mind when talking about athletic performance, mushroom’s are one of nature’s most powerful superfoods – and could be an athlete’s secret weapon. Mushrooms are a type of fungi, or bacteria that can offer a wide range of health benefits ranging from immune-boosting to performance-enhancing effects. They have been used medicinally in Asia for thousands of years. Although you will get health benefits from adding a few button mushrooms into your omelette, for performance enhancement, athletes will want to look to medicinal-grade mushrooms like cordyceps, reishi, turkey tail, and lion’s mane. An ideal way to incorporate them into an athlete’s diet is with certified organic mushroom powders, which can be added to things like smoothies, soups and drinks. Interested in seeing how mushrooms can boost your performance?
A local company called Mushroom Matrix, offers organic mushroom powders, and have extended a 10% off coupon for me to share with you, enter: rebalancelife at checkout to get your 10% discount. Some Mushroom Matrix organic powders to try:
Make sure to choose organic when purchasing mushrooms or mushroom powders/supplements.
2. Beetroot juice or powders
Google beetjuice and performance, and you will find a plethora of articles touting the benefits – “beets are like legal blood-doping” and “like taking performance enhancing drugs.” At the Olympic training center in London – athletes were eschewing the brightly colored sports drinks and downing bright pink cocktails of beet juice, pineapple, ginger and orange juice instead. The benefits of beet juice come from their high content of nitrates, which are converted in the body into nitric oxide – which causes blood vessel dilation, and improves energy production and usage – which makes the body more efficient, and supports the heart to do it’s work. You can juice whole organic beets, or buy a beetroot powder. I recommend if you do incorporate beets/use a powder, to make sure it is non-GMO or organic. Add some spinach, chard and celery to your drink too – as they also are high in nitrates. One example of a organic beet powder to try is Superbeets organic beet powder, just 1 teaspoon is equivalent to eating 3 organic beets.
One thing to point out with beetjuice – it can change the color of your stool and urine. So don’t freak out the day after trying beet juice when your toilet water looks pink.
3. Chia seeds
From the book Born to Run: “In terms of nutritional content, a tablespoon of chia is like a smoothie made from salmon, spinach, and human growth hormone.” An ancient Aztec superfood, chia seeds may rival mushrooms as one of the oldest performance-enhancing foods. Chia seeds gave the ancient Aztec warriors the long-lasting energy and endurance they needed to go into battle. Chia seeds boost endurance, energy, hydration, focus/attention, and reduce inflammation. Chia seeds are an excellent source of omega 3 fatty acids, and are also high in fiber, protein, and have a number of minerals including calcium, magnesium, and potassium – all important for athletes. Omega 3s are shown to lower inflammation – critical for recovery and injury prevention. Unlike flax, chia is rich in antioxidants, which means it will not go rancid after grinding, and helps to prevent free radical damage. Chia seed are uniquely hydrophillic, so when they come in contact with water, they form a gel-like substance. This chia gel slows the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream, helping to level out bloodsugar and maintain energy/endurance. Chia gel also holds on to water, which helps to maintain hydration – very important for an athlete. Always make sure to consume chia seeds with plenty of water or liquids to prevent dehydration, I like to soak the chia seeds for about 5 minutes before consuming to ensure they are hydrated. Add chia seeds to your smoothie, or make chia pudding.
4. Virgin Coconut Oil
Medium chain fatty acids (MCTs) which are found in coconut oil have been known in the body building industry for a few decades as a superior form of fat. Medium chain fatty acids are more readily converted to energy by the body, so it is also less likely to be stored as fat. Coconut oil is more easily digested, so it is less likely to cause stomach upset than other fats. Taking coconut oil in the morning helps to train the body to use fat as fuel, instead of glucose. If an athlete can get their body out of sugar-burning mode – that can be a key advantage over the competition. I recommend adding a teaspoon or two of coconut oil to your morning smoothie, chia pudding, or oatmeal. A 1978 study also found that coconut oil increases the body’s production of hGH within 30-90 minutes of ingesting it. Coconut oil has some other key advantages – first, it is a m
5. Goji berries
Another ancient superfood with a rich history, the goji berry is a small red berry that has a slightly tart flavor. Also known as wolfberries, they can be eaten raw or made into a tea. Goji berries are known to naturally increase the body’s production of human growth hormone – which is known to improve performance and also has anti-aging effects.
