Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Nutrition: Alternative carbohydrate sources

The diet of endurance athletes is likely to consist of large amounts of pasta, rice and breakfast cereal.  Athletes don’t have to stick to these traditional, reliable old carbohydrates though, and can benefit from adding some less well known cereals and carbohydrate-rich foods to their diet.  Those with gluten or wheat intolerance will appreciate the variety, and foods like couscous and polenta are a lot quicker to prepare than rice and pasta.  Here are some of the available options, and what they can contribute to a healthy balanced diet:

Potatoes, unlike cereal based carbohydrates, are a vegetable, and as a result are particularly nutrient dense.  Among the micronutrients which they contain is vitamin C, something which you won’t find in pasta, noodles, or rice.  Cook potatoes in their skins to minimise vitamin C loss during cooking.  There is practically no fat or cholesterol in potatoes, and their skins, if consumed, are a good source of fibre.  Potatoes do have a higher GI than most other starchy foods, and are too often served deep fried (in the form of chips or crisps), or smothered in butter.

Sweet potatoes, like common potatoes, are versatile, and nutrient dense.  They have a lower GI, and unlike white potatoes, they can be mashed and creamed without butter.  They are a good source of fibre, Vitamins A, B6 and C, and Beta-carotene and also contain some protein.  They can be boiled, mashed and roasted, similar to potatoes, and can also be added to curry, risotto and pasta dishes.

Yams, a West African staple, are similar, but not related to sweet potatoes.  The can be cooked in a variety of ways, but traditionally are most often boiled, roasted or fried.  Yams have a lower GI than potatoes, and are a good source of fibre, potassium, manganese, vitamin B6 and vitamin C.

Other vegetables which are high in carbohydrates include cassava, artichokes, sweetcorn, winter squashes, and pumpkin.  Legumes, including peanuts, lentils, peas and beans are also sources of carbohydrate, and as low GI foods, can be added to rice, pasta and potato dishes to lower the overall GI of the dish.

Oats is a great breakfast food for athletes.  Hulled oats is not stripped of its bran or germ, like other processed grains.  In addition to high fibre content, oats has cardio-protective properties, and helps protect against a range of diseases.  Oats is generally served as porridge, though it can also be added to soups and stews, or used as the basis of flapjacks and a range of other sweet treats.

Polenta is a staple food in much of northern Italy.  The word ‘polenta’ literally means ‘cornmeal mush’ and is made from naturally low fat, low cholesterol, high fibre cornmeal ground cornmeal flour.  Polenta can be boiled, fried, baked in breads and cakes, or served alongside stews.  Instant powered polenta is widely available.  To make polenta, simply mix the cornmeal with water, and simmer until it thickens. ‘Wet’ polenta is served hot.  It can taste somewhat bland, but adding Italian cheese, herbs, pesto, or strong flavoured foods can greatly enhance the taste.  Alternatively, polenta can be left to cool, cut into slices and grilled or fried.

I recently discovered polenta, and stuck for time one day, came up with my own special recipe, which takes just 10 minutes to prepare.  It goes something like this:

1. Prepare some instant polenta as per packet instructions (stir some polenta into a saucepan of boiling water; add more until becomes a thick paste, simmer for 2 to 3 minutes).
2. Meanwhile poach two eggs.
3. Chop half a red pepper, grate 1 carrot, chop 1 tomato.  (I’ve chosen these vegetables because they don’t need to be cooked, but you can of course choose any vegetable that doesn’t need to be cooked, or stir-fry some vegetables in a separate pan.)
4. Grate or dice a small amount of cheese.  (A strong-flavoured soft cheese such as feta or blue cheese would help add taste to the bland polenta.)
5. Add the vegetables and cheese to the polenta and stir in with a large spoon of pesto, and some sunflower seeds or chopped walnuts.
6. Serve with the eggs.

This is a good dish for eating after training as it is quick to prepare, and is high in carbohydrates, protein and vitamins.  You can add some smoked salmon instead of the eggs, and experiment with different nuts and seeds.

