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What moves us? The simple answer is our bodies, but what is it specifically within our bodies that moves us?  

Our bones, joints, ligaments, muscles, and tendons are the mechanical parts of the body that allow for movement. The circulatory system, respiratory system and nervous system also play a role in movement.

However, if you are an athlete, whether amateur or professional, it is not so much the ability to move, but achieving peak performance.

To keep our bodies working efficiently, we must consider what they are made of. Strong materials are required to build a strong body, as with any kind of structure.

The materials used to build our bodies are called nutrients. The macronutrients are carbohydrates, protein, and fats and micronutrients include vitamins and minerals; all play a role in athletic performance.  Our bodies are not perpetual motion machines.

You only get out what you put in.

1. Athletic Performance and Nutrition for Endurance

Whatever the exercise, whether it is yoga, cycling or running, our skeletal muscles are required. Skeletal muscles refer to the type of muscles attached to bones. For our muscles to move, they require energy. Energy is produced in a part of the cell called the mitochondria. Skeletal muscle cells have one of the highest amounts of mitochondria compared to other cells.

Energy is produced in the form of Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) which is made from glucose. Glucose comes from the carbohydrates we consume in our diet. You may have heard of athletes “carb-loading” prior to a marathon or big game. Carbohydrates are our main energy source. Complex carbohydrates, found in foods such as brown rice, sweet potato or lentils, take longer to break down into glucose, so they are called a slow-burn energy supply. This will sustain you longer, but it will take longer to digest. Simple carbohydrates, found in fruits and vegetables, will be digested and broken down much quicker, and are therefore considered a fast-burn energy source. However, they will not last as long.

Luckily, the body always has a back-up plan and stores energy in the form of glycogen in the liver. So, then, what’s the best way to fuel your muscles? This depends on what you are doing and when. High endurance-based sports such as soccer, running or cycling usually require that a person top up their glycogen stores mid-way. However, the average healthy individual should have enough glycogen stores to get through a short activity.

For example, an athlete who chooses to work out first thing in the morning for 30-45 minutes should be able to do so comfortably without consuming anything more than water. A piece of fruit 15-20 minutes prior to a work-out will help if you feel you need a bit of extra energy. What should be avoided, however, is consuming a heavy meal just before a strenuous cardiovascular activity. Not only will your body not have enough time to obtain the energy from that food, it also will also be exerting energy to digest it. For those who work out later in the day, however, there is nothing wrong with eating a meal 2-3 hours prior. This will give enough time for your body to break down the food so the energy can fuel your muscles.

2. Athletic Performance and Nutrition for Strength Training

We improve our strength by breaking down muscle tissue through exertion, so it can be built back stronger. However, protein is required to build these muscles. The building blocks for protein are amino acids. Amino acids that cannot be made in the body and must come from the diet are known as essential amino acids. There are eight essential amino acids. It is important to try to consume all eight in one meal, particularly after a work-out. This will ensure your body has all the tools required to rebuild.

Animal protein such as chicken, fish and beef are complete proteins, meaning they have all the essential amino acids. Those who do not consume animal products can use combined proteins to obtain all the essential amino acids.

By combining different types of plant-based proteins such as a grain with nut or seed, we can make a complete protein. This is helpful, not only for vegetarians, but anyone who needs non-perishable, convenient post-workout snacks on the go.

For example, carrying granola with nuts in a gym bag is easier than carrying a steak. It’s also important that post-workout meals contain more than just protein. A mistake often made by athletes, particularly body builders, is consuming too much protein and not enough carbohydrates and fats. All that will happen in this case is that the protein through gluconeogenesis, will be converted to glucose. So, the protein the athlete is hoping to go towards building muscle may actually just be used as an inefficient energy source.

This is why balance is always best. It is important to properly nourish your muscles before and after exercise to prevent injury and improve athletic performance.

