Sports Nutrition 101 – The basic Part 1
When you’re new to training, or new to training for a particular event, nutrition can become as important as the exercise regime. But sometimes we get so caught up in the hype of sports nutrition that we lose sight of some of the page principles that are important in this fascinating and very specialist area of nutrition science. In this two-part article we’re going to look at the role of amino acids – what they are, their functional roles in the body, and how we ensure the right intake to support our training regime through meals and sports nutrition snacks. In this first part we’re going to focus on amino acids, how we find them in our diet, and why they’re important for muscle growth and repair and energy production. In the second part we’ll discuss their roles in neurotransmitter production and detoxification processes – talked about less in sports nutrition but an important part of the overall picture for maintaining health, wellbeing and a training programme.
Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. Proteins are the molecules play a role in most functions in our bodies – muscle, skin, hair, nails, digestive enzymes, immune system cells – you name it, there’s probably a protein involved in it. In sports nutrition amino acids are particularly important because of the roles they play in muscle growth and repair, protecting against stress (and training hard is stressful), and providing energy in skeletal muscles.
Ever wondered what it takes to be an amino acid? It’s got to have an amino group (nitrogen and hydrogen atoms) and an acid group (in this case a carboxyl group that has weak acid properties) and a chain of carbon atoms. These three groups join together in various shapes and configurations, with different numbers of atoms and some other groups tagged on too, but they are really just variations on a common theme.
Any protein source in our diet is going to contain amino acids – because the definition of a protein is a chain of amino acids joined together. But not all protein sources are created equal, and individual amino acids are required in different quantities for optimal health. There are three amino acids particularly important for muscle health – leucine, isoleucine and valine. We can’t make any of these so we have to get enough of them from our diets which is one reason they’re found in so many sports supplements. These amino acids are also called branched chain amino acids (because of their chemical structure) and they play a number of different roles:
– a major fuel source for anabolic (muscle-building) reactions
– enhance the metabolism of protein in muscle (making the fuel source more effective)
– protect muscle during stress (and intense exercise is stressful)
So how do we ensure we get enough of these essential amino acids? Poultry, eggs and meats like pork can deliver useful doses but there are plenty of good vegetarian and vegan sources too – like brown rice, nuts and pulses like chickpeas and lentils. We always recommend you include protein with every meal and snack and this becomes even more important when training. Many of the snacks we’re including in our Sports Nutrition Nutribox have been chosen specifically because of their protein content.
These amino acids aren’t just important for building bulk and strength – they play other functional roles that have both direct and indirect effects on our ability to train hard and maximise adaptation. These include producing important hormones and neurotransmitters that affect our energy levels and working in detoxification pathways to get rid of waste products that can affect recovery and fatigue. More on that in part 2!