Using nutrition is a healthy and ethical way for athletes to improve their performance, endurance, and recovery.
Note: although some foods can impact performance immediately, others will take longer to build up into the system – so allow up to 4 weeks of consistently taking them to reach the full benefit. Also, some people might notice a difference/benefit from adding superfoods, while others may not.
The other benefit of adding superfoods to your diet – is that they can offer many benefits beyond just performance and recovery enhancement – ranging from immune-boosting to disease-prevention.
A final word of advice to gain an edge? Don’t undervalue recovery. Like all things in nature, the body has a yin and yang, and in order to perform at your best – you need to be allowing your body the time to recover in order to perform at your best (read: The Yin and Yang of Sports Recovery and Are you Headed for Performance Burnout?).
Some links to studies/articles:
Your metabolism could be in sugar-burning mode, which means you could be headed for performance burnout, or worse. Not good for an athlete, or anyone else for that matter.
Surprisingly, it is actually quite common for athletes to be hiding a “dirty little secret”….sugar addiction. Sugar addiction is very common and is a slippery slope. It is pretty easy see how and why it can happen:
Even though endurance athletes might “burn” off the calories; the impact of the sugar, chemicals, additives, colorings, and trans fats will not support recovery, performance, or overall health. And although you might be able to get away with it for a while, relying on refined sugar and processed foods for energy is going to come back to bite you eventually. Take Dwight Howard of the LA Lakers for example. Addicted to sugar, Howard reportedly was eating the “equivalent of 24 Hersey bars per day.” And even though he “looked the part,” and had a low body fat percentage, Howard was not “feeling the part,” and his blood glucose numbers were showing that he was running on sugar, and could be headed for trouble even off the court – read Nutrition in the NBA to learn more. Also read: Lochte Ditches Fast Food to Go for Gold.
Here is the thing, if you are eating too much sugar for a long period of time, your metabolism becomes kind of “lazy,” it learns to rely on sugar, and gets less effective at converting fat into energy. This can negatively impact an athletes’ performance. When this happens to non-active people, it amounts to weight gain – with a lot of it in the midsection. Even athletes can end up with weight gain, especially off season. Over a long period of time, repeatedly spiking the blood sugar can lead to a dangerous condition called insulin resistance where the body is no longer able to effectively process the sugars. When this happens, the sugar is not effectively being delivered to the cells (resulting in low energy/fatigue), and the sugar stays in the bloodstream longer. Elevated blood sugar over several years raises the risk of most major diseases, including cancer, heart disease, fatty liver disease, diabetes, and even Alzheimers and dementia. And kids are not immune to the dangers of excess sugar. We are seeing a rise in diseases affecting kids (like diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease) that were once thought to hit only in adulthood.
So how do you get out of sugar-burning mode, into fat-burning mode? One of the biggest reasons that so many of us are hooked on sugar is because we have been led to believe that fat is bad for us. The truth is, most people who eat too much sugar are simply not getting enough healthy fat in their diets. I am not talking cupcakes here – I am talking about healthy fats like coconut oil, avocados, nuts, chia or hemp seeds, fatty fish, and olives. Did you see the cover of the June 12 Time Magazine titled, Ending the War on Fat? It had a curl of butter on the cover. Yes, butter (go for grass fed) is a healthy fat! Grass fed butter contains something called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which is well-known in the bodybuilding industry to burn fat and make you lean. Yep – pretty ironic that all those years we were told to eat margarine instead of butter. Margarine is loaded with trans fats, the worst kind for our health!!
One of the keys to a strong metabolism, good energy, disease prevention, and balanced health is to keep the blood sugar under control throughout the day – so I recommend following a “rule of three,” which means you should always get at least one of the three each time you eat:
Another key factor for avoiding performance burnout is allowing the body to recover properly. Read The Yin & Yang of Sports Recovery for more info.
Struggling with sugar issues? I have been there too. Most Americans are just getting too much of it. That is why I created my One Week to Break Up with Sugar eCourse – offering tips and suggestions for helping people to get it out for good!!
