This blog was written as a summary for a talk given to young female volleyball players on December 12, 2015.
Many things have changed since my athletic days. I’d argue that my Crossfit participation reminds me of my athletic days, yet I don’t consider myself an athlete anymore. Why? Because I only do Crossfit twice a week and I don’t compete. It is a means to stay fit and healthy. A majority of my time is spent on mothering and physical therapy “performance.” However, I will argue that my ability to participate in Crossfit at my young age of 39 years old, is directly related to a few things that I WAS NOT doing when I was actually competing in high school and college athletics.
With age comes wisdom, right? What I know now, I wish I knew then? What might I have been able to accomplish athletically?
It doesn’t matter because what I know now helps me stay fit and healthy enough to participate in Crossfit, mother three kids, run a physical therapy practice, work towards a Master’s of Science in Holistic Nutrition, write a blog every once in a while….. My optimal performance in these tasks requires optimal nutrition.
What is required for optimal athletic performance?
Healthy immune system
Normal inflammatory repair response
Outside of practice and strength training, how else can you optimize these requirements using nutrition?
Here are a few tips I have learned both from experience and education that may help every athlete to perform optimally no matter your age:
1. Regulate your blood sugar.
The old adage of “carb loading” generally implies that you are eating loads of refined carbohydrates. Although you need carbohydrates for easy energy, you do NOT need refined carbs. Refined carbohydrates are:
Refined carbohydrates are simple sugars. Simple sugars rapidly rise your blood sugar which stimulates insulin release. Consuming simple sugars will result in a latent crash a little later. The crash later may be detrimental during performance. Although this is a natural process, excessive carbohydrate loading using refined products turns this into an inflammatory process. High-refined carbohydrate diets have been associated with many joint disorders as a result of metabolic disorders (like diabetes and insulin resistance) 1-3. High sugar consumption also decreases your ability to fight off infection4 and may make you depressed5.
Whole fruits and vegetables (apples, sweet potato, broccoli, spinach, berries, banana) are a great way to get adequate carbohydrates for sustained energy. The sugar from these fruits is far less aggravating to the insulin system because you are eating them whole. The fiber helps slow the absorption and breakdown to give a slower energy burn. During competition it is important for endurance to have sustained energy, the quick energy spike early with refined carbohydrates will let you down midway through competition.
2. Eat WHOLE food, including animal protein.
It is always best to eat real food whether you are an athlete or not. But for certain, the best way to get important vitamins and minerals that are bioavailable to assist in performance and even healing from injury is real food. That means foods that are as close to nature as they were intended. Whole food. Nutrient rich foods like salmon, broccoli, spinach, berries, etc.
It is NOT food in packages.
Those foods are often heavily refined and processed in a way that renders them nutrient deficient and in fact require your body’s stored nutrients to process them and you get nothing in return. Not to mention prepackaged food and drinks often include a host of things that hamper performance like sugar, trans fatty acids (see #4), and additives.
Specifically, in the case of athletic performance, it is important to include healthy animal protein. Protein is the only source of a complete amino acid profile that our body requires for structure (tissue, bone, teeth, skin), movement (muscles, ligaments, tendons), protection (skin, immune system), energy (glucose), transport (across cell membranes), communication (hormones and cell signaling), and regulation of fluid balance and pH. Every single one of those bodily processes has an important impact on your ability to perform and recover from injury.
3. Get outside in the sun.
Vitamin D is converted from the cholesterol in your blood in the presence of full spectrum sunlight. Vitamin D is not only critical for calcium absorption, but it is also important for joint health, metabolic health and even your brain. Deficiency of vitamin D has been linked to osteopenia (bone loss), osteoporosis (severe bone loss resulting often in fracture), cancer, Type 1 Diabetes, Multiple Sclerosis and even cardiovascular disease. 6 Early inflammatory arthritis, osteoarthritis of the knee, stroke and autoimmune diseases have been linked to vitamin D deficiency. 7-10 None of these conditions optimizes performance or recovery.
