Everyone wants to be faster. We dedicate hours upon hours to reading and researching ways to improve technique, power output, and the effectiveness of our training modalities. And while we all admit the importance of nutrition and its application to speed and athletic performance, we spend little time on this area that could give us a level up on our competition.
Enter the Fueling Speed Hierarchy, nutritional items with a direct application to speed. Nutritional strategies have a range of important benefits when we look at optimizing speed and power output, whether providing fuel for our energy systems and the brain and central nervous system, assisting with muscle protein synthesis, promoting optimal body composition, aiding in muscular contraction and nerve conduction, or playing a role in injury prevention.
This article will discuss the five nutritional practices I believe have the biggest impact on helping athletes improve their strength, power, and explosiveness in ways that translate to increases in speed:
- Ensure sufficient carbohydrate intake. This fuels our most utilized energy systems and provides the substrate used more directly in speed and explosiveness as the preferred fuel for the brain and central nervous system.
- Plan adequate protein intake, timing, and dosages. Doing so will optimize muscle protein synthesis and allow for muscular adaptations to training.
- Maintain euhydration and fluid/electrolyte balance. This plays a crucial role in muscular contraction, body temperature regulation, and injury prevention.
- Consume an adequate intake of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). The benefits of this include helping regulate muscle and nerve contraction and providing antioxidants.
- Supplement as needed with vitamins, minerals, and compounds. Finding the right supplements can improve power and explosiveness by reducing perceptions of fatigue, providing energy system fuel, and preventing acid-base disturbances.
While nutritional interventions for a singular sprint are poorly represented in research, the training required for that single race is impacted immensely by nutrition strategies, says @lindsey_rd. Click To Tweet
It is important to note that while nutritional interventions for a singular sprint are poorly represented in research, the training required for that single race—including lifting, plyometrics, speed drills, and repeat sprint training—is impacted immensely by nutrition strategies. We also know that speed and power have commonalities across many sports that include intermittent maximal efforts, including an explosive first step in volleyball, a breakaway in soccer, stealing a base in baseball, and driving to the hoop in basketball.
Knowing the causes of central (CNS) and peripheral (muscular) fatigue in these maximal, short-duration training and competition scenarios allows us to better identify the nutritional strategies that can help support optimal speed and power output.
Muscularly, multiple energy systems will be utilized during an intermittent sport: primarily, the ATP-CP for individual explosive outputs and repetitive efforts with sufficient recovery and anaerobic glycolysis for repetitive efforts with incomplete and insufficient recovery (obviously along with aerobic for long competitions and active recovery during low-intensity breaks in the action). However, fueling is not just about energy systems.
For speed, the central nervous system also needs the correct nutrient substrates due to the highly coordinated, neurologically demanding, and focused nature required for optimal expression. The goals of performance nutrition interventions as they pertain to speed then become providing the most economical energy system fuel that will meet the demands of the sport (or event) and ensuring there are adequate substrates available to fuel optimal performance.
Below, we will discuss in greater detail each of the five nutritional strategies I have identified to positively impact speed and power development and performance.
Ensure Sufficient Carbohydrate Intake (Yes, Power Athletes, You Need Them Too!)
When it comes to performance nutrition, carbohydrates are king. They are extremely pertinent to speed and often overlooked in favor of viewing fuel as simply muscular energy, but the fact is that the brain and CNS prefer to run on glucose, and carbohydrates play a significant role in neurotransmission and cerebral metabolism. Based on this fact alone, we can see where they would play a substantial role in sprint performance and speed development; on top of that, they are the primary fuel for our anaerobic energy system while also being the most efficient and economical substrate available.Carbohydrate depletion leads to fatigue. But did you know this depletion can also lead to reductions in sport-specific skills, decreased work rates, and impaired concentration, asks @lindsey_rd. Click To Tweet
Carbohydrate depletion leads to fatigue, which would typically be thought of as occurring in a longer duration sprint through the reduction of glycolysis. But did you know that this depletion can also lead to reductions in sport-specific skills, decreased work rates, and impaired concentration? These are all factors that need to be locked in for improvement in a refined and complex motor skill such as sprinting. In fact, at the neurological level, a reduction in available glucose inhibits CNS and neuromuscular coordination and efficiency, potentially leading to decrements in motor skills and increased perception of fatigue!
Video 1. Speed training.