Couscous, like pasta, is made from rolled semolina wheat.  It has more protein than rice or potatoes, and with a magical carbohydration:protein ration of 4:1, it is an ideal recovery food.  Quick-cook couscous takes no more than five minutes to prepare, and since it can be made with boiling water in a bowl, it is an ideal food for busy travelling athletes.  Couscous can be served hot or cold, and is an ideal accompaniment to salads.  Add cooked vegetables, smoked salmon and seeds for a great lunchbox meal, or mix in dried fruit, chopped nuts and a tablespoon of yoghurt for a sweet treat.

Quinoa is the edible seeds of a South American grain-like crop.  It has a light, fluffy texture, and a slight bite to it.  It is high in protein as well as carbohydrates.  Quinoa is boiled in water, similar to rice, until the germ and seed separate. Quinoa can be served with nuts, dried fruit, berries and honey for a great high-protein breakfast.

Rice is a calorie-dense, high carbohydrate, low fat crop, and the world’s most popular carbohydrate food.  Rice is also a good source of thiamin, niacin and vitamin E.  Basmati rice has a lower GI than other forms of white rice (the longer the grain, the lower the GI), and brown rice is packed with protein and fibre, and is a good source of B vitamins.  Rice is pretty versatile, and makes a great accompaniment to a range of meals.  Chilli con carne, vegetable and chicken curries and risottos are good carbohydrate-packed meals for athletes.  Risottos are a great way to use up leftovers, and can be made with whatever food is available in the fridge – roast chicken, peas, mushrooms, diced bacon, etc.

Rice noodles take just 3-4 minutes to prepare, have a low GI, and are a good addition to Thai curries and oriental soups.

Noodles are essentially a type of pasta, made with wheat, rice, buckwheat, mungbean or potato flour combined with egg.  Noodles tend to take less time than dried pasta to prepare, and are very versitile, making them a store cupboard favourite.  Choose to boil rather than fry the noodles, and add plenty of vegetables and nuts for a healthy, balanced change to standard pasta and rice.

Bread is a very versatile food, though how healthy it is depends on the type of flour and cooking method used.  More processed flour (e.g. white flour), has a higher GI than wholemeal flour.  Adding nuts and seeds can increase the nutritional content, and reduce the overall GI of the bread.  Rye bread is a particularly low GI option, and is high in soluble fibre.  Making your own bread is a good way to ensure that there are no nasty ingredients and is a lot easier than you would think.

Bulgar wheat has a nice nutty texture and flavour, and a medium-low GI.  It is a good source of fibre, thiamine and vitamin E.  Bulgar wheat, like couscous is as good cold as it is warm, and can be added to salads for a great lunchbox meal. 

Buckwheat, despite its name, is no relative to wheat, and is in fact a gluten-free grain.  It is popular in Russian and Eastern European cuisine, and has a strong flavour.  It is high in carbohydrate, protein and fibre, and low in cholesterol and fat.  Buckwheat flour, available in most health food stores, can be combined with wheat flour in pancakes and other wheat-based recipes.

Pearl barley is barley which has had the bran and outer hull removed.  It is low in fat and cholesterol and is a good source of fibre, and is quicker to prepare than other forms of barley.  Pearl barley is often added to stews, and other one-pot dishes.

Amaranth, unlike most other grains, is gluten-free, and suitable for individuals with celiac disease.  It has an excellent balance of carbohydrate, protein and fat, and is packed with both iron and calcium.  It also has a considerably lower GI than pasta.  Amaranth was a staple of the aztect, but its cultivation was banned by the conquistadores.  Today, it is often popped and mixed with honey for a nutritious snack.

Gnocci are small Italian dumplings that are made by binding potato and flour together with egg. Ready-made gnocci take just a few minutes to prepare, and can simply be served with pesto or a tomato-based pasta sauce.

Other staples from around the world include ingera (Ethiopia), a sourdough flatbread made from the iron-rich flour of the teff crop; ugali (Kenya), a dough food made from ground maize, and unsurprisingly, similar to polenta; and plantains, a banana like fruit which can only be eaten cooked, and which is a major staple in Camerron and DR Congo, Central America, the Caribbean, Colombia and Venezuela.

Go Faster Food is a particularly good book for endurance athletes looking to add some variety to their diets.  It includes recipes for a range of pasta, rice and couscous dishes. 