Foods highest in vitamin D:
Fatty saltwater fish (Salmon, Sardines, Tuna, Cod)
Cod liver oil
Beef or calf liver
Although it is helpful to eat Vitamin D rich foods, it is still important to get sun. As a safe rule spend time in the sun, but don’t burn. Three 8-minute stints is usually adequate. As an added bonus, sun exposure will also help with your circadian rhythm, which helps with sleep-wake cycles. If you can’t get enough sunshine, that is hard in the colder climates, then taking an appropriate Vitamin D3 supplement may be warranted. (Speak to a health care provider)
4. Eat GOOD fat.
Yes. Fat is an athlete’s friend. Fat does not make you fat. Healthy fat consumption promotes cellular health, provides cellular energy, improves absorption of Vitamins A, D, E and K, provides the precursor (cholesterol) to many hormones as well as supporting metabolic processes. 11
Here are healthy fats to enjoy for optimal performance:
Lard (beef fat, pork fat)
Be sure to avoid industrialized trans fatty acids as they increase hyperactivity behavior12-14, cardiovascular risk15, and skin cancer risk13.
Food high in trans fatty acids:
Hydrogenated vegetable oil
Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil
Margarine (soft butter spreads)
See this prior blog for more details here.
5. Keep your gut healthy.
In order to keep your gut healthy, you must support your gut microbiome and intestinal lining. The integrity of both are critical to a healthy immune system AND healthy vitamin and mineral absorption. If your gut is imbalanced, then no matter how well you eat, you won’t be able to absorb the nutrients you need. Here is a list of items that disrupt the gut microbiome:
Refined carbohydrates (including gluten grains)16
Trans fatty acids18
Birth Control Pills19-22
Eating whole foods will help avoid the gut disruption. If you happen to take birth control pills to regulate your period for athletic performance I encourage a re-evaluation of steps 1-4 to regulate hormonal control. Using a period tracker app like Pink Pad Pro to pay attention to your cycle can give you more control. In fact, a women’s hormonal response to resistance exercise can improve at different cycle states. 23
If you have consumed these things heavily in the past or used birth control then you may consider eating probiotic rich foods. Fermented foods are a great source of healthy bacteria. Naturally fermented vegetables and dairy like yogurt, sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi, kombucha (a fermented tea drink), and kefir. If you choose pre-made fermented foods, choose one with only minimal ingredients. Avoid those with additives, preservatives and sweeteners. A professional grade probiotic supplement to restore the gut microbiome may be necessary. A study by Giardina showed Lactobacillis plantarum, Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bifidobacterium breve and Bifidobacterium longum were the most beneficial strains to decreasing inflammation.24
6. Drink bone broth, mineral broth, and WATER.
This is what your grandmother and great grandmother used to make as the base for homemade soup. Bone broth (aka chicken stock) is a good source of easily absorbable minerals like calcium, magnesium, chondroitin sulphates and glucosamine that are sold now as supplements for joint health. Homemade chicken broths are helpful in getting over the common cold.25
Bone broth is easy to digest and soothing on the stomach. This is my go-to for recovery especially after an intense work out. Click here for recipe for bone broth and mineral broth.
Water is the preferred hydration for athletes too. NOT sports drinks. The sugar content in these drinks renders them problematic alone (see #1), not to mention the chemicals. Even the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) has an official stand on energy drinks like Gatorade. They outline 9 different points that mention that the ingredients in energy shots and energy drinks are not proven beneficial, and even recommend further study to demonstrate their safety. They further state that athletes should consider the potential impact of these high glycemic drinks on metabolic health and that caffeine may negatively impact motor skill performance. The ISSN recommends athletes with pre-existing health conditions should avoid these drinks altogether. 26
Each of these tips will help keep your mind sharp to read the opponent, allow you to optimally recover from intense competition and training, balance hormones, and even strengthen your athletic skills.
A healthy diet and healthy gut will optimize your athletic performance.
Remove. Replace. Restore.
Remove refined carbohydrates, sugars, artificial sweeteners, trans fatty acids and maybe birth control pills.
Replace with plenty of WHOLE nutrient rich foods including healthy protein and fats. No need to count calories, eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full. Drink bone broth and mineral broth before or after competition. Drink water before, during and after. Get outside in the sunshine when possible.
Restore a healthy gut, healthy immune system, optimal performance AND recovery.
Go kick some butt!
Eat well. Move well. Sleep well. Thrive on.
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Dr Carolyn Dolan DPT, Cert MDT, MSHN
Where physical therapy, nutrition and lifestyle meet, because how you live your life determines whether or not you soar. Inspiring action with information so you can reduce pain, optimize healing and improve function naturally during recovery from injury, surgery or painful condition. This is a website for the open-minded; obstinate need not apply.