So how do we address this? For a speed athlete, even though carbohydrate fueling strategies are traditionally most discussed in the endurance population, starting a training session or competition with sufficient muscle glycogen levels and using pre/intra fueling strategies to support glucose availability and glycogen sparing is incredibly important.
We know that our storage capacity for glycogen is approximately 400 grams in the muscle and 100 grams in the liver. Depletion of these stores, as seen in high-volume training sessions, in multiple daily sessions, or with inadequate refueling/fueling, can not only contribute to the fatigue mentioned above but has also been connected to an increased risk of injury. Carbohydrates also help spare protein instead of it being oxidized, allowing it to be used for muscle protein synthesis, which is vital for speed training adaptations (discussed in more detail below).
While body composition is influenced by multiple factors, carbohydrate and protein intake (discussed in the next section) can be manipulated within the total energy intake to support these goals. It is important to note that body composition and body weight alone are not accurate predictors of performance, and the goal of hypertrophy work within a speed development program is to optimize, not maximize, to meet the demands of the sport/event.
When looking to gain fat-free mass in a speed athlete, the objective should be to optimize the power-to-strength ratio as opposed to gaining absolute strength and size. When changes in body composition are warranted and could help the athlete optimize performance, they should be done in the off-season or early pre-season to avoid any possible decrements to performance. We will discuss body composition further in the next section.
Carbohydrate needs vary based on body size, lean mass, and sport and training demands, but current recommendations support athletes consuming between 4 and 12 grams per kilogram of body weight daily to help optimize performance. Speed athletes I have worked with tend to perform best in the 5–8 g/kg BW range, adjusted up or down based on individual needs. Within these daily needs to support glycogen storage levels, we can look at specific nutrient timing to best support training, competition, and recovery.
In the pre-training window, athletes should seek to consume 1–4 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight one to four hours pre-training. As this meal gets closer to our training/competition, we want to avoid too much fat or fiber, which could cause GI distress during exercise. In the window directly pre-training (15–30 minutes out), an easily digested, simple carbohydrate item can provide a source of glucose and aid in glycogen sparing, leaving that fuel for anaerobic glycolysis (and preventing protein oxidation for optimal MPS).
In the post-training window, we aim to replenish glycogen stores used during training or competition. Athletes should seek to consume 1–1.2 g/kg/hour for the first 4–6 hours post-training. Continual feeding past the meal directly post-training is important to optimize glycogen levels, as glycogen resynthesis rates are shown to be ~5% an hour.
The role of carbohydrates intra-training as they pertain to speed is not limited solely to glycogen sparing. Research now supports carbohydrates used as a “mouth rinse,” playing a role in counteracting signals that can contribute to central (CNS) fatigue. Think of them as “taking off the governor” (motor drive) and positively modifying the motor unit output.Research now supports carbohydrates used as a ‘mouth rinse,’ playing a role in counteracting signals that can contribute to central (CNS) fatigue, says @lindsey_rd. Click To Tweet
This has been demonstrated mostly in 30- to 60-minute activities (e.g., intermittent sports, speed training) and is thought to be related to receptors that are present in the mouth and brain responding to carbohydrates (seen with both glucose and maltodextrin [maltose and dextrose] mixtures), which activate reward centers in the CNS and reduce perceptions of fatigue, thereby increasing work rates. Implementation of the mouth rinses could be as simple as sipping and spitting a sports beverage that is 5–8% carbohydrate during training/competition.
Plan Adequate Protein Intake, Timing, and Dosages
If carbohydrates are the king of performance nutrition, protein is the queen. Protein serves as a substrate but also a trigger for the synthesis of contractile proteins through a process known as muscle protein synthesis (MPS). This process is critical in creating the training adaptations we are looking for in speed development training, and protein itself can serve as a trigger for those metabolic adaptations we seek.
Like carbohydrates (and dietary fats), protein has a direct effect on body composition—not only through its contribution to total energy intake but also in the maintenance of lean body mass on a hypocaloric diet. If body composition changes are warranted to optimize performance (remember, body comp and body weight do not accurately predict performance), keeping protein levels higher can help maintain lean mass while in a caloric deficit to see body fat reductions. Recommendations for protein intake when reducing total calories to make body composition changes range from 2.3–2.4 grams/kg BW/day. Lean mass maintenance has been shown to be optimized when athletes lose no more than 1% of their body mass weekly.
