When you’re new to training for MMA success, the rules on eating are pretty simple. Hit the kitchen when you’re hungry, and try to avoid the junk. Drink when thirsty, and watch the sugar. If it comes from a drive-thru, it may slow you down. As you become better skilled, train harder, and face higher levels of competition, it soon becomes apparent to you that choosing better kinds of foods – and eating them at the right time – can have a profound effect upon your cardio, strength, skill training, the recovery from each of these activities, and eventually, the results you see in the ring. Let’s examine these three components in depth with a little science, a bit of theory, and a detailed plan for application which can allow you to find the greatest training and recovery success!
You might have quite a few questions regarding the internal combustion that is your body’s energy creation and utilization processes. That’s okay, we all do. You know how complex fuel combustion is for your automobile, right? It’s way trickier for the human body. Luckily, educated women (and some men!) smarter than us have dedicated centuries to studying the many questions you probably have regarding how these systems function. How do the energy systems work? How do the energy systems interact with one another? How are energy systems used by the body? Where does the energy I need (to run, grapple, punch, kick, and train) come from? We don’t want to get too scientific here with the chemical compositions and molecular breakdowns, so we’ll keep it simple. There are three “substrates”, or energy factors, in play which matter to your body when it comes to getting the energy you need to train and perform. The first two are fat (which we all love!) and phosphocreatine (which we may have a hard time pronouncing). They work together to form the magic component known as ATP, or adenosine triphosphate. The bottom line is that ATP is used by your body to create POWER. When you kick someone, when you land a punch, when you bench press your body weight ten times or complete ten body weight pull ups, or if you just sprint 40 yards to your mailbox, your body is using ATP to do so. It is the FUEL that you require.
Why should all of this matter to you, the nose-breaking, butt-kicking, punch-throwing MMA warrior bent on making your mark on the mixed martial arts world? Knowing how your body utilizes energy will help you to better plan nutrient choice & timing (what/when you are eating) and energy expenditure (how and when you are training). You will soon become aware of the two kinds of training, the body’s fuel (food) requirements for each, and what factors play into recovery, as well as why all of these are important.
Good morning! If you’re starting the day training at what you consider to be a “low” intensity, as is always recommended, then your body will use two possible fuels for energy in this endeavor. If you have sugars in your stomach, (from chugging a Gatorade while training, for example), then these sugars will be utilized for your energy needs. This isn’t good. This means stored fat stays put. If your goal is to enjoy low body fat levels along with high performance capabilities, then this is not desired. Rather, you should be drinking a calorie-free energy drink or, preferably, plain old water. This forces your body, specifically your aerobic system, to utilize stored body fat reserves for energy. Remember, this is for low-intensity exercise, such as your morning jog to build up cardiovascular endurance and lose body fat. The wise fighter keeps his water bottle, running shoes, and house key next to his alarm clock, awakening only to use the bathroom then run out the door to begin morning cardio. Breakfast can wait until AFTER you’ve properly utilized your fat stores for energy!
The second type of training is more intense – this is when you’re sparring, training full body HIT or CrossFit workouts, and running drills, drills, drills. At this point, your body will reach further into reserves and utilize your ATP stores and utilizes them for energy. The process is highly complex, but that’s okay, because you’re wearing a singlet and not a white lab coat, and MMA is not the same as PhD. What you need to know is that the right kinds of energy need to be on-hand in order for your body to be able to perform. In other words – REAL FOOD!
How does this affect you as an MMA athlete? All this scientific talk is a nice primer for delving deeper into nutrient utilization study. What you should immediately walk away from it with is a strong understanding of what foods and drinks you should be consuming prior to each kind of exercise which you conduct each day. Start each morning with a water, Crystal-Lite, or diet drink before diving into your moderately-paced morning jog for fat loss and more importantly, aerobic endurance capacity increase. Follow that up with a diet rich in protein and carbohydrates – chicken, steak, fish and whey for your protein sources, and a nice 50/50 mix of fruit/vegetables and starchy carbs for your ATP energy needs. You’ve now covered your morning fat utilization and your afternoon/evening training session energy load requirements!
Additionally, remember that following energy expenditure (read: some seriously hard training), your muscle fibers will be at a detriment and ready for some recovery resources as well. Adequate supplies of fat and carbohydrates are always nice, but protein consumption needs to be the primary goal following tough workouts. The 48 hours following tough training will be a period of muscle recovery and growth as fibers torn from training repair and recover slowly but surely. Keeping a steady supply of amino acids on hand (taken from protein foods in the form of consumed meat, eggs, dairy and nuts) will keep your blood in a positive nitrogen state. Soreness will lessen, muscles will repair, and you will come back a thicker and harder athlete as a result of your training and smart nutrition. Good luck!