The Fueling Performance Pyramid: Nutrition for Health, Training and Competition
Updated: Dec 23, 2020
The Fueling Performance Pyramid (TM) is the lens of how I work with my nutrition clients, whether they be coming in for weight management or training for a marathon. I will briefly review each part of the pyramid, starting from the base going up.
Fundamental nutrition concepts are the baseline of what keeps us healthy as humans – eating enough veggies and fruit, protein, healthy fat, fiber/whole grains, adequate hydration, eating enough calories and nutrients to maintain general health and immune function, a healthy gut, maintaining a healthy body composition (healthy does not necessarily mean six pack abs), and more. Other non-nutrition aspects of recovery can fit into this area as well including rest, sleep, foam rolling/stretching, stress management, etc.
First and foremost, we are all humans. Every athlete is a human and athletic endeavors are built upon it. If an athlete is sick, they cannot perform their best – therefore we must make sure all aspects of fundamental nutrition are covered before moving to the next phase, Performance Nutrition.
Performance nutrition are the aspects of fueling that are designed to promote adaptation around training and/or competition. Some of the aspects of Performance Nutrition are inherent to Fundamental Nutrition, such as consuming adequate calories and protein, however you may be adding in additional calories, carbs, protein, fluid, electrolytes, etc. to replace what is being depleted by training.
Also, certain “rules” of Fundamental Nutrition such as eating adequate veggies, fiber, healthy fats, etc. may be temporarily suspended around training times due to the effect it has on digestion. You don’t want an upset stomach on mile nine of an 18 mile run, or 20 minutes into a 45 minute high intensity training class. This is usually only a few hours of the day, so most of your fueling will still be focused on Fundamental Nutrition. For example, if you train in the morning, you can have your veggies with lunch and dinner.
Another issue that crops up is that athletes may under-fuel themselves because they are trying to eat clean and stay away from things like sugar and salt. Throughout most of the day, it may be a good idea (i.e. you usually don’t need Gatorade if you’re lounging on the couch), but some of the main areas that get depleted during training (especially during prolonged, intense training in a warm environment) are your glycogen stores (carbs), fluid, and electrolyte levels (primarily sodium). Therefore, to maintain performance and promote recovery, you may need to add some of this into your diet around training. If you have an off-day, you most likely won’t need it.
Up to this point the vast majority of my recommendations are based around whole foods, with the exception of a whole-food based bar if you are really strapped for time, or the inclusion of sports drinks or a scoop of protein powder (ideally just one or two ingredients: protein + a stabilizer like sunflower lecithin) around training times if real food is not readily available or well tolerated by your stomach. The last, and smallest piece of the puzzle is Supplemental Nutrition.
Let me lead this section by saying MOST supplements, when not curing a clinical deficiency (i.e. iron for iron deficiency), are not proven to be effective. A great resource is the Australian Institute of Sport Supplement Guide – if you notice their Group A, the list of supplements with the strongest scientific evidence, is short. Very short. And within that list, most are “sports foods” and “medical supplements”. Only five performance enhancement supplements (out of how many out there?!) have enough evidence to make it to group A. Also, these supplements are designed to be used for certain athlete populations – for example, beta-alanine may not be useful for a marathoner.
And what is the performance benefit of these well-researched supplements? About 2 to 3%. That means 97-98% of your results comes from proper training, recovery, and Fundamental/Performance nutrition. If you’re eating like crap and training like crap – creatine will not magically make you a powerlifting champion. Get the other things right first, then, if appropriate, consider trying things. However this brings up two major caveats: supplement purity and the placebo / belief effect.
A fair amount of research has come out that shows a surprising number of supplements do not match what’s listed on their label – with either added substances not listed on the label, inadequate amounts of listed supplements, or too much of listed supplements, all of which could affect your body in unforeseen ways. Trying to get third party safety verification of your supplements can be helpful through organizations such as NSF for Sport, Informed Choice or ConsumberLab.com. But remember, they only test one batch out of many, so there’s still always a chance. This issue is of greater risk to athletes whose governing bodies who have strict doping guidelines such as the NCAA and/or IOC.
Research has also shown the belief that a supplement or recovery practice will help performance may in fact, improve performance regardless of whether that supplement is truly efficacious. And what is the performance enhancement of this belief effect? 1 to 3%, shockingly similar to the “proven” effects of the supplements listed above. Shona Halson and David Martin do a great job explaining this phenomenon in their review: “Lying to Win – Placebos and Sport Science”.
Finally, let me close this section by saying there are supplements out there that are quite effective, but HIGHLY unsafe and usually banned – such as steroids. Please don’t take them.
I hope the Fueling Performance Pyramid provides a general framework on how to build your nutrition or fueling regimen. The “secret sauce” is lining up all of the variables so they work together to maximize adaptation, promote recovery and keep you healthy.