Sometimes we develop the incorrect belief that if we’re good at a sport, then whatever we are eating is fine and must be helping us. But generally speaking, nowadays we perform in spite of our diet, not because of it. In today’s world of eating on the run and junk food indulgences, athletes aren’t getting the proper nutrients for their bodies to perform at peak potential. I implore you to approach eating another way and see how you feel. That is, if you’re the type of person who wants to be the best.
We are about to take a look at how eating smarter will help you achieve better endurance, gain more energy, and have better overall nutrition. No, this isn’t your mom’s advice to “eat your vegetables.” It’s more complicated than that. I won’t encourage you to go vegan or subscribe to a specific diet. Everyone has to make their own choices. However, there are some basic rules about eating that can help you be a better athlete, because what you put in your body is directly correlated to how your body performs. Your body is a machine, and if you give it the right fuel, it will break down less and run longer.
Consider these two food myths and think about how they affect your game.
Myth Meat is one of the best energy sources for athletes
Eating meat stimulates your body to release a lot of insulin. Maybe you’ve heard of the glycemic index? It’s a scale used to measure how quickly blood sugar levels rise after eating certain foods. What about the insulin index? The insulin index measures the increase in levels of insulin in our blood after consuming certain foods. While some foods, like meat or eggs, may be low on the glycemic index because they are lacking in carbohydrates, they are high on the insulin index, meaning your body experiences an immediate, significant hike in insulin levels after meat consumption. Insulin escorts glucose from the food you eat through your blood to your cells to be burned as energy. So when you eat meat, you may get an initial energy “boost” because of the insulin release forcing more sugar into your cells to burn for fuel.
But meat, and the corresponding fats that accompany meat, is difficult for our body to break down. Digestion is the most energy-intensive process our body goes through, so that initial energy boost is correlated with a decrease in energy production because the digestion of that meaty meal is taking so much of your body’s energy supply. If you’re a high-level athlete, avoid eating meat 4-6 hours before you play so you can use the majority of your body’s energy to defeat the opponent, instead of keeping it busy digesting your last meal.
Myth Carb-loading is necessary the night before a tournament
Does spaghetti at team dinner the night before a tournament sound familiar? Yep, we’ve all done it. However, pastas and other foods associated with carb-loading are, generally speaking, void of high-quality nutrients. They are low in fiber and have a high glycemic index. So, yes, initially you will be putting a lot of carbs (sugar) into your blood, but your cells can only absorb so much. Whatever carbs are not used by the cells will then be stored as fat. Only when your body runs out of blood sugar will it switch to burning fat for energy, and that progress can take a while to get started, so those carbs you loaded up on the night before are not very useful to your body as an easily accessible energy source the next day at your competition.
By eating a carb-heavy meal the night before an event, you also force a ton of insulin into your blood because all those carbs need to be transported to the cells. The increased insulin level can throw off your hormonal balance for hours. Unbalanced hormones can result in poor sleep, lower energy, and loss of valuable nutrients like electrolytes, which is exactly what you’re trying to avoid by eating this stuff in the first place.
Let’s tie it all together with this diagram of the chemical makeup of chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is the compound in plants that allows them to convert sunlight into chemical energy through photosynthesis. Chlorophyll reacts very well with our blood because its structure is near identical, the only difference being the center atom of each molecule. Depending on which plant it’s from, chlorophyll contains a variety of vitamins and minerals that are valuable to you as an athlete. Vitamins help to neutralize free radicals, a process that can reduce inflammation in your muscles and joints, helping you recover faster and have more endurance. Minerals, among them electrolytes, help you stay hydrated and maintain an alkaline pH in your blood, prolonging lactic acid buildup in your muscles before fatigue.
Green, leafy vegetables are what provide us with chlorophyll. In addition to the benefits mentioned, chlorophyll helps to cleanse our system of toxins and impurities. Scientists also believe chlorophyll stimulates red blood cell production, which increases available oxygen in the blood. Having more oxygen in the blood can increase endurance.
Meat and carbs like pasta are low in vitamins, minerals, and chlorophyll. Here are my recommendations based on the above information: Eat a ton of green veggies and a salad the night before and through game day. You’ll be surprised how much better you sleep and feel.
And remember, just like practice makes you a better player, consistent practicing of better eating habits will let your body perform at a higher level.
Russ Marchewka played indoor volleyball at UC Irvine and now plays professional beach volleyball. His commitment to better nutrition has earned him the nickname “Mr. Healthy” on the tour. Marchewka has spent the last eight years studying how nutrition affects his volleyball game. For more from Russ Marchewka, visit WorldHealthHub.com or check out his YouTube page: youtube.com/volleyballnutrition.
Originally published in June 2013