Nutrition For Athletes

Sports nutrition is a relatively new science with a body of related research that grows by leaps and bounds every year. Experts in the field of nutrition for athletes have found themselves at the center of a multi-million dollar industry, and with good reason: The nutritional choices that athletes make can have an astonishing effect on performance, rate of improvement, and recovery from exhaustion and injury. Speak with a dietitian specializing in sports nutrition for additional support and guidance.

The Components of an Athlete’s Diet

We are all athletes when we exert a high level of sustained physical energy in a way that requires focus and concentration. Doing this just once requires elevated levels of certain nutrients. Doing it over and over again on a regular basis requires us to account for the toll that this takes on our bodies, bones, muscles and organ systems.

Energy has to come from somewhere–if we’re burning more calories than we’re taking in, our bodies will eventually become fatigued. Complex fat molecules will need to be converted to usable, burnable forms of energy; glycogen stores in the liver will have to be released and burned; and along the way, the exhaustion of various body systems will slow us down to keep us from sustaining damage.

But if we consume enough calories made of long-burning and nutrient-dense fuel, we can efficiently transform those calories into motion and action without having to store them in complex fat molecules that require time and energy to break down.

Sports Nutrition: Before the Workout

In the early stages of a workout, about 50 percent of the energy required by the body comes from carbohydrates. The carbohydrates in food are converted to glucose and then to glycogen, which is stored in the liver and muscles to be released as energy.

The most useful carbohydrates in an athlete’s diet come from long-burning sources, such as:

  • Pasta (particularly whole wheat pasta)
  • Potatoes
  • Whole grain cereal, oatmeal and bread.

Quicker-burning carbohydrates are found in:

  • Fruit
  • Honey
  • Milk
  • Sugar.

For short outputs, carbohydrates eaten soon before the event will provide adequate energy. For events longer than ninety minutes that require more endurance, a high-carbohydrate diet should be eaten one to two days beforehand, so the glycogen storage spaces in the liver and muscles can be filled.

Before a workout, an athlete should take in carbohydrates but avoid fats and concentrated sugars. These may be hard to digest usefully and may also cause nausea and cramping.

Hydration and an Athlete’s Diet

Water is vital for athletes, and should be consumed throughout the event in small, regular amounts. This is because athletes become dehydrated when they sweat and don’t drink enough fluids, which can put them at risk of heat stroke.

Electrolytes–compounds that keep us hydrated, regulate body functions and repair damaged tissue–are also an important element of nutrition for athletes. Electrolytes are found in many sports drinks and fortified waters, and are most essential for replacement purposes after a workout has ended.

You can make your own electrolyte drink at home with a simple mixture of common ingredients:

  • 1 quart water
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon table salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon (1.25 g) potassium-based salt substitute
  • 2 tablespoons (30 g) sugar.

These ingredients must be mixed in the exact proportions listed above to avoid dehydrating effects. This drink should not be given to children under 12.

Nutrition for Athletes: Recovering from a Workout

In addition to electrolytes, the body needs compensation for the nutrients lost during sustained levels of high activity. Three of these are potassium, iron and calcium.

The following foods can help restore depleted resources:

  • Bananas
  • Green leafy vegetables
  • Oranges
  • Potatoes
  • Lean proteins such as poultry, beans and fish
  • Low-fat dairy products.

Resources

American College of Sports Medicine. (2000). Nutrition and athletic performance. Retrieved November 2, 2010, from
http://www.acsm.org/

Anderson, J., Young, L. and Prior, S. (2010). Nutrition for the athlete. Retrieved September 8, 2010, from http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/foodnut/09362.html

Fitness.gov. (1993). Winning nutrition for athletes. Retrieved September 8, 2010, from http://www.fitness.gov/nutrition.pdf

HealthWise. (2010). Dehydration: Home treatment. Retrieved September 16, 2010, from http://www.mainehealth.org/healthinformation.cfm?xyzpdqabc=0&id=2872&action=detail&AEProductID=HW_Knowledgebase&AEArticleID=dehyd#hw86903