By Lauren Matheson
For competitive athletes who engage in intense workouts on a consistent basis, nutrition may be just as important as physical training, coaches and nutrition experts say. The athlete will be leaner, stronger and able to move faster.
“Proper nutrition leads to better performance,” said Jurgen Klinsmann, head coach of the U.S. men’s soccer team, in a USSoccer.com report. He said he encourages his athletes to use their eating habits to better their chances of success on the field.
Athletes expect more out of their bodies and this can be physically and mentally tolling.
Hydration is the most important ingredient for an athlete to perform at her best, said Alene Baronian, a Bay Area dietitian and founder of Eat 2 Perform.
“Hydration is something that has to be happening all the time,” she said. “If you have a headache or feel fatigued, you are already dehydrated and it can have a negative affect on your performance.”
Baronian suggested that athletes hydrate 24 hours to two days before their competition, especially if they are participating in endurance sports. They should stay hydrated throughout exercise and competition, as well as during recovery.
Athletes lose electrolytes such as sodium potassium, iron, calcium and chloride during training and competition. Sometimes water isn’t enough to replace these minerals, Baronian said, and suggested that hydrating with sports drinks can be beneficial as well.
The mother of soccer-playing sons, Baronian said, “I like Gatorade because it is convenient and easy.” She said that incorporating the right liquids in an athlete’s diet will put him at an advantage when it comes time to compete.
Dr. Fran Curaming, a Bay Area chiropractor, said that heavy training produces an inflammatory response in the body that can lead to small injuries from the tearing of muscular fibers. “The inflammation is then repeated over time causing pain, which can lead to a dysfunction in movement,” said Curaming. An anti-inflammatory diet, she said, helps promote optimal recovery by reducing the pain and swelling.
According to a position statement by the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), studies have begun to support pre-exercise ingestion of carbohydrates, fats, protein and creatine to enhance exercise training and decrease exercise-associated muscle damage. Each nutrient provides a specific benefit.
Carbohydrates are the primary fuel for athletes. “It provides the athlete’s body with energy much like gasoline does for a car,” said Jack Bither, nutrition specialist and owner of Max Muscle Sports Nutrition in Cupertino.
There are two kinds of carbohydrates: complex, which take longer to digest, but help sustain energy for hours; and simple, which digest quickly, providing short amounts of energy. Complex carbohydrates can be found in foods such as whole-grain breads, potatoes, rice, cereal and pastas and should be consumed no later than 3-4 hours prior to competition. Simple carbohydrates, such as white bread, fruits, milk, honey and sugar, can be taken during competition in small amounts if an athlete is feeling low on energy.
Although the word “fat” is daunting, it actually serves a very crucial role within our bodies. Fats regulate hormones that contribute to thousands of internal functions. The key for athletes who need to eat fats is to minimize them, and to use healthy fats like lean chicken and salmon when possible.
Proteins help build lean muscle. Athletes should consume protein four to six times throughout the day to maintain a healthy level.
Creatine is an organic acid that supplies energy to all of the cells in the body, especially to the muscles. Creatine can help prevent injuries when taken in proper doses, according to a report by the ISSN, which said the supplement can increase capacity for high-intensity exercise and improve lean body mass.
When recovering from an intense workout, it is essential to get nutrients back into the body within 30 minutes to an hour.
“After a workout, your muscles are like a frayed rope and it takes nutrients to rebuild the rope and make it stronger,” Bither explains to his customers. He says that nutrients repair the broken-down muscle fibers, making them more resilient and stronger, and capable of more explosive movement.
Athletes may want to consider supplements to help them reach their nutritional needs. Since athletes tend to burn more calories than they normally take in, supplements also can ensure that the athlete gets the right amount of calories to stay energized throughout the day.
Athletes must find their own balance of food and nutrition, one that works for their own body and sport. By following a nutritious diet program, many specialists agree, athletes will get the most out of their training.
Nutrition is one way for athletes to “go the extra mile,” as Jurgen Klinsmann put it, in order to get the full results they want.
Lauren Matheson is a student at Santa Clara University. She produced this piece as part of a journalism class taught by Sally Lehrman and as part of a collaborative project with Patch on science in Silicon Valley.