Athletes understand the importance of maintaining the necessary fuel to help get you through a workout without losing momentum. Equally as important, is what you put in your body post-workout.
When you consider how much you exercise and the amount of fueling or refueling you do throughout the year, processed and refined foods can play a bigger role in your overall health than you may think. Everyone has different nutritional needs and tolerances and one common myth is that eating natural foods versus commercially processed energy products will cause stomach or performance distress. In a study by the Sports Performance Laboratory at UC Davis, researchers did not find that eating naturally put any additional stress on the stomach or caused an athlete to experience discomfort during or post workout.
Regardless of the fact that the fuel is being burned for energy, calories from processed and refined foods offer little nutritional value. If convenience is a factor, it is important to understand that there are many ways to swap your processed fuel for natural alternatives that are still quick and easy to prepare and carry with you.
Fueling your body with quality foods will result in high-energy workouts and good overall health. Here are a few considerations:
Sports Drinks vs. Water
Sports drinks are flavored beverages that contain carbohydrates (usually sugar) and minerals such as sodium and potassium. Those minerals are often referred to as electrolytes. Today, the sales of sports drinks exceed $1.5 billion a year in the United States alone. The recommendation to drink sports drinks, once aimed at endurance athletes, has now trickled down to anyone who exercises.
Your choice for hydration should depend on whether your goal is to rehydrate or replenish the body with energy. An important consideration is that the higher the carbohydrate content of your beverage, the slower the absorption rate. During a high endurance activity, maintaining proper hydration and balanced nutrient levels can be difficult. Plain water may pass through the body too quickly, and without the necessary sugar to spark the insulin response and ignite the recovery process.
No doubt, water is the best way to replace lost fluids. If you are exercising more than 60 minutes, consider using a natural electrolyte-filled beverage that does not contain all of the high amounts of sugar and mystery ingredients in traditional sports drinks. Good alternatives include:
- Coconut water
- Watermelon water
- Aloe water
- Cactus water
- Homemade recipes
Performance Gels vs. Fat-Based Alternatives
There are many reasons why athletes would want to steer clear of performance gels and turn to fat-based alternatives (the disgusting taste, dumping boatloads of sugar into your body, the damaging health effects of chronic blood sugar surges, etc.) – but for rigorous exercise that exceeds 2-3 hours, you need a quick and convenient source of extra energy.
There are a variety of small and portable options that can serve as alternatives to the sickeningly sweet sugar-based sport gels. Here are a few options to consider:
- Justin’s Nut Butter: This nut butter tastes great and also includes a touch of cocoa. An important note is that it contains 190 calories vs. the typical 80 – 100 calories that a performance gel contains. So you may want to consider taking only half of the packet at a time with 4-6 ounces of water.
- Vitalyte Chia Gels: Chia seeds have a long history as endurance fuel and despite the odd texture, the seeds have more Omega 3’s than any other crop in the world and contain more antioxidants than blueberries. This gel contains only 75 calories so you may need to take multiple packs during your workout.
- Pocket Fuel Naturals: These blends are made from 100% natural, whole food ingredients found in nuts, seeds and fruits. They are packed with many B-complex group of vitamins and all the sugars are from natural fruits. The packet is larger than most gels and has more calories due to the higher fat content.
Protein Bar vs. Real Food
Protein bars are a convenient snack or meal replacement choice to help you fuel up either before or after a workout. But did you know that in some cases, it would be better to eat a candy bar? Some athletes think that less-processed whole foods will cause indigestion and gastric problems. An important consideration is that your body not only needs calories for fuel, but it also needs the vitamins and minerals found in whole foods.
Most nutritionists agree that even if you are going to consume nutrition bars, you shouldn’t let them take the place of whole foods in your diet. For a quick snack, you may be better off eating an apple or a banana.
If you’ve determined that protein bars are the nutritional option for you, decide whether you are eating it as a snack or meal replacement because some bars have as many as 400 calories. If you are eating a bar for a snack, try to keep it to one that is less than 220 calories. If you are looking for a convenient (and low cost) protein bar alternative that offers natural ingredients, here are a few options to consider:
- Nuts: Nuts are a great source of fuel because they cover all of your macronutrient bases, containing carbs, protein, and fat. Eating a few nuts and seeds during sustained exercise can also provide a boost of energy to keep you going during endurance activities.
- An apple or banana: Apples and bananas are great pre and post workout foods because they are full of complex carbs, minerals such as potassium and fiber. The easy to digest sugars and natural electrolytes these fruits offer are the perfect alternative to processed recovery food.
- Low-fat yogurt with high-fiber cereal: Eating about ½ cup of a hearty grain an hour or two before exercise will provide you with carbohydrate energy necessary for quick, intense workout sessions. Protein packed yogurt provides the amino acids your muscles need to repair themselves and the carbohydrates to restore muscle energy.
Chocolate Milk vs. Recovery Drink
Has chocolate milk been your go-to post workout fuel? If you are like many athletes, you may have questioned whether chocolate milk is the best way to replenish after rigorous exercise. For some, chocolate milk may be a good choice as it offers the fat and crucial vitamins you need. For others who don’t want the high-fructose corn syrup or experience the downsides of dairy, it’s best to find a recovery drink that will have a neutralizing effect on your body, replace lost electrolytes and nourish your adrenal glands. Here is a lemon lime recovery drink recipe that checks all those important boxes.
Whether you are training for the Firefighter Combat Challenge, a triathlon or a 5K – it’s likely that you’ve devoted a lot of time to prepare yourself. Why wouldn’t you also train your body to stay well fueled and hydrated? Having a nutrition plan that primarily consists of natural whole foods will help not only prepare you for competition, but will also lead to optimal overall health.
To get the full scoop on everything Combat Challenge and FireFit related, download the 2nd Edition Elite Performance Guide now. Within more than 30 pages, you’ll find tips, tricks and information you need to get started in training or refining your favorite fitness routine. From nutrition to gear, exercises to DIY course set up, this eBook has something for every firefighter at every fitness level.
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