Daily protein intake for athletes is currently set at 1.2–2.0 g/kg BW/day. Most literature supports an ideal range of 1.5–1.7 grams/kg BW for speed athletes, but this may increase with the demands of the sport (e.g., in contact sports).
Protein timing throughout the day is important to optimize MPS. The majority of protein intake in regard to training is focused in the post-window. However, pre-training protein consumption can aid in satiety to lower the physiological hunger experienced during training and competition. During training, protein consumption can help spare amino acids from being oxidized, leaving them available for MPS.
Post-training, we are looking to trigger metabolic adaptations within the muscle, which has been shown to happen with highly biologically available proteins consumed 0–2 hours post-training containing 10+ grams of essential amino acids. The total protein content of this feeding should be around .25–.3 g/kg BW post-training. It is recommended that this dose is then repeated about every 3–5 hours throughout the day to optimize MPS and recovery. Intakes of more than 40 grams of protein have not been shown to further improve MPS but may be warranted for larger athletes, individuals on a hypocaloric diet, or those with higher total daily protein needs. A good goal for most athletes is to consume doses of 20–40 grams of protein every 3–4 hours while awake to optimize MPS and hit total daily protein intake needs.A good goal for most athletes is to consume doses of 20–40 grams of protein every 3–4 hours while awake to optimize muscle protein synthesis and hit total daily protein intake needs. Click To Tweet
Protein intake in the post-training window can also lower carbohydrate needs to achieve the same glycogen resynthesis. Research supports that an intake of .8 grams of carbohydrate/kg BW/hour combined with .4 grams of protein/kg/hour achieves similar glycogen resynthesis as a consumption of 1.2 grams/kg/hour of carbohydrate. This is yet another reason to consume protein in the post-training window and throughout the day, especially for an athlete who struggles to meet higher carbohydrate needs post-training.
Maintain Euhydration and Fluid/Electrolyte Balance
Hydration has multiple impacts on athletic performance, including the role of electrolytes in muscular contraction, injury prevention, and maintenance of electrolyte balance in the body. Pre-exercise hypohydration can increase muscle strength and power, and too great of a loss of fluids and electrolytes can impair performance. We start to see a decrease in high-intensity activities at a loss of 3%–5% of total body weight during training and competition. At these levels, we can begin to see alterations to CNS and metabolic function due to hypovolemia and increased glycogen use leaving less fuel for glycolysis.
To prevent this great of a loss, speed athletes should set a goal of starting their training or competition in a euhydrated state and losing no more than 2%–3% of their body weight during exercise. The focus post-training should then be on rehydrating and replacing lost fluids and electrolytes.
Current recommendations for pre-exercise hydration include consumption of 5–10mL/kg BW 2–4 hours prior to training/competition. Sweat rates and concentrations vary greatly between athletes and in different weather/altitude conditions. Sweat losses per hour can range from .3–2.5 L/hour. We can calculate an athlete’s specific fluid loss by taking their pre-training weight and subtracting their post-training weight, adding fluids consumed during training, subtracting urine output during that time, and dividing by the duration of training. For every kilogram lost during training, an athlete needs about 1–1.5 liters of fluids for rehydration.
The general recommendation is to consume .4–.8 liters an hour during training/competition for intermittent sports to avoid hypohydration. Athletes with high sweat rates (>1.2 L/h), those identified as “salty sweaters” (usually you will see white residue on the skin or jersey, or the sweat will have a very salty taste), very hot/humid temperatures, and those training more than two hours will also need to replenish sodium in this window.
Sodium is the primary ion lost in sweat (~20–80 mmol/L) and should be the primary electrolyte in a hydration beverage. A sports drink with 5%–8% carbohydrate (higher can cause GI distress), 10–35 mmol/L sodium, and 3–5 mmol/L potassium (for the CNS) is currently recommended for sodium replenishment during training. (As mentioned above, this could also be used to provide glucose for glycogen sparing and as a mouth rinse.) Cold beverages may also help reduce core body temperature in hot weather training/competition.
Rehydration post-training should be the focus of a speed athlete, allowing them to begin their next training session/competition in a euhydrated state. An athlete’s goal should be to replenish with 125%–150% of the fluids lost during training (1–1.5 L/kg BW lost) and to replace sodium losses via the consumption of salty foods or an electrolyte replacement supplement (50–60 mmol/L sodium and 10–20 mmol/L potassium).Rehydration post-training should be the focus of a speed athlete, allowing them to begin their next training session/competition in a euhydrated state, says @lindsey_rd. Click To Tweet
The average sodium loss per liter of sweat is 1 gram or 1,000 milligrams (as mentioned above, this varies significantly between athletes). Replenishing these losses post-training and competition is vital to help the body retain the fluids consumed, restoring optimal plasma volume and levels of extracellular fluids. It is essential to be aware of an athlete’s rehydration rate and spread their intake over the 0–4 hour post-training period to avoid a rapid expansion of blood volume, which can cause a diuresis effect.