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Improving Sleep Quality

I have chosen to look at sleep with this blog, triggered by the lack of sleep I was suffering four weeks ago. My much loved Springer Spaniel gave birth to six healthy gorgeous pups, but after three days she wasn’t producing enough milk to keep them going. As they became weaker we started to panic about keeping them going and had to resolve to feeding them ourselves. 

For the next two weeks between me and my partner we were bottle feeding them every 2hrs, through the day and night taking it in turns who had the night shift, and between us both getting very little sleep while we tried to work and train at the same time until they were old enough to go on solid food. Four weeks later we have six healthy pups and our lives are back to normal, but it made me realise how important sleep was and how we can enhance this to help our performance.

Sleep has a number of important physiological and cognitive functions which are important to athletes, especially submaximal, prolonged exercise. Poor sleeping habits may also influence memory, pain perception and immunity and inflammation- reducing the effectiveness of recovery. Furthermore, changes in metabolism may also alter appetite, food intake and protein synthesis. These factors can ultimately have a negative influence on an athlete’s nutritional metabolism and endocrine status and therefore reduce performance. 

According to a 2005 Gallup Poll in the US the average self-reported sleep duration of healthy individuals is 6.8hrs on weekdays and 7.4hrs on weekends. Sleep quality in athletes has only recently been looked at finding that a group of athletes had a total of 8hrs 36 in bed, but took longer to fall asleep and lower sleep quality, this is likely to be further exaggerated during competition period attributed to reasons such as pain, caffeine us, stress and worries. 

So relating to nutrition what practical things can athletes do to help their sleep quality?

Practical Applications:
  • Focus on good sleep hygiene to maximise sleep quality and quantity
  • High GI foods may promote sleep but should be consumed more than 1hr before bedtime- this will include white rice,  pasta, bread and potatoes  
  • Diets high in carbohydrate may result in shorted sleep latencies
  • Diets high in protein  may result in improved sleep quality
  • Diets high in fat may negatively influence total sleep time
  • When total caloric intake is decrease, sleep quality may be disturbed
  • Small doses of tryptophan (1g) may improve both latency and sleep quality. This can be achieved by consuming approximately 300g of turkey or approximately 200g of pumpkin seeds

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

The person comes first. Always

A  few days ago, I picked up a copy of Sport magazine from April 25th  - nothing like being up to date!  As the week in which the latest Manchester United manager received his marching orders, Moyes understandably receives considerable focus, and the cover story remembers Formula 1 legend Ayrton Senna, 20 years on from his tragic death, but it is two more minor stories that are of particular interest to Athlete Life Development, and the work that we do.

This first, an article entitled ‘Life After Sport’, looks at the difficulties faced by athletes when they retire from sport.  One of our recent blogs looked at this issue, and this article gives further real-life examples of the challenges that sportspeople such as boxer Ricky Hatton, middle distance runner Kelly Holmes and footballer Mick Quinn faced when retiring from their chosen sport, and how they coped with this major life event.

A lot of the current career transition research in sport is centred around encouraging sports men and women to view themselves as people, and to centre their self-image around his or herself as a person rather than his or herself as a an athlete, something which dual careers and interests outside of sport can help with.

Of course, we’re all about the person rather than the athlete at Athlete Life Development, and it is from this viewpoint that I can’t help but look at the commentary of David Moyes’s time at United, and feel a certain sense of regret.  Of course Moyes knew the pressures and media focus that he would face when he left Everton for the greatest job in football management, but still, wouldn’t it be nice if the media and those who comment on social media, took the time to think of Moyes as a person with feelings, just like me or you.  Nobody will be more disappointed with United’s results than Moyes himself – and in typical catastrophe theory fashion, bad results led to increased pressure, trying too hard, and an unbreakable downward spiral -  but maybe it wasn’t just a case of the wrong man for the job.  Perhaps it was the wrong job for the man.

