There’s a lot of misinformation out there about sports nutrition. Here’s a test to see if you can tell fact from fiction.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but when it comes to nutrition, we still have a lot to learn. I don’t mean any offense to readers who feel they are well-read on this subject, but the fact of the matter is that the study of nutrition is relatively new and therefore our understanding and application of it continue to evolve. And sports nutrition is far from exempt as we aim to learn more about how to optimize our performance. Unfortunately, this leaves us prone to buying into myths and misinformation. So let’s take some time to separate fact from fiction and break down what we know is actually true and what is false. At least for now.
Carb loading improves performance.
If only it were that simple. The goal of carb loading is to maximize glycogen stores, where our bodies store carbohydrates. Studies have shown that carb loading provides performance benefits for activities lasting 90 minutes or more. However, for shorter duration events or those that do not require continuous activity (e.g. sports like soccer) carb loading won’t help. Keep in mind that the goal of carb loading is to prevent energy stores from becoming depleted, not to make us faster or stronger. Just like a larger gas tank in a car won’t allow you to drive faster, carb loading will just allow you to go longer without needing additional fueling. Carb loading also entails a lot more than just eating a big plate of pasta the night before an event. A specific protocol of exhaustive exercise with low carbohydrate intake followed by a period of limited exercise and high carbohydrate intake must be followed in order for carb loading to be effective. Still, it doesn’t make that pasta feast the night before a race any less satisfying! Verdict? Myth.
Protein is key for recovering after exercise.
If you just went for a long ride, run or hike should you reach for that protein shake? Yes, our muscles are made of protein and thus consuming protein is essential to repairing and building muscle tissue. However, after endurance activities, protein shouldn’t be the star of the show. Studies have shown that the ideal post-workout meal or snack should consist of a mix of carbohydrates and protein with the majority being carbs. Studies suggest that a ratio of 4:1 carbs to protein hits the sweet spot for recovery. This is why chocolate milk—which delivers on almost that exact ratio—tends to get top billing as a recovery drink. Verdict: Myth…sort of.
Drinking pickle juice prevents muscle cramps.
The unmistakable sensation of a muscle seizing up during training or competition is all too common and the cause all too commonly misunderstood. A muscle cramp is a sustained, painful and involuntary contraction of a muscle typically attributed to electrolyte depletion. Some athletes swear by drinking pickle juice to prevent or cure muscle cramps and limited research even backs up these claims. One such study found that individuals who drank pickle juice shortened the duration of their cramps by 49 seconds compared to those who drank just water. It would make sense to infer that the high sodium content in pickle juice eases or prevents cramping by replacing sodium lost in sweat. That would add up if muscle cramps were truly caused by a lack of sodium, but that is not the case. The majority of muscle cramps are actually caused by neuromuscular fatigue. So why does pickle juice seem to unlock that seizing calf muscle you get on your 100-mile ride? Scientists are still unsure of the exact mechanism, but it appears that the vinegar in pickle juice may send a signal to the nervous system to calm the neurons that are stimulating the muscle contraction. For anyone who has experienced a debilitating muscle cramp during exercise, the “why” it works is likely far less important than the relief that it brings. I’ll drink (pickle juice) to that! Verdict: True…but not for the reasons you think.
Eating late at night leads to weight gain
We’ve all heard that late night eating is a recipe for weight gain. But let’s be real, when you are juggling work, family and training on top of that, sometimes there’s just no alternative. I regularly talk with clients who are stressing over whether to eat a late dinner after getting home from a long training ride or go to bed hungry. It’s understandable that this would be a source of stress considering how often we are told we should avoid eating late at night lest our food intake turn to fat as we catch some Zs. The good news is that unless you’re a gremlin there is likely no magical hour at which we should stop eating. Very few human studies have examined the effects of eating at night on weight and those that have indicate it is not when you eat, but how much and what foods you are consuming that impacts weight. The main reason late night eating gets such a bad rap is because typically we are eating out of habit, boredom or entertainment as opposed to hunger. We also tend to reach for foods that are high in fat and sugar at night. You can’t honestly tell me that you’re curling up to watch Game of Thrones with a bag of baby carrots. Instead of agonizing over the hour of your last meal or snack, just ask yourself; “Am I truly hungry?” If the answer is yes, then select a healthy portion-controlled option guilt-free. Verdict: Jury is still out.
Vitamin and mineral supplements provide energy.
As we all know, there are a multitude of products claiming to help athletes improve speed and endurance, but unfortunately popping a pill won’t deliver on such promises. To be clear vitamins and minerals are essential components of our diet and without them we certainly won’t perform at our best. However, vitamins and minerals themselves do not actually provide any energy. Among their many functions in the body, they serve as cofactors in the metabolic processes that convert food into chemical energy. If an individual is deficient in a vitamin or mineral then technically a supplement may help them feel more energized even though the supplement itself provides no actual energy. Eating a well-balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats should meet all your vitamin and mineral needs. In case you are of the mindset that more is better, think again when it comes to vitamins and minerals. Studies show that taking mega-doses of vitamins or minerals does not improve health or performance and can, in fact, be harmful. Verdict: Myth.