Consume Adequate Intake of Micronutrients
Any athlete should aim to prevent micronutrient deficiencies through a balanced intake that meets total energy, macro, and micronutrient needs. And while all micronutrients have an indirect role in supporting energy production—and thus performance—there are three we should be extra aware of as they pertain to muscular function and speed:
- Vitamin D
Calcium aids in the regulation of muscular contraction and nerve conduction. As we know, calcium facilitates the myosin and actin interaction within the muscle cell. It is then, when calcium is pumped back into the sarcoplasmic reticulum, that the muscle relaxes. Most athletes who do not avoid dairy or use foods fortified with calcium will meet their daily intake needs of 1,500 mg/day (with 1,500–2,000 IUs of vitamin D as discussed below). Calcium is also an important mineral in bone health (along with vitamin D and phosphorus), which can help prevent bone injury. It is important to note that high levels of calcium in the blood can cause muscle weakness, and supplements should be used under the direction of a physician or dietitian.
Vitamin D has a role in bone health (aiding in calcium and phosphorus absorption and playing a biomolecular role in mediating the metabolic functions of the muscle). Optimal vitamin D levels for athletes are >40 ng/ml. Athletes living above the 35th parallel, or those who train and compete indoors, are at the highest risk of deficiency. Supplementation may be warranted in amounts of 2,000–5,000 IUs daily as indicated by lab work.
We know iron deficiency, with or without anemia, reduces muscular function and work capacity, as maximal oxygen uptake will be limited. Elite athletes, especially females, can be at risk of developing iron deficiency. While this is most frequently seen in the endurance population, we must be aware of iron’s importance for all athletes. Intakes >18 mg/day for menstruating females and >8 mg/day for males are recommended, with heme iron (meat, poultry, seafood) being better absorbed than non-heme (nuts, whole grains, legumes, etc.).
It wouldn’t be a micronutrient conversation without discussing antioxidants—something that has a lot of steam in the sports nutrition space right now. We agree that exercise causes oxidative stress and that an athlete’s goal should be an antioxidant-rich diet (think fruit, vegetables, and healthy fats). Where opinions differ is on the use and benefit of antioxidant supplements like tart cherry juice.
I do not recommend that my athletes use these antioxidant supplements in the off-season or pre-season when our goal is adaptation, as these supplements could negatively influence it. Instead, they should be used during the season, potentially in the evening before competition or key training sessions.
Supplement as Needed with Vitamins, Minerals, and Compounds
The role of supplementation in positively impacting speed performance lies in providing energy system fuel, preventing acid-base disturbances, and reducing perceptions of fatigue. There are four supplements I lean on to help optimize sprint performance:
- Sodium bicarbonate
The sport/event would impact the use of these, but by understanding their mechanisms, we can best identify which athletes would benefit from their use.There are four supplements I lean on to help optimize sprint performance: creatine, caffeine, sodium bicarbonate, and beta-alanine, says @lindsey_rd. Click To Tweet
It’s important to remember that athletes must be careful with supplements and ensure their safety and purity before using them. Supplements should be third-party tested with effectiveness and dosages backed by research. A cost-benefit analysis should always be done before beginning a supplement, and tolerance should be tested outside of competition/key training sessions.
Creatine is one of the most studied and safest supplements on the market and, in my opinion, the most impactful on performance. Creatine has been shown to have numerous benefits, but for the purposes of this article, we primarily see performance improvements in repeated bouts of high-intensity exercise with short recovery periods. Based on our earlier discussion of surrounding energy systems, we know phosphocreatine is the substrate used in the ATP-CP, our main energy system utilized in maximal sprints. Creatine phosphate provides a rapid source of phosphate to resynthesis ADP to ATP. Creatine has also been shown to enhance glycogen storage and muscle protein synthesis, which are both critical for optimal speed development and to buffer H+ ions created in anaerobic glycolysis.
