I’ve always wanted to write a book titled For Athletes Only, because I believe everyone, at some point in their life, dreams of being an athlete. The sense of ultimate and control over your body is incredibly aspirational, and if it were easy to achieve, everyone would sign up.
In fact, we all have an inner athlete, but it takes focused fueling and training to release the athlete within. When it comes to the fueling part, especially for women, evidence-based recommendations are sparse. The world of sports nutrition has been notoriously male-centric, and a current published research survey documented that only a little more than one-third of all subjects in sports and exercise medicine research studies are female. This landscape has allowed the diet world, which has marketed to women for more than a century, to sell the message that less is more, often in the guise of sports nutrition.
But there are some real facts on the ground, and scientific data tells us that women have to fuel their training and their bodies to fully achieve their athletic goals. Without the right fuel at the right times, sustainable athletic goals will be left in the dust, and health may be compromised. So let’s look to science for the information that will lift us up to become the most that we can be.
Train And Eat To Build
The most important nutritional factor affecting muscle gain is calories — specifically, calories from carbohydrates. Building muscle requires systematic intense training. Muscle must be challenged and stressed in order to break down, and then grow back stronger and more robust. That level of training, called high-intensity or maximal-resistance training, depends primarily on carbohydrates as the energy to fuel the exercise. Whether female or male, the science is clear that carbohydrate-dense diets give strength-training athletes an edge in their workouts; and the bottom line is, the harder you train, day after day, the more you need to supply your body with carbs in order to build muscle effectively and efficiently.
We benefit from an increase in calorie expenditure not only during resistance exercise, but also for hours after training. Called excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), the harder you train, the higher your calorie burn throughout exercise, and the higher and longer the afterburn. If you fuel yourself well enough to lift multiple sets to failure, EPOC can continue for 24 to 36 hours postworkout.
Related:Slow and Steady
The best time for women to increase food consumption is around exercise: before, during (depending on total energy needs) and after. This strategy takes the greatest advantage of heightened sensitivity of skeletal muscle to absorb and utilize carbohydrates to refuel, recover and grow lean muscle. That’s when the calories know where to go and how to be used. It’s the magical benefit of high-intensity training matched with fueling your body with the right carbs at the right time: train, build, recover, sculpt, repeat!
Carbs may play the leading role for your training, but proteins and fats play a critical supporting role: tissue recovery, repair and growth. All three macronutrients work in concert with each other to optimize your fueling and maximize your training.
You may have heard that women burn more fat and fewer carbs than men during exercise. While that seems to be true for submaximal exercise, scientific evidence is not so clear during maximal exercise. We may burn carbs just like the guys when we lift, climb hills or train at high-intensity levels. Additionally, exercise intensity can vary during training bouts, and fats clearly play an important fueling role during training. Choosing the right high-performance fats will help you train at peak levels.
Protein needs are met best when we consume moderate amounts throughout the day. Each source of protein has its own unique amino acid profile, so including a variety of protein-rich foods in your diet ensures the most well-balanced nutrient composition. In addition, plant-based protein foods have a wide variety of phytochemicals as part of the structure of the food, while animal-based protein foods are typically high in minerals. We utilize protein most efficiently in amounts of approximately 20 to 25 grams per serving. This is the equivalent of about 4 ounces of animal protein or 1.5 cups of beans. If you include this much protein at every meal and snack, four to five times each day, you will consume very close to the amount of protein your body needs to grow lean muscle.
Put Your Food to Work for You
When you eat, how much you eat and what combinations of foods you eat together can make all the difference in your results. When you combine carbohydrates and protein together, you maximize the function of each nutrient, especially around exercise. Protein raises your insulin response beyond carbohydrates alone, heightening the body’s ability to transport carbohydrates into your muscle cells to fuel and refuel your exercise. Carbohydrates enhance the transport of amino acids to the muscle cell, and together they create an anabolic hormonal environment to increase the synthesis of new muscle protein tissues and decrease the breakdown of protein tissues from a side effect of intense exercise. An additional benefit to the carb-protein combo is the effect on mood — carbohydrate enhances the movement of tryptophan, an amino acid, into the brain to manufacture and raise serotonin levels (the feel-good neurotransmitter). carbohydrate and protein together every time you eat, and especially around exercise, is an important mind-muscle building strategy.
Today scientists are giving a second look at animal fats from dairy and other meats, and whether they might serve an important health role, as well. But until the data is clearer, emphasize the fats from fish and plants in your diet. These will keep your metabolism working at full speed and allow you to feel and perform at your best to build lean tissue. Eat small portions of fats at every meal and snack, except around exercise. Fat slows stomach emptying, and we want to feel as light as possible before training, then allow for your recovery nutrition to move into the body as fast as possible after exercise.
Follow “A Day's Worth of Fuel” and the menu guide to take the counting and restricting out of your nutrition vocabulary, but add in fueling for performance. The beauty of this is that you can mindfully fuel your training with starchy foods and supplements and then feel free to eat non-starchy vegetables, fruits, protein foods, dairy and high-performance fats throughout the rest of the day. You will focus on what you need to eat, not what you can’t eat next. You’ll get the results you desire: a lean and strong body that is the result of beating the challenge!