Training usually takes the top spot on an athlete’s priority list, as well it should. But you’d be surprised at how often “eating right” is not only lower on that list, but nowhere to be found.
Nutrition for athletic performance is a key contributor to success. Your body can only perform its best when you give it the right amounts of the nutrients it needs.
Good nutrition gives you more energy for training and bringing your A-game when game time comes. You’ll be stronger and have greater stamina, as well as more alert and better able to think on your feet. You’ll also be better able to recover faster and more thoroughly from fatigue and muscle strain or injuries, as well as have a stronger immune system.
Eating the right kind of food also helps you to build muscle and gain healthy weight. Unlike training or exercise, where you’ll only be able to appreciate results after some time, the effects of good nutrition can be felt right away.
At a cellular level, our bodies need good molecules for our cells to do what they’re supposed to do, the best way they can. Nutritious food provides those good molecules for cells so they can absorb and use the energy athletes need to perform.
Poor nutrition means poor performance
Not giving our cells enough good molecules, or worse, giving them unhealthy molecules simply means our bodies won’t be able to do their best right when we need them to. That lack of energy manifests in stress and fatigue, and in taking longer to recover from training. Energy crashes can also lead to cravings for even more unhealthy food, causing undesirable weight changes.
Eating the wrong kinds of food can also make an athlete more susceptible to fractures and reduced muscle mass.
Factors affecting an athlete’s diet
While nutrition for athletic performance is indispensable no matter what your sport is, your sport and other factors will determine what your exact dietary requirements are. Because CrossFit, for instance, combines strength as well as endurance training, nutrition for CrossFit athletes won’t be exactly the same as nutrition for endurance athletes.
Getting the right nutrition as an athlete will also depend on your personal goals and preferences as well as where you’re training or competing. You may want to be able to compete in a certain weight class, for instance, or you may be vegetarian. You might also be training in a place where certain types of food aren’t as readily available.
What are the components of a healthy diet for athletes?
Macro and Micro Nutrients
As the body’s go-to source of energy, carbohydrates are converted into glucose molecules which our cells use for energy. Athletes in particular need carbohydrates from healthy sources such as fruits, vegetables, whole grain pasta, oatmeal and brown rice.
Food containing carbohydrates have a Glycemic Index or GI which shows how fast a particular kind of food can boost your glucose or blood sugar. Food with a low GI raises your blood sugar slowly, and would therefore be good to eat before training because it gives your body energy over a period of time. For a quick energy boost, eat high GI food during or after training.
Examples of low GI food include fruit, beans, porridge and pasta, while high GI food include white bread and potatoes. Wholewheat bread, honey and orange juice would be somewhere in the middle.
Because muscles are approximately 80 percent protein, it is essential to include it in an athlete’s diet for repairing muscle fibers and building new muscle. Not all protein sources have all of the nine essential amino acids, however—those that do include fish and other seafood, eggs, poultry and meat and dairy.
Plant-based protein lacks one or more of the essential amino acids, but you can compensate for this by eating two or more of these sources to make sure you get all nine. An example of this is to eat cereal and soy milk together.
Fat is good for you as long it’s eaten in the right amounts and comes from healthy sources. Almond butter, avocado, salmon, sardines, nuts, olive oil and other oils from vegetables are great examples of food with low saturated fat.
Also a major source of energy for athletes, fat shouldn’t be completely left out of your diet, although it’s usually the first to go when athletes are trying to lose weight. It’s especially crucial for endurance sports like running and cycling because of its huge energy reserves. Fat is also necessary for the body to be able to use micronutrients.
Vitamins and Minerals
Also known as micronutrients, vitamins and minerals are necessary for good eyesight, oxygen delivery, resistance and brain function. Vitamins, in particular, help keep the metabolism of macronutrients under control, as well as maintain the nervous and immune system. Some vitamins are fat-soluble, which underlines the importance of including fat in your diet.
Other vitamins such as C and E are also antioxidants or molecules which lessen oxidation damage and rid our cells of disease-causing free radicals. You can get antioxidants from whole plant-based food as well as from fruits and vegetables.
Minerals are needed for strong bones, muscle contractions and other key functions. You can find minerals in dried fruit, vegetables, dairy, nuts, fish, meat, bread and cereal.
