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Eating to Win: Nutrition for Optimal Athletic Performance
Every athlete’s goal is to have the edge over their competitors. Hence, it’s essential to incorporate a comprehensive eating plan that matches the physical demand of their daily training and recovery.
For instance, American football is a highly-physically demanding sport. Thus, NFL teams must ensure that all their players are healthy.
This article focuses on the keys to peak athletes’ nutrition performance. It also includes tips to excel with proper sports nutrition.
Daily Training Diet Requirements
The essential training diet of every athlete should be sufficient to:
- Provide nutrients and energy to meet the demands of rigorous training
- Include various food items like cereals, whole grains, vegetables, fruits, low-fat dairy products, and lean meat to build up long-term nutrition habits and behaviors
- Provide sufficient fluids to ensure maximum hydration throughout the exercise routine
- Enable the athlete to obtain optimal body fat levels and body weight for performance
- Enhance recovery between training sessions and promote athletes’ health both in the short and long term
An Athlete’s Diet: What Should They Eat?
An athlete’s diet is similar to the one recommended for the general population, with energy intake divided into:
- More than 55% from carbohydrates
- About 12 to 15% from protein
- Less than 30% from fat
Athletes engaged in a rigorous exercise routine for more than 60 to 90 minutes each day may need to boost the amount of energy they consume from carbohydrates to between 65% and 70%.
More recent recommendations provide guidelines for protein and carbohydrates based on grams per kilogram of body weight.
Furthermore, the current recommendation for fat intake for most athletes is similar to that of the general public, with the fat preference from nuts, olive oils, seeds, and avocado.
Athletes should also aim to reduce their high-fat foods like biscuits, pastries, chips, and fried food.
A 2018 expert panel report from Nutrition Today stated that although dietary protein and fat can provide energy to perform physical activity, carbohydrate is still the only macronutrient that can be broken down quickly to provide energy in the course of high-intensity exercise.
Moreover, the experts pointed to data indicating that most athletes fail to consume sufficient carbohydrates to fully replenish muscle glycogen stores, an aspect that can lead to performance decrements.
All carbohydrates are broken down into glucose or sugar, the body’s main energy source. Glucose can turn into glycogen and be stored in the muscle tissue and liver.
Stored glucose can be used as a primary energy source during exercise to fuel muscle tissue and other body systems.
According to experts, an athlete stands little chance of satisfying high carbohydrate demands without consuming a diet rich in carbohydrate sources, such as rice, pasta, and potatoes.
The recommended serving is 5 to 7 grams per kilogram (g/kg) of body weight per day for those engaged in moderate exercise.
Meanwhile, 8 to 12 grams per kilogram (g/kg) of body weight per day is the serving suggestion for those who do heavy routines.
Sporting Performance and Glycemic Index
A scientific review published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine suggested that glycemic index may be an essential resource when choosing an ideal carbohydrate food.
The glycemic index categorizes foods that have carbohydrates based on the blood glucose response that they elicit.
High-carb foods evoking the most significant responses are considered high-glycemic. At the same time, those producing relatively minor reactions are categorized as low glycemic index food.
Athletes should eat low glycemic index foods 30 to 60 minutes before exercise. Doing so will help reduce the likelihood of hyperinsulinemia at the onset of the routine.
Hyperinsulinemia refers to the high amount of insulin in one’s blood. Insulin is a hormone produced by a person’s pancreas that helps regulate blood sugar.
After an exercise routine, high glycemic index foods are recommended to ensure rapid absorption and digestion, leading to elevated blood glucose levels during exercise.
Compared with high glycemic index foods, low glycemic food items don’t induce sufficient muscle glycogen resynthesis.
Sporting Performance and Protein
Protein is an essential part of a training diet and plays a crucial role in post-exercise recovery and repair.
Athletes can meet their protein needs by following a high-carbohydrate diet because most food, especially cereal-based, is a combination of protein and carbohydrates.
The amount of protein ideal for athletes is slightly higher than that of the general public.
- Active People and the General Public
The daily recommended amount of protein these groups need is 0.8 to 1.0g per kg of body weight. Meaning, a 60kg individual must eat around 45 to 60g of protein daily.
- Athletes Involved in Non-endurance Events
Individuals who exercise daily for 45 to 60 minutes must consume 1.0 to 1.2g per kg of body weight each day.
- Athletes Engaged in Endurance and Strength Events
Individuals who exercise for more extended hours or are involved in strength training exercises like weight lifting must consume between 1.2 to 1.7g per kg of bodyweight protein each day.
Dietary surveys indicate that most athletic groups reach and often exceed their protein requirements comfortably by eating a high-energy diet.
Therefore, going for only protein supplements is unlikely to improve an athlete’s sporting performance.
To help athletes know their protein intake daily, they may also use a protein requirements calculator based on their current activity level.
Meanwhile, although more studies are required, other concerns linked to high-protein diets include:
- A potential negative impact on kidney function
- Increased weight if protein preferences are high in fat
- Deficiency of other nutritious foods in the diet, such as cereal, fruits, bread, and vegetables
- Increased cost
Several nutrition calculators are available online to help athletes calculate the nutrient contents in food based on their requirements.
Tips to Excel With Appropriate Sports Nutrition
Good nutrition can enhance an athlete’s overall sporting performance. Below are some tips to help sportspeople have proper nutrition:
1. Athletes should ensure to include fruits and vegetables in their daily diet. They should aim to consume at least five servings of these food items per day.
Note that one serving is approximately the size of a baseball.
Vegetables and fruits are filled with nutrients and energy needed for training and recovery. They are also rich in antioxidants to help combat sicknesses like the flu or a cold.
2. Whole-grain carbohydrates sources include whole-wheat pasta or bread and fiber-rich cereals. Athletes should avoid refined grains like sugary cereals, bagels, and white bread.
Healthy protein sources, such as turkey, chicken, fish, eggs, nuts, legumes, and peanut butter, should also be part of their meals.
3. Active people need to stay hydrated. Even a 2% drop in hydration levels can negatively impact an athlete’s performance. Options include water, milk, 100% fruit juice, and sports drinks.
However, know that 100% fruit juice and sports drinks tend to be higher in sugar content. In the case of fruit juice, they also lack various health benefits present in their whole food counterpart.
In addition, don’t confuse sports drinks like Gatorade with “energy” drinks like Red Bull.
4. It’s always an excellent idea to stick with whole food options.
An active lifestyle, a solid exercise routine, and a healthy diet are the best ways to achieve optimal athletic performance.
Athletes must always speak with a healthcare professional to discuss the right diet plan for their age, sex, sports, and training regimen.