A very common question that comes up a lot is – “Am I getting all the nutrients I need from my regular diet?”
The short answer is – probably not.
I am a big proponent of obtaining the majority of our nutrients from foods, because they contain a synergistic combination of vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals – all of which enhance the absorption and utilization by the body. In some cases, eating certain foods together can even magnify the benefits of nutrients, read Eat Your Sunscreen to learn more. But there are a number of reasons that we might not be getting all of the nutrients that we need on a daily basis.
One reason for nutrient deficiencies is simply that we simply might not be eating enough nutritious foods. The Standard American Diet (SAD) tends to be too high in packaged, processed and fast foods which is probably lacking in some key nutrient. And to make things worse – processed foods also tend to deplete nutrients within the body, because the body uses them up trying to metabolize foods that are high in sugar, trans fats, and preservatives! So they are a double-whammy!
But even people who eat a high quality diet rich in plant-based foods could have deficiencies for any of the following reasons:
How Can You Tell if You Have Deficiencies?
There may or may not be symptoms at all, but nutrient deficiencies can show up in many different ways – ranging from fatigue, weight gain, migraine headaches, neurological symptoms, focus issues, and much more.
If you do decide to supplement, you might still have questions – which nutrients do I need, and how much should I take? If you want to know exactly what nutrients you are deficient in, in order to more effectively target your supplementation – consider getting the SpectraCell Micronutrient test – which tests white blood cells to measure the functional levels of 35 nutritional components including vitamins, antioxidants, minerals and amino acids.
When supplementing, I always caution people against buying the cheapest option, or whatever is on sale. Poor quality supplements tend to be poorly absorbed, and worse – they might even do harm. For example, cheap calcium supplements that do not contain the key co-factors for absorption into the bone, can cause the calcium to migrate to where it should not go, potentially causing calcifications of the arteries, and an increased risk of heart disease. Read: Dietary Supplements, Quality is Key.
But in general, there are 5 supplements that pretty much everyone can benefit from:
1. Vitamin D – the “sunshine vitamin”
Referred to as the “sunshine vitamin”, Vitamin D is not really a vitamin, but a fat-soluble pre-hormone that in synthesized from exposing the skin to the sun. Not surprisingly after years of slathering on the sunscreen – many Americans are now low in vitamin D levels. A study published in 2009 in the Archives of Internal Medicine, found that 70% – 97% of Americans have insufficient blood levels of Vitamin D.
2. Magnesium: “The calming mineral”
Magnesium is another nutrient that could save your life – literally! In emergency rooms they give magnesium to people who have suffered a heart attack, because studies have shown that IV magnesium after a heart attack offers protection to the heart muscle.
It is estimated that over 70% of the population is deficient in magnesium which is required for over 300 enzymatic reactions, including the synthesis of fat, protein and nucleic acids, muscular contraction and relaxation, nerve health, bone building, and heart health. Magnesium improves blood flow and plays a key role in serotonin production, protein building, and the metabolism of adenosine triphoshate (ATP). Magnesium helps rid the body of toxins and acid residues, and is also needed for the synthesis of vitamin D and absorption of calcium.
One of the most important minerals for our heart health, magnesium is also emerging as an important mineral for cancer prevention. A study from Sweden reported that women with the highest magnesium intake had a 40% lower risk of developing cancer than those with the lowest intake of the mineral.
Heavy alcohol consumption depletes magnesium, which could be one reason that drinking more than two alcoholic beverages a day raises our risk of breast cancer. About two thirds of all magnesium in our body is found in our bones.
Magnesium has been found in studies to stimulate the release of adiponectin, which is known as a “fat-burning hormone.” So low levels of magnesium could be causing us to hang on to fat longer! Magnesium has also been shown to improve insulin sensitivity, another important factor in a healthy metabolism. Low magnesium levels can lead to muscle cramping, migraine headaches, and could even be a factor in a sluggish metabolism.
Food sources of magnesium include leafy greens, seeds (like pumpkin), avocado, broccoli, and beans. But perhaps the best (and most delicious) way to get magnesium is from raw cacao – the main ingredient in dark chocolate, or try these yummy almond butter cups.
