When it comes down to it, athletes have the same nutritional needs as anyone who wants to live a clean and healthy lifestyle. They do, however, need to eat more or less amounts of some kinds of food according to their sport or the kind of training they do, how much training they do, and how long they train.
Now before getting to it, let’s take a minute to note the difference between professional athletes and people who are regularly, physically active, and those of us who train once in a while.
Athletes compete, and not just for fun or even for exercise. Excelling at their sport is their whole reason for being, and when it comes to nutrition for elite athletes, their goal is to fuel their bodies so that they can perform at optimal levels. That’s a marked difference between eating to get you through the morning’s meetings, and eating to win the 100-meter dash.
How is an athlete’s diet different from everyone else’s?
To compete, athletes need more calories, or energy, and the macronutrients that support this. They also need more vitamins, minerals and other nutrients to help them recover or repair wear and tear or injury caused by the sport or training. Exactly how much more they need will depend on how hard they’ve been training or playing, as exercise intensity does vary between sports.
Athletes will also have to be more careful about the timing of when they eat and rehydrate, taking particular care to schedule their meals and snacks around training and competitions.
Calories and nutrition for athletic performance
An athlete’s diet will also differ from that of others in that it needs to replace the calories that were burned during training—athletes do tend to burn far more calories than most of us. Where the average person uses about 2,000 calories daily, professional athletes can burn around 3,000 to more than 5,000 calories per day.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans say that 45 to 65 percent of an athlete’s calories should come from carbohydrates, while 10 to 35 percent should come from protein and 20 to 35 percent should come from fat.
The International Sports Sciences Association says you can adjust these percentages according to what you want to achieve with your exercise. Nutrition for endurance athletes, for instance, can increase the percentage of the calories taken in through carbohydrates.
People tend to have a tough time figuring out the number of calories they burn while exercising, which often leads to them eating more than they actually burn.
It’s also important for everyone (not just athletes) to remember that you shouldn’t train on an empty stomach, because you’d have less glucose and insulin which make fat burning more efficient.
Also note that it’s not just about how many calories you take in, but where those calories are coming from. Your calories have to come from high quality sources rather than junk food and the simple sugars found in soda and ice cream. Athletes (and everyone else) would do far better to prioritize eating whole foods instead of food that is highly processed.
Protein facts and fiction in athletic nutrition
There are athletes who swear by protein and would take it by the truckload if they could. While it’s true that protein does help in building muscle, large amounts of it don’t help in building bulk, let alone quickly. All that extra protein won’t do you much good without the workout, and it’s actually the training that builds the muscles.
Your body can only process so much protein at once, and once it has what it needs, the surplus is either turned into energy or stored fat. Taking too much protein over extended periods could also actually be bad for you, as it could lead to dehydration or even heart or kidney disease.
That said, athletes do need more protein than other people—in reasonable amounts. The recommended daily amount is 1.2 to 2 grams per kilo of your body weight, and athletes need twice as much protein when doing intense exercise, even during short periods.
This additional protein helps them to recover faster and to repair and grow their muscles, as well as helps them to avoid protein catabolism or breakdown.
As a final word about protein for athletes, think twice about taking protein supplements, as most athletes simply don’t need them. Athletes can get the additional protein they need from high quality food sources, instead of risking supplements that are often not well regulated.
Some protein supplements have ingredients that aren’t really needed like herbs or sweeteners, and even mercury and arsenic. If you’re considering using these supplements, look for a list of ingredients that’s easy to understand and third-party certification.
Carbohydrates for nutrition in athletic performance
Athletes needing more energy is an undisputed fact, and as the body’s main energy source, carbohydrates have a key role to play in making sure they get it.
This role has to do with the way they provide the glycogen stores and glucose needed to power an athlete’s training. To ensure these stores don’t run out, athletes will have to adjust the amount of carbs they eat to the amount of exercise they do.
Also, depending on the kind of athlete they are and their training or competition level, they should increase their carbohydrate intake by about 3 to 10 kg per day. These carbs don’t just help athletes to meet their energy requirements but also helps to put off fatigue.
Simple carbohydrates such as those found in milk, fruits and vegetables are more readily processed by the body. Complex carbohydrates such those in brown rice, kidney beans or whole grain bread need more time to process, which makes them a better energy source over extended periods, as well as more nutritious.
If more than half your calories are already coming from complex carbs, you don’t have to do “carbo loading” since you’ve already got enough in your tank for your training.
Some athletes, however, would rather eat lower fibre or simpler carbohydrates for their energy needs, as some sources of carbs can cause gastrointestinal discomfort. Choose the carbs, the amount you eat and when you eat that work best for you.
Cautions for vitamins and minerals
Like protein, the increased vitamin and mineral needs of an athlete can already be met by a diet designed to give them extra energy, which means that supplements may not be strictly necessary. When considering nutrition for athletic performance, your diet should include sources of vitamins A, C and E, as well as iron, calcium, potassium and fiber.
Do note that athletes who are overly careful about how much energy they’re taking in or who are following a strict weight loss programme might not be getting the micronutrients they need.
Again, how much more vitamins and minerals an athlete needs will depend on the intensity of their training.
Sports drinks are really only for athletes
Endurance training such as biking, jogging and jumping rope for extended periods of time can cause you to lose large amounts of sodium. Athletes who engage in such exercises can run the risk of hyponatremia or blood levels of sodium that are below normal, which could cause muscle weakness or cramp and low energy.
This is why sports drinks have more sodium and sugar to boost glucose levels. Even then, sports drinks are really only for athletes who have been doing high intensity training for more than one hour. Athletes who haven’t been doing this may dispense with the sport drinks, as can everyone else—not only is there no real benefit, but it may also increase the risk of tooth decay and obesity.
Also take care not to mistake an energy drink for a sports drink, as they tend to look similar and have similar ads. Sports drinks are specially designed to replace sodium and electrolytes for athletes, while energy drinks contain caffeine and guarana and are meant to be short-term stimulants.
Studies have shown that energy drinks do nothing to improve athletic performance—something particularly important to draw attention to when it comes to nutrition for young athletes. They may even throw you off your game by making you anxious or jittery. Energy drinks can also cause dehydration, which is the last thing an athlete needs.
You can actually enjoy the benefits of sports drinks without the preservatives or artificial colours by making your own sports drink at home with water, honey, salt, and your choice of orange, lemon, lime or pineapple juice. Some recipes even add a pinch of cayenne pepper and calcium magnesium powder.
Stay hydrated and energised
Hydration is key for athletes and non-athletes alike, and all you need is two to three liters of water every day. Athletes will need more than this as they use up more water and electrolytes because of all their activity, and so will have to make sure they replace the fluids they sweat out.
You shouldn’t wait to become thirsty before you drink, as that’s a sign that you’re already dehydrated. Drink every 15 to 20 minutes, but not so much as to feel full.
Athletes also need to snack throughout the day, not just to meet their higher nutrition needs but to have enough all-day energy.
Keep your energy handy by taking an Athlete Bundle with you to training or your next big event. You can do it!
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