Ever since humans started wanting to get stronger and faster, we have sought out the best food for our bodies. These days, we have far more than food to think about. Sports nutrition gives us the choice of an ever-growing selection of supplements, health foods, and recovery drinks.
But even with all that knowledge at our fingertips, we still fall for some enduring myths and misconceptions. Let’s bust the top 7 sports nutrition myths once and for all, and focus on the truth about good nutrition for endurance sport.
Myth #1 - Too Much Protein Is Bad For Your Kidneys
Protein is one of the three macronutrients (the others are carbohydrates and fats). Protein is important for building lean tissue, mainlining muscle mass, and helping to repair connective tissue. And - crucially - the body can’t store protein like it can carbs (as glycogen) or fats. So we do need to eat enough protein, on a regular basis. But can too much protein lead to kidney problems? The short answer is: no.
General guidelines for protein intake in athletic individuals is 1g per 1lb bodyweight, but you can go higher than this without any negative effects on your kidneys. In fact, unless you have an underlying kidney issue or are predisposed to renal complications, then there is no reason to worry about protein intake at all. The only reason you might limit protein intake is with one eye on overall caloric intake. Remember than protein comes in at 4kcals per gram, as does carbohydrate. So if you keep protein at moderate levels, you have more calories to shuttle across to your carb intake.
This 2016 study showed no detrimental effects on clinical markers of kidney function when the subjects had a high (>3g.kg.bw) protein intake https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4715299/
Myth #2 - Endurance Athletes Need To Carb Load
Carbohydrates are important for endurance athletes, but the old strategy of carb-loading on pasta the day before a race is outdated. Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of energy, and they are stored as glycogen in our muscles and liver. But the amount of extra carbs we need to eat in order to “carb up” is minimal. At any one time, we typically have enough stored glycogen for several hours of endurance sport like running or cycling. And we’ll be drinking sports drinks, taking on gels, and possibly eating food on the bike anyway. Very little strategic carb-loading is necessary.
It’s not a great idea to go into a long training ride or run (or a race) depleted of carbs. But the other extreme - of loading up at a pasta party, or stuffing yourself with a big dinner the night before - isn’t optimal either. The best strategy is to fuel up for the work required (at this 2016 study suggests https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27225627) and no more. If you consistently eat enough to fuel training, and if you pay close attention to smart recovery strategies, you won’t need to overdo the pre-race carb up.
Myth #3 - Fats Make You Fat
There’s no need to fear fats (are you sensing a theme here - moderation across all three macronutrients is key!) Eating dietary fat will not make you gain body fat. But there is a grain of truth to this myth: fats are the most calorie-dense of the three macros, so it is easier to overeat and take in too many calories from fats, and that is what could lead to weight gain. Carbs and protein contain 4kcals per gram, but fats contain around 9kcals per gram. It’s easy to see how you could take in excess calories from fats with very little volume of food.
But the actual fats themselves will not automatically lead to weight gain. In fact, some fats are important for health. Essential fats include monounsaturated fats and omega 3s (the type of fats found in oily fish). These can help protect heart health and cognitive function. Consider adding a quality fish oil supplement into your sports nutrition strategy - it’s an easy and cost-effective way of getting optimal amounts of omega-3 fatty acids.
If you’ve been on a low-fat diet, it’s likely that by increasing fat in your diet you will improve in the area of training and event recovery and increase your capacity to train at a high level.
Myth #4 - Endurance Athletes Don’t Need Supplements
Lots of people still association sports supplements with gym bunnies and bodybuilders. But the truth is that some sports supplements have huge benefits for triathletes, runners, and cyclists. Creatine, for example, is one of the most solidly researched supplements ever and has been proven to help with power output in bursts of short, intense exercise. BCAA (branch chain amino acids) and single amino acids are the building blocks of protein, and as such as important to endurance athletes who want to maintain muscle mass. Omega-3 supplements (fish oils) are an easy way to get essential fatty acids into the diet. And protein powders like whey protein are a convenient, cost-effective way to keep on top of protein intake for better recovery.
Myth #5 - Detox Products Are Good For A Cleanse
Every year, a new cleanse protocol or detox product hits the sports supplement shelves. But these products are a waste of money at best, and downright dangerous at worst. Our bodies don’t need any help with cleansing or detoxing - we have perfectly good organs and an entire lymphatic system for that. Instead of spending money on detoxes or doing a restrictive cleanse, support your body (and your training) with healthy food, a nourishing diet, plenty of water, and enough sleep.
Myth #6 - You Can Eat What You Want When You Do Endurance Sport
You definitely burn a lot of calories when you run long distances, train for triathlons, or ride regularly. But unfortunately this doesn’t mean you can discount the laws of thermodynamics. You will certainly be able to eat more than your sedentary friends and family, but there is a limit! Weight gain follows the same pattern for us as it does for non-sporty people. If we take in fewer calories than we burn, we will lose weight. If we take in more calories than we need, we will gain weight. And if calories in/calories out are equal, our weight will stay stable. So, no, you won’t be able to eat whatever you heart desires just because you train a lot. But you will be able to enjoy more food than most people! Remember that the energy you burn outside of your training sessions counts, too: how active are you, how many steps do you get in per day, and how much of the day do you spend sitting down? (This study is a great reminder https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7752861)
Myth #7 - Fat Burner Products Will Get You Lean
If you struggle to maintain a lean racing weight, it can be tempting to turn to quick-fix supplements. But experts agree there is nothing to rival a consistent calorie deficit carried out with patience. Popular fat-burning supplements like green tea do very little to raise metabolic rate or suppress appetite, and the amount of extra calories you might burn can easily be wiped out with a few extra bites of food. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19906797) Our advice? Save your money, focus on the correct calorie intake, and be patient if you want to lose a bit of weight. You’re already on the right path with your dedication to sport. Fix the nutrition part of the puzzle, and your bodyweight will fall in line.