If supplementing, look for citrate, malate, orotate, glycinate (avoid oxide form, which is poorly aborbed and more of a laxative).
3. Omega 3s – “Brain and mood food”
Two kinds of polyunsaturated fats – the omegas – are called “essential” because the body can not make them, so they must be obtained from the diet. Having the right balance of essential fatty acids is important in preventing inflammation. Ideally we should be getting a 1:3 ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 fats in our diets. But because most processed foods are made with cheap soy, cottonseed or vegetable oils; which are high in omega 6s we are getting closer to 1:20 ratio of omega 3s to omega 6s. This sets us up for chronic inflammation.
Omega 3 fats are important for healthy brain function, to support a balanced mood, for heart health, and have even been studied by the US Military to be effective in treating post-traumatic stress disorder. Omega 3s are found in fatty fish, some nuts, chia seeds, hemp hearts, and also in grass fed meats, and pastured chicken eggs. You can supplement with a high quality fish oil. And I like to take chia seeds every day too. Omega 3s reduce inflammation in the body, which is very important for disease prevention. This article can help guide you on choosing a high quality fish oil. (note: high doses of fish oil can thin the blood, so they should be stopped a few weeks before any surgery, and consult a doctor if on medication).
4. Probiotics – feeds the digestion and immune system
Humans have trillions of bacteria in our bodies, in fact we are made up of 10 times more bacterial cells than human cells, so technically we are more bacterial than human! Bacteria live in our digestive system, our skin, and mucus membranes – our bodies are literally teeming with them. There are between 500 and 1000 different types of bacteria in our guts alone! Bacteria play an extremely important role in our metabolism, digestive and immune system health. Perhaps even more than we currently realize.
When it comes to bacteria, it is all about balance. Research shows that ideally we should have 20 times more beneficial bacteria than the unhealthy kind to maintain a healthy immune and digestive system. A balanced inner ecosystem is very important for digestion, immunity, mood, and even has an impact on your weight. There is even some very good research suggesting that it could be a player in the fight against heart disease and diabetes.
You can get good bacteria from fermented foods like sauerkraut, kim chee, kombucha tea, and yogurt. But most people do not get enough fermented foods, so I recommend that most everyone takes a high quality probiotic supplement to make sure to keep the good bacteria outnumbering the bad.
5. B Vitamins – the “Stress vitamins”
The B vitamins are critical for a healthy metabolism and are needed in order to convert our food into energy. Often referred to as the stress vitamins, the B vitamins are water soluble, so they are not stored in the body for long, and stress causes us to excrete them more. B vitamins are important for energy, mood, sleep, nerve function, detoxification, digestion, heart health, and more. Here are some of the key ones:
Getting your B vitamins from a high quality multivitamin can be a good way to go, because you are getting a little insurance on the other key nutrients that could be missing as well. Find one that contains the Methlycobalamin form of Vitamin B 12. I prefer capsules or liquid over tablets – because they are better absorbed.
Other important B vitamins:
Those are the top 5 supplements that I find that most people need. You can either get them from a high quality multi-vitamin But below are some other common nutrients that can cause problems if there are deficiencies:
Many people can benefit from some high quality supplements. But you also want to be careful to not overdo it – especially with vitamins that can accumulate in the body – like the fat soluble vitamins. And even if you do choose to supplement, realize that supplements alone can’t replace a healthy diet, and those taking prescription medications or who have an existing health condition should consult with their doctor first.
One of the most interesting things about sweet potatoes, is that despite having “sweet” in their name, and tasting sweet, they are low glycemic. Low glycemic foods gradually raise your bloodsugar. Sweet potatoes spike your bloodsugar significantly less than a regular white potato!
They are a nearly perfect food with high fiber, rich in vitamins like beta carotene (which gives it’s flesh the rich orange color), and have been shown to aid in recovery for athletes. Read 15 Superfoods for Peak Performance to learn about how sweet potatoes and other foods are good for performance and recovery.
I actually prefer yams over sweet potatoes, because they are darker in color, which means richer in vitamins and nutrients (sweet potatoes and yams are often used interchangeably and confused). So this recipe should really be called yam pie – but that does not sound as good.