On an omnivorous diet, most individuals will get between 1 and 2 grams of creatine daily (found in meat, fish, and eggs). Supplementation is then recommended to saturate muscular stores. Creatine monohydrate is highly bioavailable and is what I recommend to the athletes I work with. Creatine can be taken using a loading phase of 20–25 grams (.3 g/kg) per day split into four doses for 5–7 days or starting at a maintenance dose of 3–5 (.03 g/kg) grams per day taken for 4–12 weeks. After these phases, the levels of creatine stored in the muscle can be maintained with doses of 3–5 g/day (.03 g/kg).
It is important to note that a loading phase may be accompanied by a 2% increase in body weight (water, glycogen, intracellular concentrations of PC) and may not be recommended in speed-based training/sports. Creatine intake post-training with carbohydrates and protein is found to enhance creatine storage caused by increases in blood flow and the effect of insulin.
Ingestion of caffeine pre-training and exercise has been shown to reduce the perception of fatigue (given its role as an adenosine agonist), reduce pain perception, increase athletes’ alertness, and help enhance mood. Caffeine can also help with the release of calcium from the sarcoplasmic reticulum, which we discussed earlier.
Recommended caffeine ingestion pre-exercise is ~3–6 mg/kg body weight, taken 30–60 minutes pre-training/competition. Gums with caffeine content, which are increasing in popularity, are absorbed more quickly and could be taken closer to competition. The half-life of caffeine depends on genetic factors but ranges from 2.5–10 hours. We do not see performance benefits above 6 mg/kg body weight, and high intakes can be associated with adverse side effects; therefore, these are not recommended.
Sodium bicarbonate is a buffer helping to prevent acid-base disturbances, which occur from the accumulation of lactic acid and H+ ions via anaerobic glycolysis—we see this in sports that involve sprinting but are more continuous in nature (e.g., hockey) or alactic sports where the pace of the game results in recovery periods that are insufficient for the ATP-PC system to keep up (e.g., spread offense in football). Sodium bicarb helps enhance the muscle’s ability to dispose of those hydrogen ions, which can delay the onset of fatigue. This would be most beneficial in sports with repeated high-intensity sprints (1–7 minutes) and may not be beneficial in single, maximal sprint events.
Doses of 300–500 mg/kg body weight are recommended 60–180 minutes before training/competition with a carbohydrate meal and fluids. Gastrointestinal symptoms are a known side effect of sodium bicarbonate, and tolerance should be tested during non-key training sessions. Splitting the amount into smaller doses spread over the pre-training period may help.
Beta-alanine is primarily found in type II muscle fibers, accounting for 10% of the ability to buffer hydrogen ions. This occurs through the increased synthesis of carnosine, which lowers the ph balance in the muscle by exchanging hydrogen ions for calcium within the muscle, leading to enhanced efficiency of contraction in coupling and excitation. We see the most ergogenic benefits from beta-alanine in 60–240 seconds of high-intensity training/competition, such as in the example scenarios in the previous paragraph.
When compared to sodium bicarb, beta-alanine provides more chronic muscular adaptations. The goal of supplementation is to increase the storage of carnosine by 30%–50% in the muscle, which has been seen with 3–6 grams of beta-alanine taken daily over 4–10 weeks, then a maintenance dose of 1.2 g/day from there on. It is recommended to take beta-alanine with a carbohydrate/protein-rich meal at any time during the day. Parathesis is a known side effect of beta-alanine, but it can be reduced by dividing the daily dosage and spreading it throughout the day or using a slow-release capsule.
Creating Your Edge
While your competitors obsess over finding the latest and greatest training fad in speed development, get an advantage by making sure that the V8 engine you built during training has the right high-octane fuel to use all that horsepower. Using these strategies with the athletes I’ve worked with, I have seen increased abilities to perform repeated, max-effort sprints and explosive movements, improved recovery and muscular adaptations to training, and reduced perceptions of fatigue in training and competition. In my experience, dialing in nutrition, hydration, and supplementation also increases an athlete’s confidence in their ability to train and compete at a high intensity for a longer duration.Dialing in nutrition, hydration, and supplementation also increases an athlete’s confidence in their ability to train and compete at a high intensity for a longer duration, says @lindsey_rd. Click To Tweet
When looking at nutrition for speed development and competition, consider the Fueling Speed Hierarchy: carbohydrates, protein, hydration, micronutrients, and supplementation. Implement a few of these strategies into your training, and let those horses sing!
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