Well, I'm so darn inspired by this late summer weather we're having, I thought it would be an ideal time to post about exercise nutrition.
(That, and the small fact that our son is currently running 60 km/37 miles a week on average with his cross-country team. We are getting a very quick sense of just how seriously Americans take their sports! When I inquired jovially about the two hour daily practices, Monday through Saturday, the coach looked at me square in the eyeballs and responded 'this is not a club, it's a sport." Gotcha).
Exercise and Hydration
It's no secret that proper nutrition - before, during and after exercise - is an integral part of every athlete's comfort, performance and recovery.
Hydration, the hub of all biochemical processes in the body, is critical to athletic performance. The average adult body is made up of 50-70% water. Even mild dehydration (1-5% loss of body water) has been shown to reduce efficiency and performance and can lead to early fatigue during exercise.
Moderate Intensity Exercise of Less than One Hour
Every individual is unique but as a general rule, if you are working out at moderate intensity levels for less than a one hour period, water should be your primary hydration source (no need to flood your body with sugar and electrolytes it doesn't need at this stage).
Higher-Intensity Exercise of More than One Hour
If you are engaging in higher intensity exercise of more than one hour however, water alone will not suffice. Your body sweats out vital electrolytes at this level and also requires carbohydrates to provide energy to working muscles. Electrolytes are essential minerals, including sodium and potassium, that are needed to regulate critical body functions like heart beat and blood pressure. When we sweat, we lose sodium and to a lesser degree potassium, magnesium and calcium. Sodium is critical for transmitting nerve impulses and proper muscle function. Even a slight drop in blood sodium can cause problems (hyponatremia).
Sports Drinks vs. Coconut Water
Numerous studies have shown that sports drinks (which contain carbohydrates and electrolytes) can delay fatigue, enhance physical performance and speed recovery in athletes. However, most of these drinks deliver carbohydrates in the form of processed liquid sugar including high fructose corn syrup.
Coconut water on the other hand, is derived naturally from the juice of young green coconuts. It is lower in carbohydrates and calories than most sports drinks and higher in potassium. Coconut water also contains magnesium, phosphorus and calcium.
The one critical electrolyte that coconut water does not deliver in sufficient quantity however is sodium (athletes lose more sodium through sweating than potassium over prolonged exercise) and that is why I recommend adding a pinch of sea salt for exercise of more than one hour duration.
Hydration Prior and During Exercise
Every individual will have different preferences for hydration prior to exercise however studies reveal that many of us continue to fall short of our needs.
As a general guideline, it is recommended that individuals consume in the range of 500 ml (16 ounces) of water prior to exercise and sip small amounts of water -- every 10 minutes or so depending on intensity -- during exercise. Carbohydrate and electrolyte replenishment generally only becomes relevant after one hour of exercise.
If you are engaging in high-intensity exercise of over one hour in duration, you can sip on a combination of coconut water with a pinch of sea salt and some orange juice and/or honey. (You can experiment with what works best for you but here's an idea of what it might look like: 3 cups coconut water, 1/4 tsp sea salt, 1/2 cup orange juice and 1 Tbsp honey).
Replenishment, Repair and Recovery following Exercise
Following exercise, I recommend a recovery smoothie which has added protein (for muscle repair) and fruit (to replenish depleted glycogen stores naturally) while delivering antioxidants, vitamins and minerals which you will not get from high fructose corn syrup. Exercise, like all metabolic processes, gives rise to free radical production and it's important for athletes/exercises to avail themselves of a diet rich in antioxidants to offset this equation.
I recommend consuming the smoothie ideally within 30 to 60 minutes of completing high intensity exercise of more than one hour in duration. This time frame is generally viewed as the optimum window for replenishing glycogen stores and facilitating muscle repair and recovery.
I prefer liquid nutrients at this stage for recovery as many athletes/exercisers feel they need time to relax their stomach muscles (and calm their sympathetic nervous system generally) after high intensity exercise and before taking in solid food. Nutrients - notably carbohydrates and protein - in the form of smoothies, are ideal because they are easier to digest and more quickly absorbed by the body than solid foods. For those who tolerate protein powders in smoothies this is also an option but if you prefer to source from whole foods, blended Greek yogurt, eggs, nuts and seeds offer excellent sources.
A fun anecdote: Professional tennis player John Isner, who played the longest tennis match in history at Wimbledon in 2010, credits his 11-hour marathon endurance on the court to coconut water mixed with sea salt. (Post-match he adds protein powder for recovery).
Blackberry & Coconut Water Post-Exercise Recovery Smoothie
I'm not gonna lie I squealed like a girly when I saw my first lemon tree