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THE ATHLETES “F” WORD… 

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BY NEIL VALLANCE

As we enter a challenging winter season of training and competition, it is easy to become focused on the physiological aspects of sport. Most of us don’t have the privilege to be professional athletes and have the ability to dedicate our lives to sport, thus we need to balance our commitment to training with work, family and other lifestyle choices.

It is, however, easy to forget the important effect that diet and proper food choices make on sporting performance. Many of us compete in seasonal sports and have a more rigorous training regime at certain times of the year, but think little of modifying nutritional components that relate to exercise.

As training intensity and volume increases, it is vitally important to increase nutrient intake to accommodate for the increased metabolic load and requirement for increased daily caloric intake.
Maintaining an isocaloric diet (as estimated using your basal metabolic rate, lifestyle factors and quantity and type of exercise) will effectively allow for weight maintenance and ultimately improved physical performance over the course of a season.

Nutrient deficiencies can lead to fatigue and potential injury. We need ALL Macronutrients!!! In general, athletes have a great understanding of the important biologic values of carbohydrate and protein in their diet. We have been inundated with information and research that indicates that as endurance athletes we should be maintaining caloric intakes of 60% and 10-15%, respectively. Not a problem! These caloric requirements can readily be achieved by consuming a balanced diet consisting of whole grains, quality proteins (whether meat or vegetarian) and fruits and vegetables. What about the remaining 25-30% of daily caloric intake? The loathed “F” word... fat!!

Whether we like to admit it or not, fat is a necessity! It is your primary energy source during physical activity (especially during lower intensity) and is more abundant as a fuel than the other two macronutrients. In fact, average non-obese males range between 9 and 15 kg of triglyceride storage (up to 140,000 kcal of stored energy). Certain lipids (omega-3) have been shown to be anti-inflammatory, antithrombotic, antiarrhythmic, antilipidemic, have vasodilatory properties and even affect cell integrity.

Remember that, in essence, every single cell in your body is encapsulated in a double layer of fat! Lipids are a group of insoluble compounds that are categorized as either simple, compound or derived. Simple lipids are those that include free fatty acids and triglycerides. Compound fats are comprised of a triacylglycerol molecule combined with other chemicals (i.e. LDL, HDL, phospholipids). Finally, derived lipids are made from simple or compound lipids. The most famed derived lipid is cholesterol.

Data suggest that not having enough fat in one’s diet may also be problematic! Research indicates that female runners who consume a diet of 27% fat (versus 30%) may have a significantly increased risk of future injury. It is also recognized that low fat diets (~20%) blunts the normal rise in plasma testosterone following a short-term bout of resistance exercise.

There are good fats! Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) are those with more than one double bond in a carbon chain. Omega 3, 6 and 9 long chain fatty acids all fit into the category of PUFAs. At some point in time, we have all heard the suggestion to try and include “oily” fish into our diets. These fish (including herring, mackerel, salmon and sardine) contain higher concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids which are generally regarded as beneficial for health. The purpose of exercise (from a biochemical/physiological perspective) is to create tissue stress and to a certain degree, damage. Improvements in performance arise when our bodies adapt to these physiological changes efficiently.
 
Of course, whenever any tissue in the body becomes damaged, inflammatory mediators are released at the site of injury to assist with recovery. In general, there is an abundance of inflammatory processes occurring simultaneously in the body and thus need to be managed. Alpha-linolenic acid, its metabolic by-products and to a certain degree, linoleic acid can all promote the formation of anti-inflammatory prostaglandins or fatty acids with varying hormone-like effects. Oils that are found in fish (EPA, eicosapentaenoic and DHA, docosahexaenoic acid) are especially useful, since there is little enzymatic conversion required, and they are generally found in your fish oil supplements. Research supports the use of 1-2 g of combined EPA and DHA daily to reduce inflammation in active individuals.

Moderated use of omega-6 fatty acids also needs to be adhered to. Our western style diet leads to omega-6 to omega-3 ratios somewhere in the range of 10:1 to 20:1. This can easily be explained when looking at the different sources of omega-3 and omega-6 fats.

Sources of omega 3 fats include fish, flax, chia, butternut, walnuts and pecans.

Sources of omega 6 fats include safflower, poppy seed oil, primrose oil, borage oil, sunflower oil and corn oil.

Suggested levels are recommended to be 1:1 or 2:1. This massive discrepancy can be achieved by consuming much more omega-3 containing foods.

In essence, fats are NOT the other “F” word! They are not only recommended for athletes to maintain performance, but are imperative to optimize general daily health and promote optimum recovery. Include these healthy fats in your diet and supplement regime during the off season, and then increase the quantities to reduce injury, illness and improve performance and health.