5 Critical Nutritional Guidelines For Athletes

What you eat and when you eat plays a significant role in your athletic performance. Athletes have different nutritional needs from the average person for the simple reason that they put more stress on their bodies compared to people who don’t engage in physical activity regularly. Here are some quick guidelines to follow to ensure you meet your dietary needs and reach optimal sports performance: 

Water 

Not drinking adequate fluids and staying hydrated can not only hinder your performance but in cases of extreme dehydration, can be life-threatening. Drinking only when you feel thirsty is not good enough because we tend to feel thirst only after we are slightly hydrated. Therefore drinking regularly throughout the day is critical for athletic performance [1-5]. Drinking upon waking is important to replenish your body with the necessary fluids lost during sleep. For athletes, the hydration lost during sleep is more than for the average person. Drinking also before and after practice will support optimal performance. Carry a bottle with you to remind yourself to drink regularly. A study on fluid consumption and exercise published in Biology of Sport revealed that it was significantly better to drink voluntarily rather than to force fluid consumption during sports activity just to avoid dehydration. [5]

Calcium & Other Electrolytes

When athletes sweat, they lose fluids and electrolytes including calcium. Calcium is vital for strong bones, and without enough of it, athletes become prone to muscle cramps and other problems associated with electrolyte imbalance including  muscle weakness, heart rhythm disturbances and even seizures if left unchecked. Electrolytes are substances that conduct electricity when dissolved in water. Electrolytes are essential for nerve and muscle function because these so called “electric tissues” rely on the movement of electrolytes through the fluid in, out and between cells creating an electrical charge. Electrolytes also help hydrate the body, balance blood acidity and pressure, and help rebuild damaged tissue.

Electrolytes are found in plentitude on a plant based diet and this is why athletes following this type of diet notice a significant improvement in performance. 

To replenish calcium and other electrolytes lost through perspiration, athletes need to include electrolyte-rich foods in their diets such as bananas, dates, raisins, coconut and avocado. Vegetable sources include spinach, beans, lentils and potato. Coconut water is an excellent natural athletic drink rich in electrolytes! 

Fats 

Fat intake is necessary for athletes for various metabolic activities. Certain vitamins such as vitamins A, D, E and K, rely on fat for proper absorption. Fat is also needed by the body to help access glycogen. The percentage of fat in the diet also has an impact on exercise performance and resting metabolism and is thus critical for athletes. The adequate range for fat intake for athletes is between 20-35% of total daily calories. 

When you consume plant based natural fats such as olives, avocados, nuts and seeds, you support health while improving performance. Needless to say, it is important to reduce trans fats to a minimum. Trans fats raise bad (LDL) cholesterol levels and lower good (HDL) cholesterol levels leading to the clogging of arteries which not only hinder athletic performance, but also increase the risk of developing heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. Trans fats are found in all animal products.

Carbohydrates 

An athlete’s principal source of fuel comes from carbohydrates. When you eat carbohydrates such as bananas, brown rice, oats, and sweet potatoes, your body breaks them down into glucose to stock them as glycogen in liver and muscle tissue. Glycogen is what fuels muscles. Muscles and liver tissue only store enough glycogen to fuel your body for approximately 90 minutes of intensive exercise, although this can be increased by 25% through carbohydrate loading a week before competitions or intense activities. 

The amount of carbohydrates an athlete needs per day will vary depending on their levels of physical activity, their sport, and other environmental conditions. According to an article published in Sports Med, consuming carbohydrates before training and competition can help delay fatigue and improve endurance capacity. [7]

The healthy forms of carbohydrates include fruits, root vegetables and whole grains which all boost glycogen stores.

Protein 

While protein may not give you fuel for energy the same way carbohydrates do, protein intake is very important for athletes as they play a role in the growth, maintenance, and repair of muscle tissue. 

As an athlete, your body will have different protein demands from the average population, so you will need to consume more than the recommended daily allowance recommendations. Whole proteins that include all of the essential amino acids, the protein building blocks are achieved by consuming whole grains together with legumes. By consuming whole grains with legumes you are not only supplying your muscles with adequate protein, but also increasing your glycogen reserves at the same time. Good sources of protein include quinoa, buckwheat, and all legumes (beans and lentils).

To conclude;

As an athlete, your nutritional needs will vary depending on the sport you participate in. These differences come to play depending on whether you are engaged in high-impact sports or those that demand stamina and endurance. In any case, nutrition is a key factor in determining athletic performance.

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References:   

[1] Barr SI, Costill DL, Fink WJ. Fluid replacement during prolonged exercise: the effects of water, saline or no fluid. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1991;23:811–17. [PubMed]

[2] Below PR, Mora-Rodriguez R, Gonzalez-Alonso J, Coyle EF. Fluid and carbohydrate ingestion independently improve performance during 1 h of intense exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1995;27:200–210. [PubMed]

[3] Caldwell JE, Ahonen E, Nousiainen U. Differential effects of sauna-, diuretic-, and exercise induced hypohydration. J Appl Physiol. 1984;57:1018–23. [PubMed]

[4] Cheuvront SN, Kenefick RW, Montain SJ, Sawka MN. Mechanisms of aerobic performance impairment with heat stress and dehydration. J Appl Physiol. 2010;109:1989–95. [PubMed]

[5] Fallowfield JL, Williams C, Booth J, Choo BH. Effect of water ingestion on endurance capacity during prolonged running. J Sports Sci. 1996;14:497–502. [PubMed]

[6] Biol Sport. 2016 Sep; 33(3): 291–296. Published online 2016 Jul 2. doi: 10.5604/20831862.1208485

[7] Sports Med. 2015; 45(Suppl 1): 13–22. Published online 2015 Nov 9. doi:  10.1007/s40279-015-0399-3

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