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Athletic performance and the Zone

By Dave Schreck

It was the late '80s when John A. suggested I stop by his friend's laboratory 18 miles north of Boston. This biochemist had capsules that improved athletic performance and recovery, he said, and since I was participating in triathlons, it seemed like a good idea. Little did I know that I would be working for a man whose knowledge of nutrition and athletic performance would assist more than 25 Olympic Gold Medal winners, and athletes from the NBA to the NFL. Those capsules? They were a combination of fish oil (EPA/DHA) and trace amounts of GLA (gamma linolenic acid) but more on that later.

It wasn't until 1995 that Dr. Sears wrote his bestselling book "The Zone," which had chapters related to elite athletes and exercise. While you may not be an athlete or even exercise on a regular basis, you'll still benefit from this information because everyone can enhance their health by controlling insulin in a tight Zone, not too high and not too low.

Athletic performance and your health are dependent on a diet that controls your hormones -- insulin stimulated by carbohydrates and glucagon released by protein. The balance of protein, carbohydrate, and fat at every meal will determine if you have good mental focus, physical energy and no hunger for the next five hours. It will also determine whether you will use stored body fat versus stored carbohydrate for energy, and if you'll increase your risk factors for chronic diseases by increasing cellular inflammation.

The ideal performance diet supplies (1) adequate protein and (2) a relatively constant protein-to-carbohydrate ratio at each meal. The amount of fat at each meal is used as caloric "ballast" to provide calories without affecting hormonal fluxes caused by the protein and carbohydrate intakes. If it sounds complicated compared to carbo-loading by eating all the pasta you can stuff in your mouth, it is. Even though most athletes believe they have a blast furnace for a stomach, the resulting hormonal balance (insulin and glucagon) will determine whether they utilize stored body fat as an energy source during exercise and improve their oxygen transfer to the muscle cells. These same biochemical facts are also true during times of rest. Your goal is to spend as much time every day in the Zone.

Research has demonstrated that the best choice for your pre- and post-exercise meal is high quality whey protein combined with low-glycemic, high-polyphenol content colorful non-starchy vegetables and fruits, such as mixed berries. High-glycemic meals (grains, starches, etc.) will negate any benefits. Carbo-loading is not necessary and may actually diminish performance and recovery. However, a few additional "favorable" carbs may be necessary. Experiment and ask yourself how do you feel after a meal? You're looking for good mental focus, physical energy and no hunger.

When it comes to diet and athletic performance, athletes and trainers will defend their positions even when it contributes to their poor performance. It would probably be easier for the Pope to convert to another religion than to have these individuals change their dietary beliefs. Carbo-loading should be encouraged for all of your competitors!

What about those capsules containing EPA/DHA and GLA?

One of the most important supplements you can take (for both athlete and non-athlete) are long-chain omega-3s, EPA/DHA. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) is an essential fatty acid that cannot be made in the body. Unfortunately, we're deficient in omega-3s, and supplementation is necessary to raise the concentrations. Increased intake of EPA has been shown to be beneficial not only for athletic performance and recovery but in coronary heart disease and inflammatory disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis. How? Because EPA inhibits certain enzymes that are responsible for "bad" hormones.

Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is an omega-3 fatty acid that is critical for proper brain function. Our bodies naturally produce some DHA, but in amounts that are too small and irregular to ensure proper biochemical functioning. Therefore, DHA must be consumed in the diet through foods such as cold-water fatty fish or in supplement form to assure an adequate supply.

GLA (gamma linolenic acid) is converted into DGLA (dihomo-gamma linolenic acid), which is then converted into either "Good" or "Bad" eicosanoids. The Delta-5 desaturase enzyme is inhibited by EPA and activated by a diet that increases insulin.

For those who desire to obtain the greatest benefit from a combination of EPA/DHA and small amounts of GLA, consider the following:

  1. For the first month supplement with a minimum of 2.5g/d of EPA/DHA. That's 4 OmegaRx capsules daily for 30 days.
    After one month supplement with 3 OmegaRx capsules plus 1 EicoRx (contains trace amounts of GLA). You can take too much GLA so follow the "Eicosanoid Status Report" (ESR) to prevent a "spillover effect." Spillover is explained at: http://drsears.com/ArticlePreview/tabid/399/itemid/66/Default.aspx The ESR icon link is at: http://drsears.com/Resources/tabid/384/Default.aspx.
  2. It's best not to believe anything I've said. Go out and test it for yourself. Whether you work out on a daily basis, are a weekend warrior or do house work, everyone can benefit from following the Zone principles.

Remember the question 2-3 hours after your last meal: How do I feel?