Performance Inhibitor #4: Inflammation Imbalance
Sore muscles and aching joints are dreaded side effects of the endurance training and racing package. These are symptoms of inflammation, a normal process initiated by the immune system to promote healing. But, when inflammation levels are abnormally high, we don’t feel, perform or recover well, and, over time, increased inflammation can cause weight gain, high blood pressure and disease.
“In sports nutrition, inflammation imbalance can be associated with over training, and can affect things like your neurological health,” Feeney says. “It takes a toll on your mental concentration, focus and motivation.”
According to Feeney, genetic makeup and physiology can make one more prone to excessive muscle soreness and tendonitis, which retard progression and can lead to injuries. Poor dietary choices are another contributor. “There are foods we know to be anti-inflammatory,” Feeney says. “ So we see what they’re not eating and pick the beneficial foods that will compliment their physiological needs.”
Consume more anti-inflammatory foods.Basing the majority of your diet on foods high in fiber, antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids and probiotics can help balance inflammation. Feeney recommends eating a variety of colors, particularly fruits and vegetables such as berries, citrus, apples, pears, tomatoes, mushrooms, leafy greens, onions, garlic, radishes, cauliflower and broccoli. Spices and herbs such as ginger, turmeric and rosemary, promote an anti-inflammatory response. Opt for fiber from unprocessed grains, legumes, and fruits and vegetables. Omega- 3-rich sources include wild salmon, ground flaxseeds, enriched eggs and non-genetically modified canola oil. “A fermented food has a natural amount of probiotic in it, as well as the dairy category, and supplements,” Feeney says.
Balance sports foods with whole foods. “Keeping the gut healthy requires fiber and a balance of healthy bacteria; the things that disrupt that balance are refined carbs and sugars, and antibiotic use,” Feeney says. However, high-fiber sources of carbohydrates require more digestion time and can cause gastric distress if eaten too close to a workout, so the key here is balance. Before, during or after exercise, Feeney suggests using a combination of sports foods and inflammation-lowering foods such as tart cherry juice, or homemade protein bars with ginger.
Select protein sources wisely. “The more fat there is in a protein source, the more inflammatory the food will be,” Feeney says. “When the animal is raised on corn and soy, this creates inflammatory fat in the meat.” When choosing beef as a protein source look to grass fed as a leaner option with a more healthful ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s. Skinless chicken and turkey remain mostly inflammation neutral. Feeney advocates plant-based proteins as anti-inflammatory options because sources, such as beans and tofu, can have omega-3s, fiber and some of the phytonutrients needed to create healing biochemical reactions.
Hydrate with more water, less alcohol. “Water is the oil through your engine; it makes everything smooth and prevents things from grinding against each other,” Feeney says. “While wine does contain antioxidants, alcohol creates tons of destruction in the body, so I don’t view it as an anti-inflammatory.”
Increase sleep and lower stress. “Endurance athletes can push themselves too hard to the point where they’re overtraining or overreaching,” Feeney remarks. “There’s a need for recovery, particularly when you’re trying to keep inflammation down.” Sleep is the time when the body recovers the most, so if you rise feeling less than rested too frequently, you’re not optimizing recovery time. Keeping stress at bay is yet another step toward lowering inflammation.