Different foods have different properties, and, especially when doing sport it’s important to know how to choose the right types for developing better performance. We took advice from Novo Nordisk Team’s Team Nutritionist, Laura Martinelli (in the image), with the help of Senior Director of Marketing, Alice Podenzana.
While historically, in the world of sport we were used to consuming almost exclusively carbohydrates, today it seems that a greater dietary balance between the main macronutrients is favoured. Can you help us to understand this better?
“Sure! The key word to answer your question is ‘periodization’: an early concept in sports nutrition science, in which I firmly believe. If in the past, athletes used to manipulate only the carbohydrate and the caloric intake of their diets, but nowadays the whole bromatological composition of the diet is taken into consideration. Moreover, the timing of those components throughout the day is also becoming more and more important.
Therefore, according to the specific period (and consequent target) of the sporting year, we can modulate not only the carbohydrates, but also the protein, fat, fibres and antioxidants, to reach our specific aims: be that improving performance, enhancing recovery, maximizing training stimulus or optimizing sleep quality, for example.
We can experiment and manipulate the same tools (basically, nutrients and timings); as we “play” we periodize nutrition in accordance with training and competition needs”.
Today it’s fashionable to talk about proteins. Can they become the main fuel for athletes, such as following a ketogenic diet?
“If the athlete wants to lose fat and work on their fat-burning efficiency, I’d say yes, without doubt. If the athlete is looking to perform at their best, I fully disagree with following a ketogenic diet. The impact of a ketogenic diet on athletic performance has sparked much interest during the last decades, yet there is now an overwhelming consensus that a ketogenic diet increases the risk of impaired performance with the likelihood of an unavoidable depletion of carbohydrate stores: in other words, to maximize your performance the fuelling has to be built on carbohydrates.
There may be a few scenarios where ketogenic diets are of benefit, or at least not detrimental for sports performance; but road cycling is not one of them”.
What does it mean to burn fat instead of sugar?
“The body tends to prioritize the fuel ingested before the workout. Therefore, if my breakfast before training is built on carbohydrates, then my body will strive for oxidating carbohydrates as its main source of energy during training.
The fuelling during the training itself follows the same physiological rules: the greater the carbohydrate intake, the higher the contribution of the carbs as energy source during the effort; and vice versa. Consequently, to maximize the fat burning potential and efficiency it’s essential to reduce the carbohydrate sources before and during training, instead preferring a protein-based breakfast and combining some protein sources (e.g. protein bottles or protein bars) alongside the more traditional carbohydrates equivalents.
Please note that this nutrition strategy is not aimed at maximizing performance, but to increase the fat utilization of the muscles during low-intensity activity. For races, this is definitely not an option”.
Carbohydrates can be of two types: complex and simple. When and how should they be taken?
“In sports nutrition the distinction has to be even more meticulous, as carbohydrates are not only divided into complex and simple, but also into “fast release” and “slow release” types. We need to evaluate their impact on blood glucose levels to decide when and how we should include them in the athlete’s daily nutrition habits.
In particular, slow-release carbohydrates (including wholegrain pasta, basmati rice, oatmeal, rye bread, honey and agave syrup) represent the ideal glucidic base of the pre-training meal because they guarantee consistent energy levels till the first part of the exercise, avoiding the risk of a rebound hypoglycaemia which may potentially be caused by fast-release carbohydrates (such as breakfast cereals, rice milk, biscuits, white bread, sugars, ripe fruits, standard pasta, and potatoes).
On the contrary, those latter listed ingredients are excellent for the post-training meal, to boost and maximize the replenishment of the glycogen store”.
How should an athlete fuel during training and racing?
“Theoretically the athlete should base his nutrition strategy on slow release carbohydrates (e.g. energy bars and isotonic drink) and then regularly add some fast-release carbs, such as those found in gels and shots. This blend of different carbohydrates blunts the initial glycemic peak and keeps blood glucose stable throughout the workout, avoiding reactive hypoglycemia and any consequent impairment of performance.
Ending with your question: in training the quantity might range from 40 to 80 grams of carbohydrate per hour, and in race from 60 to 100 grams per hour”.
The size of the snack (if the training is between main meals) depends on the duration and intensity of your workout. The harder and longer your muscles are working, the more carbohydrate you’ll need in order to maintain your blood sugar level, is that right?
“Yes, definitely. The pre-training meal must always be made up of carbohydrates (pasta, rice and oatmeal are the most appreciated among riders) and the quantity adjusted according to the intensity and the duration of the session: the longer and the harder the training, the bigger the plate of pasta!
What’s more, if the training is particularly demanding and/or the weather conditions extreme, then a good tip is to add some sources of lean protein (bresaola, chicken breast, white fish, omelette…); meanwhile always minimizing the ingestion of fat (nuts or sauces) and fibers (vegetables and legumes), which might slow down the digestive process”.
And, finally: what should the ‘perfect’ post-activity meal be?
“A beer if it’s a one-stage race! Joking… it’s always important to consider the specific target of that day. If the primary aim is to focus on recovery and get ready for the following day’s training, it would be great that the post-activity plate was full of white rice with some bresaola, and afterwards a medium portion of fruit salad. It has recently been reported that combining glucose (from the rice) and fructose (from the fruits) is likely to speed up the recovery process, so why not?”.