Nutrition for Athletes
Your body is like a car. No matter how powerful the engine is, you can’t do anything without being fueled up. Your muscles must have fuel to perform, but there are, of course, high quality and low quality fuels.
Nutrition for athletes doesn’t have to be complicated. With the following outlines and tips, you can easily maximize your athletic potential.
During your day-to-day eating, including during training, carbs should make up 45 to 65 percent of your daily intake.
For two to three days before a big event, about 70% of your diet should be carbohydrates. Your body will take these carbohydrates and break the glucose into glycogen, which is stored in your muscles. When you begin to perform during the game, the glycogen stores are converted back to glucose to provide maximum energy. You muscles have a limit on how much glycogen they can store, which is why two to three days of carb loading is the typical sweet spot.
This build up of energy in your muscles allows you to fast 3 to 4 hours before the game so your stomach has time to empty. This can help you be quicker and less sluggish and tired.
Your best sources for carbs are whole grains (including breads and pastas), vegetables, fruits and limited amounts of natural sugar (including honey and fruit juice).
The amount of protein you need depends on two things: your weight and your athletic needs.
First, determine how many kilograms you weigh by dividing your weight by 2.2. For instance, a 180-pound athlete weighs 81.8 kilograms.
For endurance athletes, like soccer players, aim to get 1.2 to 1.4 grams of protein for every kilogram. The 180-pound endurance athlete will need 98 grams to 114 grams of protein.
For strength athletes, like wrestlers and some football positions, protein requirements may be as high as 1.7 grams per kilogram of body weight. For our 180-pound example, this is about 140 grams of protein.
Good sources of protein include chicken breast (30 grams per half-breast), pork chops (33 grams per 5 oz. chop), lean beef (31 grams per 3 oz. slice), low sodium beef jerky (7 grams per 20 piece), eggs (6 grams per large egg), and nuts and seeds (9 grams per ounce).
Most all athletes get sufficient protein in their diet, so supplements are not usually necessary. In fact, too much protein can cause dehydration and can prevent you from using more efficient fuel sources in your diet. Excess protein can also force your body to use more oxygen, making you less efficient overall.
Do not let your fat consumption fall below 15%, but base your total daily intake around your carbohydrate and protein needs outlined above.
During prolonged exercise, such as during games, your body may derive up to 75% of its energy from fat. Fat is your preferred backup when your body’s stores of glycogen from carbs run low. However, you want to avoid eating fat on the day of your games to prevent an upset stomach.
Good sources of healthy fats include unsalted nuts and seeds, avocados, fatty fish (like tuna or salmon), olives, dark chocolate, and low-fat cheese and yogurt.
If you’re eating a well-rounded diet with a variety of vegetables and fruits, you should be meeting all of your needs for vitamins and nutrients. If you are concerned about your B vitamin intake, which is responsible for producing and managing energy in your body, you can supplement.
However, not all vitamins are water soluble. Water soluble vitamins can pass through your body if there is already enough of that vitamin in your system. On the other hand, fat soluble vitamins, like vitamins A, D, E and K, are stored in your body and can build up to toxic levels. If you are concerned about your intake of these vitamins, consult with your doctor or a nutritionist who can check and monitor your levels.
When it comes to minerals like calcium, potassium, iron and sodium, things are a little different.
Your sweat excretes a lot of water and electrolytes like potassium, so it’s important to stay hydrated and to replenish these lost electrolytes. This is typically accomplished with a nutritionally balanced sports drink. Some of the more popular sports drinks contain a lot more sugar than you really need, which can cause you to have a blood sugar spike and crash, so make sure to read the labels carefully and choose low or no sugar alternatives.
In addition, the water lost through sweat increases the salt levels in your body. Having a high sodium level can weaken and damage muscles. To prevent this, you simply want to avoid a high salt diet often brought on by fried foods, chips, salted nuts, etc., especially right before games. You should also aim to stay hydrated during training and during games.
Although iron is important for all athletes, female athletes need to take extra precaution to make sure they’re getting enough iron. The same goes for calcium. Lacking these trace minerals, athletes may experience anemia (a sometimes dangerously low iron count), bone density loss (which leaves you more susceptible to injury), and amenorrhea (a serious condition in female athletes that stops their monthly periods to preserve iron).
Be careful, though, since iron supplements can cause constipation and other gastrointestinal problems. If you’re concerned about your iron intake, consult your doctor.
Finally, if you suffer from muscle cramps, especially Charley horse cramps in your calves, try to increase your intake of potassium through foods like bananas, potatoes and oranges.
When to Eat & Drink
- Always eat breakfast. Every day should start with the fuel you need to get you through until your mid-morning snack or lunch.
- Get in a pre-game meal no sooner than 3 hours before your game or intense training session. This meal should consist of about 500 to 1,000 calories spread across complex carbohydrates like whole wheat bread, crackers, pasta, etc.
- Stay away from high fat foods that can slow down your digestion and leave you bloated and uncomfortable.
- Avoid relying on sugary foods for energy. The sugar may provide a quick boost, but you’ll be lacking energy when your blood sugar drops shortly after. Sugar may also contribute to dehydration.
- Don’t forget your post-game meal, either. This meal will help your body get the nutrients it needs to recover and become stronger. Try to keep the meal small and eat within 30 minutes of finishing a training session or game. Protein is particularly important as this post-game or post-training meal is when your body is most receptive to the benefits of protein.
- If your stomach is upset and you cannot eat typical protein sources, try chocolate milk or a high-protein smoothie or shake.
- Drink enough water throughout the day to stay hydrated. If you’ll be training or playing in high heat, this is especially important. Some of your water intake may come from other fluids (like fruit juice, milk, tea, sports drinks, etc.) or foods (like watermelon, spinach, cucumbers, tomatoes, etc.)
How to keep track
Trying to stay on top of all this information can seem overwhelming at first. Your best bet is to use a food journal in which you write down everything you consume.
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