Eliminating these endurance-zappers will maximise your energy all day long.

Words by Tom Weede

You already know that a thief, if he’s good at what he does, tries to catch you off guard and make off with your stuff while your back is turned. But be aware: the energy thieves in your daily routine have the same modus operandi, only they steal your stamina instead of your stereo. Skip breakfast? Down a beer before bedtime? Seems harmless enough. But you’re setting yourself up for energy depletion, and you’re not going to perform well in the gym, not to mention at that 2pm meeting with the charts and numbers and long-winded questions from that guy in accounting. If you add up the damage over 24 hours, you’ll find that one of your most valued assets has been pilfered and you’ve been left dragging. Protect yourself by learning how to avoid the worst energy- muggers.

 Fatty foods

“High-fat meals, such as a double cheeseburger and large fries [or fried chicken and coleslaw], stay in the stomach longer, diverting blood away from your brain, muscles and other vital organs,” says sports nutritionist Suzanne Girard Eberle, author of Endurance Sports Nutrition. “The bottom line — you’ll end up feeling sluggish for hours.”

With a high-fat meal, she adds, you won’t experience an energy-sustaining slow release of glucose (the body’s preferred fuel), as you would with a meal high in complex carbohydrates. Choose grilled, baked or broiled foods instead of fried. Try this sample meal: grilled chicken sandwich with no mayo, green salad with low-fat dressing, a piece of fruit and plenty of water – that comes to about 630 calories, 19g fat, 82g carbs and 33g protein.

 Caffeine

We’ve touted the performance benefits of caffeine in the past, noting that coffee can increase the strength of muscle contractions, boost endurance and help burn fat. But moderation is the key. “If you’ve developed a dependence on caffeine, you typically feel sluggish, irritable and/or restless until you get your fix,” says Girard Eberle. This effect will be even worse if your morning or daily intake is quickly altered, she adds. “While a cup or two of coffee won’t tarnish an otherwise healthy diet, reaching for caffeine throughout the day can.”

How much is too much? Regard caffeine as having a dosage, warns Dr Pierce Howard, author of The Owner’s Manual for the Brain. “The dosage is about 2mm of caffeine per kilo of body weight [about every seven hours]. For the average person, that’s two cups of strong coffee.”

Girard Eberle advises an alternative when your energy dips: a glass of water followed by a healthy snack, such as instant oatmeal with sultanas. “You’re most likely running on fumes and need to raise your blood-sugar level,” she says. “Caffeine only provides a temporary fix.”

Other alternatives include a 10- to 15-minute power nap, or getting outside into natural light, which will help you stay alert, says Michael Smolensky, director of the Memorial-Hermann Chronobiology Center in the US and author of The Body Clock Guide to Better Health. “This may not overcome the tendency to have a loss of alertness, but it may neutralise it,” he says.

Missing meals

You need to eat enough calories to fuel your activities. “Most active men can afford to eat 2500 to 3000 calories daily,” says Girard Eberle. Eat the majority of your calories earlier in the day, when you need the energy most. And don’t skip breakfast — that famished feeling you get by noon will set you up to overeat at lunch. “Opt for a carb- and protein-rich breakfast, such as a high-fibre cereal with milk, an egg and wholemeal toast, or peanut butter on toast,” says Girard Eberle. “You’ll kick-start your metabolism and feel more energetic almost immediately. And the protein, which stays in the stomach longer, gives you staying power.”

Alcohol

“Limit yourself to one or two beers or glasses of wine at night, and you’ll most likely be fine,” says Girard Eberle. More than that, and you’ll risk losing energy and being fatigued and sleepy during the day.

Alcohol is dehydrating and can disrupt your shut-eye by reducing the amount of REM sleep you need, making for fitful rest, says Girard Eberle. (The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that alcohol consumed within an hour of bedtime appears to disrupt the second half of the sleep period.) “Before going to bed, drink a glass of water for every glass of alcohol you imbibe,” she adds.

Alcohol can also squeeze healthier beverages and foods out of your diet. “When you’re drinking alcohol, it’s easy to fill up on high-fat items such as chips or nuts,” says Girard Eberle.

 Lack of B vitamins

B vitamins play an important role in helping the body release energy from the foods we eat. “They serve as coenzymes – helpers to the enzymes that release energy from carbohydrate, fat and protein,” says Girard Eberle. The good news here is that if you take a multivitamin and eat protein-containing foods like meat, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy foods, as well as breads and cereal (which are enriched with B vitamins) and leafy green vegetables, you should be fine.

“Deficiencies are very unlikely, especially in men, unless they are literally starving themselves.” Girard Eberle does not recommend B-vitamin supplements for men.

“A multitude of foods are enriched with B vitamins; all breads, cereals, etc., and most multis contain well over 100 percent of your daily needs,” she says.

 Excess kilos

Carrying extra weight makes your heart work harder, so you tire more easily. But be careful how you control your weight. “Don’t starve yourself on fad diets or skimp on carbohydrate-rich foods like fruit, rice and pasta, which only serves to cut off the body’s glucose supply,” says Girard Eberle. “Your glycogen stores [stored carbohydrate] are the first thing to go, along with your energy.

Concentrate on exercising portion control so you can lose body fat – about half a kilo a week – without sapping your energy.”

 Burning the midnight oil

It’s best to follow a regular routine, going to bed and waking at about the same time each day, plus or minus 30 minutes, says Smolensky. “Burning the midnight oil by staying up late at night under artificial light leads to a shift in the clocking of our 24-hour body rhythms,” he says.

“This causes a small dose of jet lag-like effects that have an impact on the 24-hour rhythms of energy and alertness.”

Exposure to bright morning light every day helps keep the body clock functioning on time. “Most of us really do need about 8½ hours’ sleep, or even more, to be at our best,” adds Smolensky. “The shortage of sleep time adds up … leading to a sleep debt, causing you to feel more sleepy in the morning and have bigger drops in alertness in the afternoon. Sooner or later, the debt must be paid up by extra sleep time.”

 Here’s a list of the B vitamins and some of their benefits

Thiamine (B1): supports metabolism and brain function.

Riboflavin (B2): assists in energy production; supports health of skin, hair, nails.

Niacin (B3): aids sugar metabolism, relieves allergic reactions.

Pantothenic acid (B5): helps cells in metabolising fats.

Pyridoxine (B6): necessary for protein metabolism, nerve health and converting food to energy.

Folic acid (B9): important for red-blood-cell formation and metabolising and utilising protein.

Cobalamin (B12): helps red-blood-cell production.

Biotin: aids skin and hair health.