Speaking of people with emotions brings us nicely (almost seamlessly) to the second piece of interest to us in Sport - an advertising feature on mental health.  The piece, publicising the work of Time to Change, England’s biggest programme to challenge mental health stigma and discrimination, looks at the mental health issues that British boxing legend Herol ‘Bomber’ Graham faced following his retirement from sport.  This is a common theme across sportspeople after they retire, but sportspeople can face depression at any stage in their careers.  Injury, disappointing results, and financial concerns can be trigger events, but even positive events like achieving lifelong goals can cause the most hardened of competitors to experience this most common of diseases. 

We discussed depression in sport in a previous post, but, with one in four people experiencing a mental health problem each year, it is an important issue to bring back into the spotlight.  Last week, Spanish long jumper and former European record holder Yago Lamela was found dead at his parents’ home.  Though the cause of death has not been formally announced, his family have revealed that he had been suffered from periods of severe depression and anxiety attacks since late in his athletic career, and that there had been at least one previous suicide attempt.

What can coaches and support personnel do to help?  

Firstly, always think of each of your athletes as a person, not just as an athlete, and focus on supporting the person as much as supporting the athlete. 

Encourage the athlete to follow other pursuits and to have interests outside of sport.  Recognise times of stress and anxiety in their lives – exams, job interviews, increasing media attention – and adapt training accordingly.  Not every athlete will become an Olympic Champion, but coaching provides the opportunity to make a positive impact on each and every person that you coach.  Athletes look up to their coach, and as coaches we have the opportunity to positively influence their lives in so many ways.

Remember that results should never come before the welfare of the person.

This, Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK, and the Green Ribbon awareness month in Ireland, is a good time to increase our awareness of the causes and symptoms of depression, anxiety and other mental illness.  If you know someone that has mental health issues, there is some good advice on starting the conversation here.

Educate yourself on eating disorders, overtraining, and other welfare issues which may affect athletes that you coach.  You don’t need to be able to solve issues, but you may need to signpost athletes to help.

Maintain an open and understanding approach to your coaching.  Athletes may find it difficult talking to a parent about welfare issues that they are experiencing, and coaches and other support personnel may often fill a crucial listening role.

This report of an event held in Dublin last January, sums up the role of the coach nicely.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

How to increase the portions of fruits and vegetables in the athlete's diet

On the 1st of April 2014 the news headlines reported that eating seven or more portions of fruit and vegetables a day is healthier than the currently recommended five portions and would prolong lives by cutting the risk of dying from cancer and heart disease. 

An April Fool’s day joke to some, however, I have always encouraged athletes I have worked with to aim for a minimum of seven portions a day due to their increase in energy needs and the physiological demands of exercise. 

So what is a portion of fruit or vegetables?

Aim for a handful as a rule of thumb and other things to remember:
  • Fresher the better- try to consume fruit and vegetable produce in their most natural state
  • Wide Variety of fruits and vegetables 
  • Try to consume as many different colors as possible
Tips to help athletes do this:
  • Add fruits to breakfast cereals and desserts
  • Choose fruits and vegetables  as snacks- such as dried fruits, vegetable stick
  • Choose seasonal vegetables to help with freshness and cost
  • Swap a sandwich for soup- homemade soups can be a good way of getting lots of different types in one go
  • Fruit smoothies- again another way of including lots of different fruits in one go
  • So how about a simple recipe and a twist on a regular dish to help increase the number of fruit and vegetable portions in one meal? Also cooked in a slow cooker so that its ready for when you return home from training.
Spaghetti Bolognaise (Serves 2)


500g Lean Steak Mince
Wholemeal Pasta
2 Garlic Cloves
1 Red Onion
1 Tin Chopped Tomatoes
500g Tomato Passata
1 Table spoon of Tomato Puree
Approx. 150gm Green Beans
100gms Baby Corn
100gms Button Mushrooms
(Or any 3 or 4 available vegetables of your choice, preferably of different colours.  Other options include carrots, parsnips, broccoli or peas)

  •  Peel and finely chop the red onion and start to fry with the olive oil
  • Add the steak mince and fry with the onion until brown
  • Add the mince and the onion to the slow cooker and add remaining ingredients to the contents.
  • Leave to cook slowly throughout the day
When you return
  •  Cook pasta
  •   Season to taste
  •  Add bolognaise to pasta when cooked