Last night we had roasted sweet potatoes and I sprinkled on some cinnamon and swirled in some applesauce into them. It was so good – it tasted like a cross between apple and pumpkin pie. So today I decided to recreate that yumminess with a Cinnamon Apple Sweet Potato Pie smoothie!
Cinnamon Apple Sweet Potato Pie Smoothie:
Whip this up before heading to the gym, because it is chock full of superfoods for peak performance!!
* Cinnamon is a wonderful spice for supporting healthy blood sugar levels. The more common form of cinnamon sold in the United States is cassia cinnamon. Cassia has coumarin, a compound that is toxic to the liver in high doses. Although less common in the U.S., Ceylon type of cinnamon is considered “true” cinnamon, and it does not contain coumarin. It might be a little more expensive, but I find Ceylon to be milder, a little sweeter, and more complex – definitely the best cinnamon choice!
All things in nature require a balance of yin and yang – dark and light, white and black, male and female, and so on. The human body is that way too – it needs balance in order to have optimal health, or homeostasis. Yet too often, we are so focused on working out harder, getting faster, and pushing ourselves; that we forget that we also need to support the body to heal and recover! This can potentially lead to fatigue, performance issues; injuries, burn out, and even adrenal fatigue. And in kids it can even lead to slow growth or delayed puberty.
Here are some tips to help make sure your athlete is recovering properly:
Free Radical Repair:
Athletes can suffer up to 200 times the free radical damage compared to less active people. Scientists have found that a diet rich in antioxidants may help with exercise recovery by reducing muscular damage. Plant-based foods are all good sources of antioxidants and fiber, especially berries. Dried berries are a good addition to trail mixes, especially goji berries which are known for stimulating Human Growth Hormone. Here is a list of 15 Superfoods for Peak Performance – if you are using some of these foods already – great! If not, see how you can fit them into your diet, and see if you notice a difference in performance and recovery. And make sure to get organic for The Dirty Dozen to avoid pesticides.
I find smoothies to be one of the easiest ways to pack in the nutrition – I like to use coconut water as a base, because that will support hydration and help replenish lost glycogen, and then add in superfoods like chia or hemp seeds, and toss in some berries for free radical repair. I also like to make a “secret salad” in my smoothies – by adding in some baby spinach or a greens powder – you can’t even taste it! Another good addition is a teaspoon or two of coconut oil, which is a healthy fat that is converted to energy quickly.
Muscle Building and Repair:
Proteins are the building blocks for our muscles, and also critical for detoxification channels. When it comes to protein – quality is key. Focus on grass fed beef, and organic chicken, pork, and pastured eggs. Conventional animal protein can contain hormones, antibiotics, and also resistant bacteria. Eating some protein within a half an hour of your practice or game is a good strategy for building and repairing muscle tissue. Just know, it does not have to be a big serving – overdoing the protein is a common mistake – especially with the protein powders and bars. A handful of nuts is an easy and portable option, or if you like bars, look for organic or non-GMO options, and ones with the fewest ingredients (that you know what they are). But too much protein taken in one sitting simply will get stored as excess fatty tissue, and in excess can be hard on the kidneys over time.
Again, smoothies are another way to get protein – add a scoop of high quality protein powder (I like Warrior Blend or a grass fed whey if you can handle dairy). I am also recommending avoiding rice-based protein powders unless they are certified clean from a 3rd party source, since many were found to have high levels of heavy metals. And I recommend avoiding soy protein – it is poorly digested, and usually genetically modified (unless it says non-GMO or organic), and in large amounts can increase estrogen levels. Fermented soy like miso is fine.
Make sure to balance out the workouts – with strength and flexibility. Too much cardio can cause excess catabolism, which can lead to muscle loss. So that is why it is important for endurance athletes to including weight bearing activities, so they do not break down muscle. Weight bearing activities are also important for bones And working on flexibility is also helpful to prevent injuries and muscle aches.
Preventing Chronic Injuries:
Chronic injuries can be a sign of poor form or over-training, or they could indicate that there is chronic inflammation. It is important for all athletes to try to have an inflammation-lowering diet. Getting plenty of Omega 3 fatty acids in the diet (fish oil, chia seeds, nuts, grass fed beef, pasture-raised eggs), can help to prevent and reduce inflammation. It can also support mood, brain function, and more. Again, smoothies are a great way to get those chia or hemp seeds! Food that promote inflammation? Processed foods, sugary foods and drinks, trans fats, added chemicals, and omega 6 fats like soy and vegetable oils. Limiting those foods is important too.
