Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Nutrition 101: Macronutrients vs micronutrients

I want to blog a fair bit about nutrition and sport.  With my first ultra running season lying ahead of me I am particularly conscious of the huge effect that nutrition can have on performance in an ultra.

There are hundreds of different viewpoints out there on nutrition and what is best for us in our sport.  What I want to address in this post, as a foundation to all other posts on nutrition, is the crucial difference between macronutrients and micronutrients.

Macronutrients are the larger building blocks of our nutrition: fats, carbohydrates and proteins.  Most sports nutrition tends to be about macronutrients - what proportion of your diet should each macronutrient have, what macronutrients should you have to enable recovery and what macronutrients in what quantities help you acheieve race weight?  Yes, there is a shift happening in people's thinking, but it is early days and this is where the focus still is in people's minds.

So, in running circles, people are interested in whether you are still on a high-carb diet, a high-fat diet, a paleo diet or whatever; their thinking is that the perfect running diet is found by moving these big building blocks around until you get them in the right quantities at the right time. Sorted!

It is this approach to sports nutrition that results in recommendations as patently stupid as the classic "chocolate milk for recovery". Ugh!  The idea is that it has the perfect 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein that has been "scientifically proven" (cue to turn your brain off and stop actually thinking critically) to "maximise recovery".
Just say "no"!

In contrast, micronutrients are not you big blocks, but your little blocks (so to speak).  They are your vitamins and minerals, and, more so, antioxidants and phytonutrients that are found in varying quantities in our food.

The science of nutrition is exploding currently.  A hundred or so years ago we thought we had solved our health woes by discovering the main vitamins and minerals.  We could now extract them, replicate them and ensure good health by placing them in our produce.  But now we know that there are probably tens of thosuands of micronutrients all working together in a symbiotic harmony in plants and vegetables.

For people who, like me, have been schooled in the macro-centric mentality regarding nutrition, micronutrients tend to be the things you take in pills as your "insurance policy" for your health.  Finish your run and grab a chocolate milk to help you recover and just so long as you take your daily multi-vit you should, touch wood, be okay.  These days we are moving forward a little and people are talking more about antioxidants and so people may stretch to a few berries and feel good about themselves for doing so.

A different approach
I have so much more I want to say about all this in future posts and this is only intended to be an introduction to it all that I can refer back to later, but let me simply, for now, suggest an alternative approach.

I am a nutritarian these days.  What that basically means is this:  no matter how many calories my body needs in a day, I want to get as many micronutrients as I can into those calories. That's it.  I don't put so much focus (though there is still some) on what macronutrients I eat, as much as what micronutrients I eat.

So when I finish a hard session and have inflamed muscle fibres that need to recover, I'm not bothered about whether I am going to refuel with a 4:1 carb to protein ratio and I am certainly not going to have a glass of chocolate milk which is laden with all sorts of stuff that will produce additional inflammation on a cellular level and has almost no micronutrients.  I am wanting to eat fruit, berries, nuts and even salad that will flush my body with the necessary micronutrients to reduce the inflammation and restore, repair and refresh my body.

I have run a lot of miles over the years and, having studied Sports Science at university, knew the standard line about the right amounts of macronutrients to maximise recovery.  While holding 30+ weeks of 100+M in 2010, I was, unsurprisingly, struggling to recover.  Via a friend, I checked with a sports nutritionist whether I was getting enough protein - the consensus was that running 140-160mpw required more than the textbooks said.  So I started eating a lot more meat. And I felt the effect - I definitely started recovering better. 

In 2012 I really started taking the nutritarian approach to eating and immediately shocked me was that I could run the same amount, eat a fraction of the amount of protein I was eating before I increased it in 2010 and yet recover better than ever before. My legs had never felt so fresh on such a high mileage!

2012 was a learning curve nutritionally, but I started the year experimenting with nutritarianism and finished the year fully committed.  I eat less protein than before, ignore many of the "golden rules" and yet recover much better.  Food for thought... (pun intended).

So, for now, I simply suggest that when you think about sports nutrition you start to give more focus to your micronutrients than you may have done in the past.   More to come on this in the future...

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