Different Kinds of Athletes and Nutrition Requirements for Each

Nutrition and Athletic Performance | Blue Dinosaur


No one’s going to expect a golfer’s diet to be the same as the nutrition for CrossFit athletes, right? Different athletes are going to have different nutritional needs depending on their sport, even though the basics of what an athlete should be eating remains the same. Experts have also long since recognised how important it is for eating plans to be tailored to individual athletes.

However similar certain sports can be, no two sports are the exactly same because their athletes will be tapping different physical energy systems.


Energy systems used for sports

Sports nutritionist Dr Robert G Silverman of Metagenics describes the three different energy systems used for sports. The systems differ from each other in terms of their ability to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP) or power, how fast they can produce ATP, and the fuel used to produce it. These fuels include glucose in the blood and glycogen in the muscles and liver.

The phosphagen system offers a lot of power but at a relatively slow pace, and uses ATP stores and creatine phosphate for fuel. Examples of sports that use phosphagen energy are golf, short sprints and powerlifting. The glycolysis system is similar to phosphagen but uses glycogen or glucose for fuel. Long sprinters use this system.

Finally, the oxidative power system is similar to glycolysis because it uses the same fuel as well as intramuscular and adipose fat. Even though it doesn’t provide a whole lot of power, it can produce it very quickly, and examples of sports that use oxidative energy are marathon running and soccer.

The kind of energy you use for your sport will also depend on your diet; some athletes are vegetarian, for instance, while others follow a Ketogenic diet. Dr Silverman also points out how some sports like tennis can tap two or three energy systems.

Regardless of energy system, though, the more intense the activity is, the more calories you’re going to need, so you’ll have to pay close attention to where you’re getting your calories or energy.


Different kinds of sports and their nutritional needs

Running, cycling and other endurance sports use the oxidative energy system, which means these athletes will need more carbohydrates and healthy fats to be used as fuel. They’re also going to need a relatively small amount of protein.

The Nordic diet, which is based on what people traditionally eat in Nordic countries, is said to provide ideal nutrition for endurance athletes because of its focus on low fat dairy, seafood, whole grains, fruits and vegetables. It also excludes refined or processed food or food that has a lot of added sugar.

Weightlifting, bodybuilding and other sports focused on strength use the phosphagen energy system. These athletes may need more protein on its own as well as in combination with carbohydrates.

Football, basketball and other power sports need more carbohydrates and protein, while weight-dependent sports like wrestling, boxing, swimming, dance and gymnastics will need to focus on carbohydrates. Weight-bearing sports like running also need more calories, and these athletes need to make sure they’re getting enough iron.

Athletes such as gymnasts and triathletes whose sports combine endurance, strength, agility and flexibility need to focus on carbohydrates and protein for recovery. Lacrosse is another example where the sport is played as a team like many power sports, but sprinting is also involved which requires endurance.


Nutrition for athletic performance at different training periods and levels 

The energy needs of athletes depend on the length of their training. Short-term events last up to four minutes and use glycolysis energy or glucose. The recommended nutrient balance for these events is 60 percent carbohydrates, and 15 to 25 per cent each for protein and fat.

Intermediate events run from four to nine minutes and use the same energy as short-term events, with a nutrient balance of 55 to 60 per cent carbohydrates, 15 to 20 percent of nutrients from fat, and 15 to 35 percent from protein.

Long-duration events go on for more than 10 minutes and use oxidative energy, which means these athletes will need to focus on a combination of carbohydrates and fat. The recommended nutrient balance for these events is 60 to 70 per cent carbohydrates, 10 to 15 per cent protein, and 20 to 30 percent fat. Sports drinks are also best consumed for long events.

Athletes will also have to adjust their eating plans based on the intensity or level of their training by adding about 3 to 10 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of their body weight per day.

- Light training: Skill-based or low intensity

- Moderate: Lasts for about an hour a day

- High Intensity: Endurance training that lasts for one to three hours per day, or an entire day of moderate to high-intensity training

- Very High Intensity: Extreme commitment or moderate to high-intensity training that lasts four to five hours per day

This also applies to athletes whose sports have games lasting more than an hour such as football, cricket, basketball or tennis. Compare this to a gymnast whose events don’t last nearly as long and who therefore won’t need to consume as much in carbohydrates or rehydration fluids.


Nutrition for young athletes

One of the challenges of nutrition for young athletes is how the dietary advice they receive isn’t usually tailor-fit to them. When it is, this information tends to be not as thorough as those for their grownup counterparts. Young or teenage athletes need to know the kinds of food that can help them perform their best and when they should be eating it.

The effects of poor nutrition for teenage athletes can last well into adulthood and become a real disadvantage for their long-term athletic career. They may be smaller in stature, have less muscle mass, and delayed puberty may be accompanied by menstrual dysfunction. These young athletes may also tire more easily and be more prone to injury or illness.

Apart from meeting their energy needs, nutrition for young athletes has to make sure they get enough iron, not just to increase their blood volume but also to support their growth and build lean muscle mass.

The energy or caloric needs of young athletes as well as their vitamin and mineral requirements are more or less the same for male and females until they reach puberty. Young athletes also need extra energy to support their growth spurts as well as their training.

They should likewise focus on getting enough iron and calcium for strong bones and to guard against stress fractures. They also need to understand early on how sugary snacks such as candy and other junk food only provide short-lived energy boosts that could cause them to crash later on.

Also noteworthy is how teenage athletes may be pressured to lose weight, with studies showing how three out of four student athletes actually don’t get enough to eat. This needs to be addressed as their weight loss efforts could lead to a higher risk of fractures and other injuries as well as growth or development problems.


Nutrition for Female Athletes

Because women are more prone to developing osteoporosis, nutrition for female athletes focuses on making sure they get enough calcium. The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension or DASH diet includes calcium-rich food such as low-fat milk or yoghurt, fish head soup and canned fish with bones, making it ideal for female athletes.

Eating plans for female athletes have to consider the difference in size and weight from male athletes, as well as hormonal and physiological differences. Women don’t need as many calories at just 1,600 to 2,400 calories a day, for instance, compared to men who need around 2,000 to 3,000 calories daily.

Female athletes also have more body fat, and their bodies react differently to training. Those who aren’t able to maintain good nutrition levels may miss their periods and have unhealthy skin, nails and hair. 

These athletes are also more prone to iron deficiency as well as not getting enough magnesium, zinc, or vitamins B and D. Recommended sources of iron include peanuts, pumpkin seeds, poultry, spinach, seafood, meat and kidney beans. For vitamin D, female athletes can eat egg yolks, mushrooms and fish liver oil.


Nutrition for Vegetarian Athletes

More athletes are choosing to replace animal-based food with plant-based options in their eating plans, which is commendable as long as the food is natural or unprocessed.

Apart from having to take in more dietary protein and iron, nutrition for vegetarian athletes need to make sure they get enough calories. Our plant-based Banana Bread bar provides 225 calories. Other examples of energy-rich vegan food include avocado toast, nuts and dried fruit.

Vegetarian athletes also need to focus on carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals, with vitamin B12 of particular importance because it’s usually found in animal protein. They can get vitamin B12 from cereal, nutritional yeast and plant-based milk.

No matter what type or level of athlete you are, you deserve the kind of nutrition for elite athletes engaged in any kind of sport. As always, it’s best to work with a sports nutritionist and your personal trainer to create your eating plan or dietary strategy.


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