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Nutrition: A Strong Ally for Your Sport Performance

This article was originally published in the Massachusetts Senior Games Summer Edition 2017-2018.

The information in this article is to provide athletes and coaches with an overview of the latest guidelines in sports nutrition. While there is no such thing as a magic diet or food, there are many ways in which eating and drinking well can allow athletes at all levels of performance to achieve their special goals of their training and competition programs. It makes no sense to train hard and ignore the benefits that follow from good choices.

A well chosen diet offers many benefits to all athletes, irrespective of sex, age, or level of competition:

  •  Optimal gains from your training program
  • Enhanced recovery within and between workouts and events
  • Achievement and maintenance of an ideal body weight and physique
  • A reduced risk of injury and illness
  • Confidence in being well prepared for competition
  • Consistency in achieving high-level performances
  • Enjoyment of food and social eating occasions

 

Despite these advantages, many athletes do not meet their nutrition goals. Common problems and challenges include:

  • Poor knowledge of foods and drinks and inadequate cooking skills
  • Poor choices when shopping or dining out
  • Busy lifestyle leading to inadequate time to obtain or consume appropriate foods
  • Indiscriminate use of supplements and sport foods

 

Whenever highly talented, motivated and well-trained athletes meet in competition, the margin between victory and defeat is small. Attention to detail can make a vital difference. Diet affects performance, and our eating and drinking patterns will influence how well we train and whether we compete at our best.

Energy Needs

Getting the right amount of energy to stay healthy and to perform well is key. Consuming too much energy increases body fat: too little, and performance falls, injuries are more likely to occur, and illness results.

The foods we eat and the fluids we drink provide for the immediate energy needs of the body as well as influencing body energy stores. Energy stores play several important roles related to exercise performance, since they contribute to size (body fat and muscle mass), function (muscle mass), and fuel for exercise (muscle and liver carbohydrate).

Carbohydrates for Training

Carbohydrate provides an important, but relatively short-lived, supply of fuel for exercise, and the storage depots, in the form of glycogen, must be refilled each day from carbohydrate foods in the diet.

Everyday eating plans need to provide enough carbohydrate to fuel their training programs and to optimize the recovery of muscle glycogen stores between workouts. General targets can be provided for carbohydrate needs, based on everyone’s size and the demands of their training programs.

The average athlete can store approximately 1,600 to 1,800 calories from carbohydrate in the muscles, liver, and blood. You don’t need to eat a “high carbohydrate diet” since this term can be misunderstood. Rather you should eat sufficient carbohydrate to meet the fuel needs to train well or at high intensity.

Protein Needs

Protein has been considered a key nutrient for sporting success. Whereas ancient Olympians were reported to eat unusually large amounts of meat, today’s athletes are provided with a vast array of protein and amino acid supplements to increase their protein intakes. Amino acids from proteins are the building blocks for the manufacture of new tissue including muscle, and the repair of old tissue. They are also the building blocks for hormones and enzymes that regulate metabolism and other body functions. Protein provides a small source of fuel for the exercising muscle.

The debate over the precise protein needs of athletes is largely unnecessary. Dietary surveys show that most athletes already consume diets providing protein intakes above the maximum recommended level, even without the use of protein supplements. Therefore, most athletes do not need to be encouraged or educated to increase their protein intakes.

Whey protein is particularly popular as a recovery supplement, or supplement ingredient because it provides a rapidly absorbed high-quality protein source. However, only a small serving of whey protein is needed and the real value of these recovery supplements is that they can be practical to consume after exercise. In many cases, an everyday dairy food such as milk or yogurt may be able to look after recovery needs just as well for a fraction of the cost. Sweetened versions of these dairy foods can provide protein, carbohydrate, and fluid for immediate recovery, as well as other nutrients, such as calcium and magnesium for total health and well-being.

Hydration

A good hydration strategy is an essential part of every athlete’s preparation for competition. You can limit dehydration during training and competition by drinking water or a sports drink. Being thirsty can be a useful signal of fluid loss and some scientists suggest that drinking when you are thirsty is all that is needed to guide fluid intake during exercise. Since the negative effects of dehydration on high-intensity performance are generally greater in warm environments, you must upgrade drinking practices in these conditions to minimize the overall fluid deficit. It is not necessary to drink enough to prevent loss of body weight, but the amount of dehydration should normally be limited to a loss of less than approximately 2% of body weight. Rehydration after exercise is part of the preparation for the next exercise session, and replacement of sweat losses is an essential part of this process. Both water and salts lost in sweat must be replaced.

Just like new shoes, don’t try out new plans for fluid and fuel replacement at a major competition. Try these plans during the first training and then again at minor events to find out what works best for you.

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