Eat Right, And You’ll Run Tight

What do these professional athletes have in common–football and baseball players, tennis stars, Olympic gymnasts, marathon runners, just to name a few? All have used the expertise of sports nutritionists to enhance their competitive edge. You too can take advantage of the same techniques to improve your performance, whether it’s in a highly competitive team sport or an activity you enjoy just for fun and exercise.

Start with a healthy eating plan based on the Food Guide Pyramid. The physical demands of routine training mean you need plenty of nutritious foods for energy and to supply the protein, vitamins, and minerals needed for optimal performance. Olympic athletes can burn as many as 4,000 to 6,000 calories a day during training. The average daily intake for 13- to 1 8-year-olds is 2,200 to 2,500 calories. If you’re active in sports, you may need an additional 500 to 1,500 calories a day. Your extra calories, just like those for adult athletes, should also come from healthful foods.

Carbs = Energy

Carbohydrates are the body’s fuel. Forget the myth about carbohydrates being fattening: It’s just not true. Carbohydrates are the foundation of the athlete’s diet–just as they are the foundation of the Food Guide Pyramid. Active people need lots of carbohydrates to provide fuel for working muscles. Your brain also depends on a steady supply of carbohydrates, in the form of glucose, to keep functioning effectively. What does this have to do with performance? Plenty! A steady supply of glucose to the brain is essential for the quick reflexes and optimal alertness required for top athletic performance.

Fruit, milk, and yogurt are additional sources of carbohydrates. Lactose in milk and fructose in fruit are both simple sugars that the body can use for energy. And don’t forget about some of your favorite starchy vegetables such as corn and potatoes. They are packed with complex carbohydrates–more fuel for active bodies.

Our bodies are able to store only a limited amount of carbohydrates in the form of glucose and glycogen. The average adult has enough stored carbohydrates to meet the energy demands of just sifting around for about half a day. This comes as no surprise to those who have skipped breakfast and lunch and by late find they are lethargic, hungry, and unable to concentrate. The body and brain have run out of fuel.

One of the benefits of training is the increase in the amount of glycogen stored in muscles. Well-trained muscles have the ability to store about 20 percent to 50 percent more glycogen than untrained muscles. The result is improved endurance.

The Protein Myth

There’s a popular myth that you have to eat a high-protein diet to build muscles. It is true that your body uses protein to make muscle tissue. But eating extra protein will not make your muscles bigger or stronger. Sports and nutrition experts agree that only training combined with a healthy diet produces better muscles. Don’t waste your money on protein powders and amino acid supplements. They won’t make your muscles bigger either, regardless of what you may hear in the gym.

You can easily meet your protein requirement by including three servings of milk, yogurt, or cheese and 5 to 7 ounces of lean meat, poultry, or fish or a meat alternative such as peanut butter, beans, or eggs.

Pre-Event Foods

What you eat before a practice or event can affect how you feel while exercising. Many athletes don’t feel good exercising on a full stomach. Keep in mind that high-fat and high-protein foods take longer to digest than carbohydrate foods. Eating them even a few hours before exercising may cause an upset stomach.

To have a relatively empty stomach while exercising, eat a light meal or snack one to four hours before a practice or competition. Make it high in carbohydrates that digest quickly and provide energy. Avoid simple carbohydrates like candy and soft drinks just before exercising. Sugar gives a quick boost that soon leads to an energy slump.

Post-event Eating

Replenishing fluids and energy after exercising is just as important as the pre-event meal. A high-carbohydrate meal about two hours after a practice or event helps restore energy reserves. Here’s an example of a post-event high-carbohydrate meal.

Pasta with Meat Sauce French Bread Fresh or Canned Fruit Frozen Yogurt Low-fat Milk

Drink to Compete

Fluids are an extremely important part of an athlete’s diet. Working muscles produce heat, the body sweats, evaporating sweat cools the body. If the lost water is not replaced, the body becomes dehydrated. Dehydration can lead to muscle cramps and heat exhaustion. To prevent dehydration, drink water before, during, and after exercise. Thirst is not always a reliable guide, so follow this schedule to make sure you get enough water. (During hot weather or when wearing heavy protective gear, you will need to add extra water.

1 to 2 hours before practice or event-10 to 14 ounces of cold water

10 to 15 minutes before practice or event–10 ounces cold water

Every 15 minutes during exercise–3 to 4 ounces cold water

After exercise–16 ounces cold water

Why cold water? It is absorbed more quickly and helps cool the body.

Sports Drinks

Sports drinks were developed as a source of fluids and carbohydrates for endurance athletes. These drinks are useful to athletes during events lasting 90 minutes or more. Long-distance runners and cyclists use sports drinks or their own homemade versions to maintain energy and fluid levels. You can make a sports drink substitute by mixing 1 cup fruit juice with 1 cup water.

Soft drinks and full-strength fruit juice should not be used during exercise. The high-carbohydrate content can cause stomach cramps. But they may be used as a fluid and carbohydrate replacement following exercise. Water is still the best choice before, during, and after exercise. If water is not readily available to you, add a water bottle to your sports bag. Consider it required equipment for practice and events. Remember, the key ingredients for optimal performance in any sport or competition are energy in the form of carbohydrates and water to prevent dehydration. Combine these with proper training, and you will be prepared for the challenges of your chosen sport.

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