Undiagnosed food intolerances in another potential reason for chronic pain and injuries. Food intolerances can create systemic inflammation in the body. Other signs of food intolerances – migraines, unexplained muscle aches and pains, focus & attention issues, gas, bloating, bed wetting after age 4 (usually dairy), mood imbalances, weight gain, hormone imbalances, rashes/skin issues, anxiety, acne, frequent colds/infection, and much more.
How do you know if you have an intolerance? It is not easy because the symptoms can be delayed, and hard to pin down. A food intolerance test can identify over 150 foods and chemicals for intolerances. Another way to go if there is a suspected food sensitivity is to eliminate it for a week or two, and then reintroduce and see if there is a reaction or a return of symptoms. If there is an intolerance, I recommend working with a nutritionist or health practitioner to heal the gut, which is often the root cause of the intolerance.
Proper hydration is not only important for performance (even mild dehydration can negatively affect performance), but it also is important for recovery – it is critical for life! In addition to water, endurance athletes regularly need to replenish lost sodium and electrolytes like potassium, magnesium, and chloride with their fluids. They could do this with hydration replenishers*, eating hydrating foods, or you can make a simple recovery drink with a pinch or two of mineral-rich Pink Himalayan sea salt, the juice from ½ a lemon, and a touch of honey (if desired). Here is a list of some hydrating foods.
Don’t fear high quality salt – Americans are told to get the salt out of their diets, and I do recommend tossing out all the processed pristine white table salt (sodium chloride), which is totally devoid of minerals, and can contain anti-caking ingredients.
However, unprocessed, high quality pink Himalayan or another mineral-rich crystal salt (like Celtic) contains sodium that is bio-available to the body, and also delivers over 80+ trace minerals that are important to overall health – including bone health and mineral balance. High quality mineral-rich salts often have a color – grayish for Celtic gray salt, and pinkish for Himalayan.
Chronic dehydration can lead to chronic fatigue and adrenal issues. Signs of adrenal fatigue? Dark circles under the eyes, lightheadedness, (especially when going from sitting to standing), sensitivity to light, sluggishness or difficulty waking in the morning, and sometimes being “wired but tired” at night. Replenishing lost minerals and sodium after exercise is critical to supporting the adrenals.
*Always make sure your athlete has some electrolyte replenishers in their bag – I like Skratch packets, or Clif shot blocks (they make one that has higher sodium content for those that need it, and it is made out of sea salt), because they don’t have the artificial colors and other chemicals that many other sports drinks have. If you don’t like the idea of those, or salting your water, consider using trace mineral drops – like Spectramins, an ionic trace mineral complex. A “concentrated” seawater that may be recommended for mantaining normal pH, electrolyte levels, and proper mineral balance.. I usually pair Spectramins with Rehydration which supports the adrenals and the uptake of water into the cells – together they make “designer water.” Read more: Is Water Enough?
Rest & Sleep:
On your days off from workouts – try to let your body rest and recover! And make sure to get plenty of good sleep – that is when the body does most of the repair, detoxing, and growth. So turn off the TVs, iPads and iPhones (don’t bring them in bed!), and hit the pillow at a decent hour, especially if you have an early morning practice the next day. Taking the time to focus on recovery can go a long way to improve performance and help to prevent burnout, injuries, and chronic fatigue.
The other day I drove into a Rancho Santa Fe gas station, and just as I was about to jump out to go pump my gas, the nice attendant came up and asked me “I’d be happy to pump your gas for you. Premium fuel today?” Yes, please, I respond and get back in the drivers seat. “Wow, they have good service at this gas station,” I say to my son. I glance back at the pump and notice that they also have 100 octane fuel, I had never seen that before, and boy is it expensive – over $6 a gallon! I think to myself, that must be the super premium fuel for all those Ferrari’s and other high performance cars that you see zipping around Rancho Santa Fe all the time. It stands to reason that the higher performance car you have, the higher quality of fuel it needs.
