The Basics of Eating for Athletic Performance

Hey Angels & Alphas!

Today, we’re going to go straight into it. I’m going to talk about one of my favorite topics – nutrition. More specifically, the impact that your diet has on your energy levels during a workout.

We all know that the body utilizes food for energy, but how exactly? And how do we plan our meals so we’re efficiently providing energy to our muscles when it’s needed?

Well, I’ll tell you!

The reason I’m sharing this with you is that I honestly believe this might change the way you go about your diet. Honestly, once you get a basic understanding of how you can eat to boost your sports performance, doing it becomes effortless.

But in order for you to understand how food directly impacts your energy levels during a workout, there are a few things we have to go over first!

(Please feel free to check out my blog post titled Healthy Eating: Understanding Your Protein, Carb, and Fat Intake to get a better idea of the characteristics of the major macronutrients).

First of all, how does the body turn food into energy?

There’s a couple of ways we can look at this. All the food you eat is essentially a rich cocktail of macro and micronutrients.

These nutrients go through a variety of energy systems throughout your body. What system they choose to use is based on the type of nutrient. Proteins, carbs, and fats all get processed by the body through their each energy system.

The end goal is for these nutrients to turn into adenosine triphosphate. Without sounding too science-y, you most probably know this as ATP. Through the breakdown of ATP, we receive the energy we need to contract our muscles.  

What are these “energy systems”?

You can look at it like this.

  • Protein is used to nourish and repair your muscles and body tissue. It’s not primarily used as an energy source for physical activity.
  • Carbohydrates are responsible for fueling mostly moderate/high-intensity exercise.
  • Fat is used to fuel exercises that focus on low intensity stretched out over a period of time.

Carbohydrates and fats essentially go through their own metabolic pathway so they can turn into ATP. But your body can’t really store a lot of ATP, so you can’t just rely on that. You have to also be generating it while you’re working out.

To learn how to do that, you need to know the two primary ways your body turns nutrients into energy – aerobic and anaerobic.

You can divide each of them into a variety of combinations of energy systems. Your body determines which type to use based on the situation and its available resources, so let’s look at both of these individually.

Aerobic Metabolism

The main difference between aerobic and anaerobic metabolism is that aerobic metabolism requires oxygen.

With it, you’re mostly “burning” carbohydrates, fats, and protein and turning them into energy. It’s essentially your body’s way of producing energy long-term. It focuses on the sustained, continuous production of energy, so it’s not efficient when it comes to generating massive amounts of force in a short amount of time.

This way of producing energy is slower because your body requires oxygen to move around the body and convert nutrients into ATP.

You can think of jogging, walking, low-intensity cardio drills, anything that doesn’t really get your heart rate up all that much (above 50% of your max heart rate).

Most often, when you’re exercising, your body switches back and forth. Imagine a sport like football that involves a lot of running and big short bursts of energy.

At the beginning of your workout, your body will most likely be using anaerobic metabolism ATP. Then, your heart rate increases. Your lungs open up, and you have access to way more oxygen. After that, aerobic metabolism starts taking control.

The byproduct of the aerobic metabolism of carbohydrates are water and carbon dioxide. You mostly get rid of those by breathing and sweating! But the anaerobic metabolism of carbohydrates produces lactic acid as a byproduct.

If you reach your lactate threshold (the high-intensity “burning” point of an exercise), this means that oxygen in your body is not moving quickly enough. So you stop generating ATP, and your anaerobic metabolism comes back to save the day.

Let’s sum up what we know about aerobic metabolism:

  • Aerobic metabolism requires oxygen.
  • Your body uses aerobic metabolism when providing energy for low-intensity exercise.
  • Aerobic metabolism provides the energy you use for your daily body functions. Walking, breathing, talking, etc.
  • Aerobic metabolism produces water and carbon dioxide in the body.

Anaerobic Metabolism – glycolysis

Have you heard about the phosphate system? It’s basically what drives short, intense bursts of exercise. (Such as a heavy squat or a 100-meter dash.)

It’s an energy system based on ATP and creatine phosphate, and it doesn’t require oxygen. So how exactly does it create energy?

Simple. In the first 3-4 seconds of an exercise, it uses up all the ATP that’s stored up in your muscles. After that’s gone, your body resynthesizes ATP using creatine phosphate. When both of these are used up, your body goes back to square one and decides which of the two systems to use to generate ATP.

This way of generating energy comes only from carbohydrates. Your body breaks down glucose for energy without the need to utilize oxygen. As I mentioned above, this leads to you building up lactic acid in your muscles until you reach your lactate threshold.

With the right training regimen, athletes slow the buildup of lactic acid. They use calculated workout methods that aim to bring up the lactate threshold and increase the athlete’s VO2 max.

Let’s sum up what anaerobic metabolism is all about:

  • Anaerobic metabolism relies on carbohydrates and does not require oxygen.
  • Your body uses anaerobic metabolism when providing energy for lifting, sprinting, and other forms of intense exercise.
  • Anaerobic metabolism kicks in when your body needs to produce big short bursts of power for a short period of time.
  • Anaerobic metabolism produces lactic acid in the body, leading up to the burning sensation you feel when you work out.

Now, we know all about how our body turns nutrients into energy.

But how do we use that to our advantage and gain an extra edge in our performance?

I’ll tell you…

Consuming the right type of food for your workout!

When talking about specific macronutrients, each has its own use. As I stated above, protein is primarily used to repair the body tissues.

Fat is excellent fuel when it comes to endurance-based training. However, it’s simply not an adequate source of energy when it comes to explosive, short burst exercise. Technically, if you have enough fat stored as fuel and you have access to oxygen, you can do low-intensity exercise for days.

But If you want to continuously improve exercise intensity, you need carbohydrates. They’re more efficient than fat. If your glycogen (carb) stores are full, you can go up to 1,5-2 hours of intense exercise. The downside here is its low and limited energy stores.

Higher intensity always requires carbs. And not just any carbs. If you’re planning an intense workout, you should eat a meal consisting of easily-digestible carbs at least an hour before you head for the gym. If you get there and your carb stores are not full enough, your body will tap back into fat metabolism and demolish your weightlifting.

If your goal is better athletic performance, you need to feel ready for the right workout every time. To do this, you need to consume the correct type of energy.

Healthy carbohydrates are the best nutrients for boosting energy during a workout session. They help your body run optimally on many levels.

Easily, the best pre-workout energy foods are carbs. Both simple and complex. Simple carbs can include fruits, veggies, juices, and complex carbs include foods like oatmeal or whole-grain bread.

The best way to utilize the benefits of the right type of energy is to consume it at the right time prior to your workout. Every person digests foods differently, but nutrient timing is an essential concept that everyone should learn about individually.

You can’t eat your energy-giving foods too long before a workout. This way, your body will have already used up all the energy you got from them.

You also can’t limit your intake to half an hour before a workout or less. If you eat too close to your workout and you go all guns blazing on your one rep max, you’re going to get nauseous. (Digesting food requires blood to flow to your stomach and exercising points it elsewhere – the cause of workout nausea)

To properly time your pre-workout meal, you need to adjust. You need to learn how your body works and digests food, and how long it takes to turn it into energy.

When it comes to proper nutrition timing and eating for athletic performance, trial and error is your best option.

Start taking notice of things like how long it takes for you to get energy from certain foods, and you’re automatically tracking them in your head. You’ll learn how foods make you feel, how your body responds to different diets, as well as how energy flows throughout your body.

That’s the key to using food to boost your performance in the gym or in your sport.

And now, that key is in your hands.

Talk to you soon,


Leave a Comment

Our Affiliates