Most important nutrients for athletes
Research conducted by Inside Tracker says hemoglobin is a key nutrient for athletes because it delivers oxygen to the muscles. It’s a protein partly made of iron, which means iron-deficient athletes wouldn’t be able to perform at their peak. Iron-rich food includes beans, nuts, red meat and dark, leafy vegetables.
Calcium and vitamin D are also crucial for athletes because of the way they support bone health—calcium repairs bone tissue while vitamin D helps your body to absorb calcium. You can get your calcium from vegetables like spinach and kelp as well as from dairy, and your vitamin D from beef liver, egg yolks and fish like salmon and sardines.
Calories need to come from different sources
All these different food types are needed not just for the macro and micronutrients they contain but also as calorie sources. While it’s essential for athletes to get the calories they need, it’s just as important for them to get calories from different kinds of food according to sport or exercise they’re doing.
Experts have noted how the body performs at peak efficiency during euhydration, or when the body has the optimal amount of water. Athletes need to stay hydrated while training to keep fluid loss at a minimum, as dehydration and overheating can have a negative effect on your performance.
Experts also recommend careful hyperhydration or fluid overloading before training, taking care not to over-hydrate as it could affect your game by making you feel bloated.
Electrolytes are minerals which work only in water and which help with several bodily functions such as muscle contraction and regulating fluids going in and out of the cells. Calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium are examples of electrolytes, with sodium being one of the most important when it comes to hydration.
You can lose 7g of sodium through sweat during training, which is why sports drinks often contain sodium.
Nutrition for athletic performance during training
Making sure your body has enough energy shouldn’t just be done before you train or right before the game. Eating correctly afterwards and even, if the kind of sport permits, during exercise or the competition, helps athletes to perform their best.
Carbohydrates, particularly Low GI carbs are ideally eaten before exercise, as research shows eating carbs hours before training can boost your muscles’ energy stores. It can also help extend the time it takes for you to become exhausted.
Nutrition during training
Sports with breaks or half-time such as cricket, basketball or tennis can give athletes a chance to rehydrate or refuel with a piece of fruit or a snack bar. Research shows that carbohydrates during events lasting an hour or more can boost performance, with some sources saying carbohydrate rinses can also help by signaling the brain to make positive adjustments to motor output.
The USADA also says that fat can be used as fuel for endurance sports such as swimming, judo, boxing and figure skating.
When training or the game is over, eating right can help your body to recover by replenishing lost proteins and carbohydrates as well as fluids and electrolytes. Drinks and snacks with sodium are particularly helpful at this stage as they help you to drink more and to retain the water you take in. Our Lamington Bar is a great post-training snack with 5mg of sodium.
Key considerations for athletic nutrition
Fuelling your body correctly has to be done consistently, which means eating right even if the competition is over and training doesn’t begin again for the next few weeks. That’s not to say you can’t celebrate whenever you break a record or bring the trophy home, but the longer you let yourself go, the harder it might be for you to get back on track.
Your diet is best recommended to you by aqualified professional who can take your unique needs into consideration when planning it out. Some types of food work better for some athletes than others. There have been studies where a planned diet helped athletes finish a marathon and a cycling time trial faster versus a diet that was personally chosen by the individual athletes.
And while there’s no harm in a tub of popcorn at the movies in between seasons, athletes shouldn’t eat junk food simply because it’s not used to generate energy, build muscle or burn fat.
Finally, athletes don’t really need supplements if they’re already eating correctly. Supplements in Australia are regulated as therapeutic goods, but many supplements elsewhere remain unregulated. Taking them when you don’t really need them also increases the risk of a positive dope test, and in any case, nutrients found in real food trump artificial or chemical nutrients any day.
This is because even though the structure of artificial nutrients may be similar to the real thing, the body just doesn’t process them the same way or as effectively as it does the real nutrients found in real food.
Athletes should eat several times a day
Snacks in between games or training play a major role in helping athletes meet their daily energy requirements, always provided these snacks are healthy. Wholegrain crackers, trail mix and sports bars are great examples of ideal snacks which are natural and contain no chemicals, sodium nitrate or MSG—just protein, healthy fats and energy.
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