An active lifestyle and an exercise routine along with eating well are the best way to stay healthy. Proper nutrition can help improve athletic performance.
Smart sports nutrition has a goal of decreasing injuries, increasing reaction time, enhancing muscle power, boosting strength, endurance and increasing concentration. Food is the fuel to help obtain this goal. The current dietary recommendations for athletes are similar to the recommendations for the general population. However, the amount of each food group you need will depend on:
- The type of sport
- The amount of training you do
- The amount of time you spend doing the activity or exercise
The daily menu of an athlete should consist of 60% plant-based different coloured vegetables, fruits and whole grains, 30% from lean proteins, which can be animal sourced like fish, poultry and lean meat or plant sourced like beans, lentils, soya and milk and 10% from quality fats like nuts, seeds and milk.
Carbohydrates are the preferred energy source for all activities in the body. Having adequate carbohydrate stores allow for greater blood sugar regulation, preventing early exercise fatigue. Exhaustion is reached quickly if an athlete is following a low carbohydrate diet. Therefore, the type of activity that an athlete is performing can determine the percentage of daily carbohydrate intake.
Runners and cyclists perform better when they have ingested a higher carbohydrate diet. Marathon runners, who train exhaustively on successive days or who compete in prolonged endurance events, need to consume a diet containing 60% to 70% of total calories from carbohydrate.
Carbohydrates found in pasta, bread, cereal, rice, grains, potatoes, fruit, vegetables and milk are especially important for athletes, because they supply the body with glucose for energy. Extra glucose is stored in the muscles and liver as glycogen. During short bursts of exercise such as sprinting, basketball or football, your body relies on glycogen to keep your blood sugar levels stable and thus maintain your energy. If you do not have enough glycogen, you may feel very tired or have difficulty sustaining the activity, which will impact your performance. During longer exercise, your body primarily uses your glycogen stores, but depending on how long the activity lasts, your body will also utilize fats stored in your body to fuel performance.
Proteins are important for muscle growth and to repair body tissues. Protein can also be used by the body for energy, but only after carbohydrate stores have been used up. Only strength training and exercise will change muscle. Even body builders need only a little bit of extra protein to support muscle growth. Athletes can easily meet this increased need by eating more total calories, which will be stored as increased body fat.
Often, people who focus on eating extra protein may not get enough carbohydrates, which are the most important source of energy during exercise. Amino acid supplements and eating a lot of protein are not recommended, unless muscle growth is to be enhanced in body-building and weight-lifting.
Fat is an important source of energy used to fuel longer exercise and endurance activities, such as cycling, long-distance running and swimming. Eating a diet that is too low in dietary fat may decrease athletic performance and cause other health problems, such as deficiencies of certain vitamins, which require fat to be absorbed. Heart-healthy sources of fat include avocados, salmon, nuts and olive oils.
Vitamins and Minerals
Vitamins and minerals are not sources of energy, but they have many important functions in the body. For example, Vitamin D and calcium are needed for strong bones and iron is needed for blood cells to carry oxygen throughout your body. Certain minerals, like potassium, calcium and sodium are called electrolytes. They are important during exercise, because they have an effect on the amount of water in your body and on how your muscles work. Athletes should eat a balanced diet with a variety of foods to make sure they get enough vitamins and minerals. It is fine to take a regular multivitamin, but supplements with high doses of vitamins and minerals do not improve performance and may actually be harmful.
Water is essential to keep you hydrated. Dehydration (when your body does not have enough fluids to work efficiently) can cause muscle cramps and dizziness. When you are physically active, dehydration is not only dangerous, but can also keep you from performing your best. In order to stay hydrated, keep a water bottle with you and drink throughout the day.
Achieving desired weight for competitive purpose
Changing your body weight to improve performance must be done safely or it may do more harm than good. Keeping your body weight too low, losing weight too quickly or preventing weight gain in an unnatural way can have negative health effects. It is important to set realistic body weight goals.
In general, water is the best fluid to drink before, during, and after exercise. Sports drinks such as Gatorade, Fast&Up or Unived can help replace water, carbohydrates and electrolytes. It may be useful to drink an energy drink, when you are playing a high intensity sport. However, remember that these all contain calories as well. If you are exercising for less than 60 minutes it is likely that water will be the best source of fluid unless exercising vigorously or in the heat.
The food you eat before you exercise greatly affects the quality of your athletic performance as well as how you feel during and after exercise. You need to plan your pre-exercise meals to prevent low blood sugar, to keep you from feeling hungry during your workout and to fuel your muscles for training and competition. Eat a larger meal that contains carbohydrates, protein and fat about four hours before you begin your exercise. Smaller meals that are high in carbohydrates and moderate in protein are better if you have eat them two hours before your workout begins.
Carbohydrates are important to be having at all meals and snacks, because they give you energy. Whole grain carbohydrates will give you long-lasting energy power and are best eaten further out from a workout. Whole grain pasta, baked potatoes, brown rice and fresh fruit are all good sources of complex carbohydrates. Refined carbohydrates such as white bread or white rice will give you quick energy and are best eaten one hour prior to exercise.
Avoid high-bulk (high-fibre) foods such as broccoli, baked beans or high-fibre cereal right before exercise. These foods may cause gastro-intestinal distress during exercise due to their passing more slowly through your digestive system. However, high-fibre foods are loaded with good nutrition, so be sure to include them at other times of the day.
Sugars and sweets do not provide lasting energy and therefore are not recommended to fuel your exercise.
Limit foods that are high in dietary fat such as fast food, ice cream, nuts, and cheese for your pre-exercise meal. These foods take much longer to digest and may make you feel sluggish and tired if you eat too much of them right before working out.
Depending on the length of your workout, you may or may not need to eat something during exercise. If you find that you are getting hungry or your workout is lasting more than an hour-and-half, try having something easy to digest that will provide you with fast acting energy such as fruit, an energy bar, or sports gels formulated for endurance athletes.
After exercise, calorie-containing drinks such as milk, juice or a sports drink can replace water and glucose. Milk will also provide protein to help rebuild and repair muscles. You can find out if you are well hydrated by looking at the colour of your urine. A light yellow or clear colour is a sign of good hydration. However, if you see a darker yellow colour, this means that you need to drink more fluids.
Carbohydrate loading is a technique used to increase the amount of glycogen in muscles. It involves eating extra carbohydrates during the week before a competition, while at the same time cutting back on your training. Carbohydrate loading is intended for marathon runners and other competitive endurance athletes and is not necessary for most sports.
Although some extra protein is needed to build muscle, most of the athletes get plenty of protein from food. Getting extra protein from supplements will not have any added benefit. Eating enough calories, especially from carbohydrates is actually more important for building muscle than having extra protein. Without enough calories, your body cannot build new muscle.