When we hear the term ‘sports nutrition’, often we instantly think of calorie counting, portion control, protein shakes, meal plans and tubs of chicken, rice and broccoli…
Sports nutrition can be associated with controlled and regimented rules to adhere to in order to improve athletic performance or aesthetics. Quite often nutrition advice provided may not take into account training plans and periodization, lifestyle stress, food preferences, age or metabolism, among other factors. Whilst this extreme can be the case within the fitness industry, there are simpler ways to incorporate sports nutrition science into principles that leave you feeling empowered, as well as fuelled.
In essence, sports nutrition guidelines exist to help athletes’ fuel and recover more effectively to improve performance or training adaptations. However, these guidelines are often misunderstood and when taken to the extreme it can often disconnect athletes from understanding and listening to their own bodies.
Instead, taking a non-diet, intuitive approach to eating can help to reconnect athletes with their bodies and tap in to really useful information that could easily be missed. It can help them to develop interoceptive awareness of their hunger and fullness cues and to incorporate guidelines in a curious and experimental way to find what works for them. There are no one-size fits all approaches.
Fundamentally, eating a varied and balanced diet will aid recovery.
Training, whichever type, places stress on our bodies. This productive stress – not the tearing your hair out kind of stress – allows us to adapt to this stimulus and rebuild our bodies back up stronger or fitter. The more stimuli (or new types of stimuli) we receive, recover from and adapt to – the more work capacity and improvements we will see.
If we constantly place stress on our bodies without allowing ourselves to recover effectively – by under-eating or over-training – our performance, and potentially health, may start to suffer. Instead, if we are great at fuelling, taking rest and giving our bodies the care they need – then our recovery will be on point. We will have better success of getting stronger, fitter and improving our performance. Sports nutrition exists to provide us with information on how we may fuel effectively and efficiently to accelerate recovery so that we can get back to the training we love to do.
So why is an intuitive eating approach a productive way of implementing sports nutrition principles?
It allows us to work WITH our bodies, not against them.
Combining intuitive eating with sports nutrition guidelines allows us to work with our bodies, not against them. It allows us to experiment with nutrition science, find what works specifically for us and not fall into extreme restrictions or rules that are based on numbers or weight. We can focus on all aspects of wellbeing that can help performance. These include eating a diverse diet, building a peaceful relationship with food, movement and our bodies, sleeping well, stress management strategies and lifestyle improvements. Ultimately giving ourselves the confidence to trust our bodies to know what’s best for us.
It allows us to honour our hunger and satisfaction needs.
By learning how to tune in to our internal hunger, fullness and satisfaction cues we can work in consultation with our bodies to give them what they need. To be able to enjoy all foods for a variety of reasons including giving us energy, joy, pleasure, satisfaction, social connection or nutrients.
Lets say for example that sometimes athletes may find that they are not physically hungry after training. But understanding the more subtle cues of hunger other than the physical feeling in our stomachs and knowing that we need to replenish nutrients to recover will enable us to eat to care for our bodies. On the other hand, a meal plan on a rest day may say to eat less than a training day, but you feel ravenous. Honouring our internal cues would lead us to satisfy the hunger without guilt due to the fact that we need more food to recover for our next training session, even though ‘you went off plan’.
It allows us to follow guidelines, not rigid rules.
Sports nutrition should be guidelines to experiment with in conjunction with our bodies. If we continue to ignore the internal cues and stick to a rigid set of rules we may be missing important information. Food and movement should make us feel good. However, if illness and injury is frequent, it could be a good sign that our diet or recovery is not adequate and not supporting the volume of training. By understanding the risks associated with restrictive dieting and learning more about the nutrient needs from the demands of training, we can develop sustainable and effective nutrition strategies. We are the experts of our bodies and by honouring our mental and physical wellbeing, our performance will improve alongside this.