That stop at the Rancho Santa Fe gas station got me thinking about sports nutrition. Athletes are kind of like high performance cars. Just as we expect sports cars to perform better than an average car, athletes put higher demands on their body and seek superior performance. Putting the wrong gas into a Ferrari can mean lower performance, and overtime could land it in the shop for repairs or even create damage to the motor/inner workings. The same is true for young athletes – if they are choosing lots of junk food, they might not end up with optimal performance, or over time could end up with chronic inflammation and be plagued with injuries.
Endurance and elite athletes burn a significant amount of calories, so they can and need to regularly eat a lot of calories to replenish their energy reserves. But just because they can polish off a box of donuts or a large soda and a couple 20 piece nuggets and still not gain weight, does not mean that they should. Just like a Ferrari, athletes should consider putting in the best possible fuel if they want peak performance.
Because of the extra demands they put on their bodies, it is important for athletes to consume a diet rich in plant-based foods, high quality (ideally grass-fed) protein sources, plenty of healthy fats, and limit nutrient-deficient and inflammation-causing foods (foods that contain a lot of sugar, trans fats, or too many omega 6 fats – found in vegetable oils, soy oils, etc).
One of the best foods an athlete can add to their training regime are superfoods. Superfoods are highly nutrient dense foods that provide an abundance of nutrition and can potentially improve performance and overall health…kind of like “super premium” fuel.
At the top of my list of functional foods for athletes are these 15 superfoods.
15 Superfoods for Peak Performance:
Some other foods, that despite not being high in water content, when paired with fluids, can help to rehydrate (and even prehydrate) the body as well:
Chia seeds are a superfood – they are high in omega 3 fatty acids, protein, calcium, and many other nutrients. They are also high in a very unique fiber – that is hydrophillic – meaning it soaks up a lot of liquid, creating a gel. This gel helps to keep us hydrated, give us energy, and slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream. Great for athletes, and anyone looking to boost their energy, endurance, and overall health. Chia seeds make a delicious, nutritious and easy to make – pudding!
*If you would like to serve it warm, warm up milk in a saucepan, stir in chia seeds, take off heat and and allow to sit and soak up milk for 3-5 mins. Top with cinnamon and nuts or hemp seeds – serve.
Great for breakfast, a snack or dessert!
Make ahead idea:
Put all the ingredients in a glass container before bed, give it a stir, cover and put into refrigerator. Ready in the morning for breakfast or to take to work for a snack.
This weekend at the London Olympics, athletes from around the globe will compete for the ultimate prize – a gold medal. Some will be at the games for the first time, while others, like Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte, are returning to win more medals, and maybe even knock a certain rival off the top of the podium.
Preparing for the Olympics requires a rigorous training schedule. Endurance athletes can burn thousands of calories each day, so they need plenty of fuel. Swimmers are notorious for eating a crazy amount of food, a 2008 New York Post article described Olympian Michael Phelps’ famous 12,000 calorie daily diet. Ryan Lochte used to fuel his swimming with regular visits to McDonalds for chicken nuggets, saying at the time that “nutrition is not really my forte.”
But just because athletes can burn off junk food, doesn’t necessarily mean they should eat it. More athletes are realizing that fast food just doesn’t make you go any faster. Every 100th of a second counts in swimming, so athletes that want to stand at the top of the podium must scrutinize every aspect of their training to gain a competitive edge, including nutrition.
In 2010 when a knee injury kept him out of the pool, Lochte decided to take nutrition and his swimming a little more seriously (read more). Now more prepared than ever for the 2012 Olympic games, Lochte recently said, “The best thing I did was change my eating – no more fast food.” He has also said, “If you don’t put the right nutrition in your body, you won’t perform at your best.”
The 200 and 400 individual medley races are highly anticipated rematches between Lochte and Phelps, and the playing field appears more level than it was in Bejing. At Olympic trials, Phelps was faster in eight of the 50 meter splits, Lochte took seven, and they tied in one.
Could ditching fast foods be what Lochte needs to edge out Phelps this go-round? Without a doubt, Americans will be glued to their seats (and TV sets) to see who comes out ahead when these two highly decorated swimmers face off.
© copyright 2015 Sara Vance