Athletes focus much of their effort on physical training and honing their skills on the field. Countless hours of thought and practice are put in to improve and master their sport. However, most don’t put the same energy into their nutrition routine. I see an awful lot of candy wrappers and empty chip bags on the sidelines and in the gyms. Obviously, these choices aren’t ideal for optimizing health and performance. By following basic nutrition guidelines, athletes can ensure that they are at their best before, during, and after activity.
The amount of energy, or calories, an athlete should consume is dependent on his or her gender, height, weight, and activity level. So making broad recommendations is difficult. Most teenagers and adults burn about 1400 calories a day just going about their routine at school and work. So athletes need more than that to cover the energy used during practices and games. Consult with your doctor or a sports dietician to determine your proper calorie needs.
Carbohydrates are essential for peak athletic performance, as the body uses this nutrient more efficiently during exercise than fats and protein. The best recommendation is to eat 1 to 4 grams of carbohydrate per Kg of body weight one to four hours before exercise (1 Kg = 2.2 pounds). A longer-lasting carbohydrate combined with a protein is a good choice. This could be something like peanut butter on whole-wheat toast. For endurance training (7-10g/kg/day) and high intensity activities (5-8 g/kg/day), the recommendations change a bit.
For protein, the advice again depends on the individual athlete. More protein is required for athletes in critical growth periods or around puberty. But a good rule of thumb for daily dietary protein intake is 1.2 to 1.7 g/kg/day.
Fat has a bad reputation among athletes, but it serves several important functions. It’s a source of more energy when the carbohydrate stores run low. Fats provide essential fatty acids the body can’t make on its own and helps to absorb certain vitamins. So fat isn’t evil—it’s helpful! 20 to 35% of total calories should come from fat, with less than 10% from saturated fat sources.
Carbohydrates are key during exercise, especially glucose and electrolytes. For longer lasting activities (more than one hour), try to consume an additional 30-60 grams of carbohydrates.
Recovery requires carbs, ideally within 15-30 minutes after the activity. The body’s cells are especially receptive to glucose absorption during this period. 1-1.5 g/kg of rapid-acting carbohydrate is recommended immediately after exercise. Or, take in a ratio of 4 g or carbohydrate to 1 g of protein. Lowfat chocolate milk is a tasty choice that fits the bill. After 30 minutes, focus on a good balance of the three nutrients (carbs, protein, and fat) for your next meal.
As you can see, a little bit of planning can go a long way toward making sure an athlete is making healthy choices and performing at his or her best with enough of the right kind of gas in the tank. Good nutrition can help keep you performing at your best and keep you from running out of energy at the wrong time.