To help understand the factors that influence performance, consider an F1 racing car (see diagram). For each race, preparation ensures that the car is in top condition. Once the race is over the car is stripped down and the preparation starts again for the next event. The engine is tuned, the fuel tank filled, the bodywork adjusted, and the weight reduced. All of which aid performance. In the same manner, whether you are Olympic standard or just want to improve your fitness – you are that car.
Your engine is your heart, lungs and muscles. Whilst genetics determine your muscle type (predisposing you to either sprint or endurance events), the frequency and duration of your training will determine the capacity and tuning of your cardiovascular system. This can be improved considerably with the correct training and will determine your success in your chosen event.
The weight of your body will also influence performance. The marathon runner must be light to reduce the energy requirements of carrying their weight, whilst a rugby player needs to be large to tackle and block. In addition, the ratio between the power delivered and body weight will determine the ability to accelerate, and impact on agility: both critical factors in many team sports.
Your physiological tuning, body weight and the nature of the training also impact on your efficiency, and in turn effects the rate of fuel utilisation. If your efficiency is poor, you will use your fuel faster, leading to fatigue. Other factors such as durability, susceptibility to injury, mental status and ability to react are just a few of the other factors that play a role in the performance of the athlete.
Despite the many facets influencing performance, the one factor that ultimately determines the ability of an individual is their nutritional status. As a car cannot move without fuel, you cannot perform without an appropriate energy source; this is why endurance athletes fear ‘hitting the wall’, when the body becomes depleted of carbohydrates.
Without an adequate nutritional strategy, not only will you struggle to complete your given event, but the beneficial effects of training will be reduced or even reversed, and recovery slowed, compromising subsequent training and competition.
For this reason, nutrition should be considered the base for human performance. Care and consideration must be taken to ensure a well-balanced, healthy diet. The key to this is to maintain food variety.
Priority should go to nutrient-rich foods, with target intakes (per day) of:
- 6-11 servings of healthy carbohydrates (bread, cereal, rice & pasta)
- 2-4 servings of fruit
- 3-5 servings of vegetables
Also lower intakes (2-3 servings) of both healthy fats from dairy products (milk, yoghurt & cheeses) and protein rich foods (meat, poultry, fish, beans, eggs & nuts) would also be recommended.
Foods that are high in added sugar and/or processed fats should be eaten sparingly as they provide lots of calories, yet few essential nutrients. The combination of foods will enhance the nutritional value of the total meal, as well as allowing you to enjoy different colours, flavours and textures. One final factor that also must be considered is ensuring that you are adequately hydrated. Fluid is lost through sweat during both warm weather and exercise. It is easy to become moderately dehydrated over a number of days. This will not only effect the level of performance, but can leave you with a sense of fatigue, headaches, loss of appetite, or even feeling light headed and nauseous. It is recommended that a minimum of two litres of fluid is needed per day, rising in warm weather and during exercise.
In addition to the basic dietary principles, people undertaking more than four hours of training per week should give consideration to the use of sports nutrition products in order to optimise both performance during – and recovery from – training.
Dr Garry Palmer FACSM is a sports scientist to Wolves FC & director of Sportstest Ltd. He works with athletes and cyclists from novice to international standard in a range of sports. He’s RCUK’s main man for sports science stuff.
This Article first appeared in London Sport Magazine London Sport Magazine
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