3. Athletic Performance and Nutrition for Inflammation and Sports Recovery

Nothing inhibits athletic performance like pain.  Pain is our body’s way of telling us to stop, telling us that what we are doing is detrimental. Pain is not necessarily bad. Inflammation is the first sign of healing, and the signs of inflammation are pain, redness, swelling and heat.  If we get a cut – it hurts, it bleeds, it swells, it turns red – then it heals. This is a natural response of the body.

However, sports injuries can manifest into chronic pain and inflammation, particularly in the joints. Consuming omega 3 fatty acids will also reduce chronic inflammation, due to their role in prostaglandin production. Prostaglandins are hormone-like substances which regulate inflammatory responses in the body.  In some sense, they are the switch that will either turn it on or turn it off.

Prostaglandins, like all hormones, are made from lipids (fats).  Our body cannot make something out of nothing, so we must eat the correct fats in order to produce adequate amounts of anti-inflammatory prostaglandins. Great sources of omega 3 fatty acids can be found in flax seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, chia seeds, as well as fatty fish salmon, mackerel, anchovies, herring and sardines (remember the acronym SMASH). Fish should be wild-caught in order to ensure it contains these beneficial omega 3s.

An anti-inflammatory diet is comprised of lots of fresh vegetables, including leafy greens and antioxidant rich fruits such as blueberries, pomegranates, and cherries. Other healthy fats such as olive oil, avocadoes and a variety of nuts and seeds provide additional nourishment and help to balance hormones.  Good quality proteins are also a part of an anti-inflammatory diet, such as fibre-rich beans and legumes, fish and pastured animals. However, most of all, an anti-inflammatory diet does not include an excess of refined foods such as sugars, white flours, packaged and processed foods.  When we are not bloated, fatigued or in pain, we are more likely to get up, move around and enjoy life.

4. Athletic Performance and Nutrition for Hydration and Electrolyte Balance

Hydration helps our body to regulate temperature when we move. Any mechanic knows that a machine requires an adequate cooling system in order to function properly. Adequate hydration also helps to maintain electrolyte balance. There are dissolved minerals in our body that carry electric charges, and these are known as electrolytes. Electrolytes are vital for our cardiovascular system, nervous system, and skeleto-muscular system. They keep blood pressure steady, prevent muscle cramping and maintain bone strength.

While severe electrolyte imbalance is rare, even small disruptions in electrolyte levels can affect sport performance. The easiest way to keeps electrolytes balanced is to drink plenty of water and eat lots of mineral-rich foods such as vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds.

Just like minerals in the bones, electrolytes require balance. Avoiding processed foods high in salt will prevent a sodium and potassium imbalance in the body. However, avoiding all salt and consuming a vegetarian diet high in potassium may actually cause a sodium deficiency. Not having enough sodium can cause low blood pressure and dizziness.

Luckily, whole foods generally contain just the right balance of minerals needed for your body. Sea vegetables provide a wide range of minerals and can be added to soups, salads or eaten a snack. Fruit, because it is water rich and easy to digest, is an excellent post-workout electrolyte replacer. The sugars in the fruit will also help replace glycogen levels.

Likewise, coconut water is also a natural electrolyte replacer. What’s more important is going into an exercise well hydrated. The average adult should drink around 3 L of water per day in small sips and away from meals. Choose filtered or spring water. If the water is distilled or filtered with reverse osmosis, then it contains no minerals, which highlights the need to ingest minerals from food as even more vital. Drinking only distilled water for an endurance activity can actually pose a health risk, as it may deplete the body of electrolytes. Activity levels and weather will also affect our hydration requirements, so it is important to listen to our bodies. Electrolyte balance is essential.

Regardless of the type of exercise or skill level, activity is essential for not only physical health but also mental health. It is our goal as athletic nutritionists to ensure that regardless of how you choose to move, you are always putting your best foot forward.


Certified Nutritionist Kirsten Colella is the mother of 3 energetic children, so she has lots of experience preparing nutritious and energy-supporting meals.  Kirsten showcases her athlete-friendly recipes, which focus on including healthy fats, fibre and easy-to-digest proteins, on our Instagram page at @essentialbalanceholistic

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