The Fundamentals of Sports Nutrition: Optimizing Fuel Supplies

Are you a good nutrition student? By using a gap analysis, you can create a personalized nutrition plan. 

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Sports nutrition fuel sources
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In part 1 of our series on the fundamental principles of sports nutrition, Introductory Concepts for Fueling the Engine, we reviewed the basics: Carbohydrates, fats, and proteins are the fuels that power human performance and recovery—and water is a critical piece of the puzzle.  

With that information in hand, we can move toward optimizing fuel supplies by becoming better students and practitioners of nutrition principles.

When we view the human body as an engine that needs fuel to power movements, we can assess what resources are available to help power the machine.  

In Fast Talk Episode 140: How to Set Training and Performance Goals, we review the use of gap analysis and S.M.A.R.T. goal setting to physically prepare for the season. We can do something similar when it comes to our nutrition.  

A gap analysis is used to answer a few basic questions: 

  • Where am I now?  
  • Where do I need to be?  
  • How am I going to get there?  

We can use a gap-style approach to assess the next steps in our evolution as an athlete: moving from nutrition basics, to fueling our exercise, to preparing for the daily delivery of essential nutrients.  

The first question, then, is the same as in any gap analysis: Where am I now?  

Assess your fuel sources 

Look around your kitchen; check out the fridge, the pantry, and any other go-to areas. When you open the fridge, what do you see? This is harder to describe than it may seem.

Sometimes I will test an athlete: Tell me from memory what you have at home. (This is called retrospective assessment.) At other times I will make it a homework assignment, and I’ll prompt the athlete to consider specific areas.

Now, I’ll ask you. Take this opportunity to answer the questions below. (If you find it difficult, don’t worry. Plan on finding some answers the next time you open the door.)

  • What do you immediately see when you open the door?
  • What’s front and center in your line of sight?
  • What is most readily available?
  • Are there items hidden in the back that get “lost” easily?

Next, do the same thing in your pantry. Look at the most readily available fuels, and get a sense for what is most accessible and what might be lacking. Relate this to your preferred fuels, the things you like most, and the things you dislike. This will help you optimally stock your refrigerator, cupboards, and pantry—your fueling station.

The kitchen work triangle

Finally, we can borrow from the home-design concept of “the kitchen work triangle.” This method of organizing your kitchen helps optimize the workflow for preparing food.

The work triangle helps plan out efficient kitchen workspaces with clear traffic lanes. Imagine a triangle that connects your cooktop, your sink, and the refrigerator. This is the kitchen work triangle.

Once we’ve assessed our current situation (i.e., “where am I now?”), answered the questions above, and designed our work spaces, we can better identify existing gaps, which is a critical step in moving closer to our goals.

Are you a good nutrition student? 

The next component of an assessment is to determine the level of nutrition knowledge you have as an athlete, and to understand your current level of engagement—how active or passive you are when it comes to nutrition management.

Some of the questions I review with athletes are:

  • What are your go-to sources for carbohydrate, protein, and fat?
    • Specifically, figure out a top-three list for each nutrient.
  • How does your work and life schedule facilitate or compromise your ability to access the necessary fuel?
  • How would you characterize your current fueling habits?
  • What are the main hurdles to achieving your nutrition results?
  • Describe your available or current support structure that aids in meeting your goals.

By analyzing where you source your food, and where and how you prepare it, with your current level of understanding on how to properly fuel, you can complete the gap analysis, goal setting, and design a comprehensive plan.

From gap analysis to building a nutrition plan  

I’ve worked through the gap analysis, goal setting, and nutrition-planning process with hundreds of athletes in my career. That has helped me identify patterns and pitfalls. Now I’d like to share some insights that may help you apply this process to your nutrition goals.

Let’s start by looking at student athletes, a group that often experiences similar hurdles. When we review the questions above, I find a few notable points:

  • Their go-to fuel sources are limited, which provides an excellent opportunity to increase their knowledge and broaden their horizons by teaching them the potential opportunities to fuel body and mind.
  • Their access to adequate fuel is often reduced. Getting ready for school, attending classes throughout the day, getting to practice or other extracurricular activities, and then getting home for dinner and homework can quickly swallow an entire day. Nutrition is often an after-thought.

I also work with athletes who have a sound understanding of healthy eating practices and who strive to eat only what they consider “healthy/clean” foods. However, by limiting their fuel sources to this category, they inadvertently under-consume energy. So, with these athletes, I emphasize the following:

By identifying food as “fuel,” you can increase the number of available choices.

These athletes often feel as if they are unable to include certain energy-rich fuel sources (e.g., grains) that are necessary to support their training. They may consume a lot of low energy vegetables (great for health), but in so doing they miss on the total energy intake they need (not great for training). So, I work with them to help them understand how to “tune up” their usual meals to make them more performance focused.

In part 1 we learned about the basics of fuels. Now we have some tools to assess our current nutrition knowledge and our access to proper fuels. Thus, we can evolve our habits and develop a more intuitive approach.

This process normally takes months to fully grasp; give yourself the time to make progress.

For more information on this topic, check out this webinar on How to Monitor Your Nutrition. In it, I detail other assessment techniques and tools that are available on websites and mobile apps.

Next up: How to Use Intuition to Improve Fueling 

In the next article in our fundamentals of sports nutrition series, we’ll detail how to use intuition to improve fueling, moving away from a data-driven approach and toward a learned, instinctual method.

You can also visit our forum to discuss this topic further.

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