Top Nutrition Tips for Athletes
Most of us who jog for an hour, take an aerobics class, or go to the gym don't need to worry about a special diet for athletic performance. The basic guidelines for healthy eating provide all the energy and nutrition we need for our workouts. But if you push yourself hard for 90 minutes or more -- especially if you compete in high-intensity endurance events -- your diet can help you perform at your peak and recover more quickly afterwards. Here are five key tips for athletes to consider:
1. Load Up on Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are an athlete's main fuel. They are converted to glucose, a form of sugar, which is stored in muscles as glycogen. When you exercise, your body converts glycogen into energy. If you exercise for under 90 minutes, the stores of glycogen in your muscles are enough to fuel even high-intensity activity.
"For longer activities, carbohydrate loading for three or four days before an event can help top up your glycogen stores," says Joy Dubost, RD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
- To achieve maximum carbohydrate storage, experts recommend eating a diet that gets about 70% of its calories from carbohydrates, including breads, cereals, pasta, fruit, and vegetables.
- On the day of a big event, you should eat your last meal three to four hours before exercising, to give your stomach time to empty.
- Avoid eating sugary or starchy foods within 30 minutes of starting an activity. The process of metabolizing carbohydrates uses water, which can hasten dehydration.
For activities lasting longer than 90 minutes, it's important to replenish carbohydrates, minerals, and water during exercise. Experts suggest you eat a snack and drink fluid every 15 to 20 minutes. Refined carbohydrates (with sugar or flour) pass quickly into the bloodstream, where they fuel working muscles. Many athletes prefer sports bars, sports drinks, or gels, since they're so convenient. But fruit or fruit juice are also excellent choices.
Replenishing carbohydrates is equally important after intensive exercise. "Since you don't need quick energy, it's best to choose less refined carbohydrates" such as a whole grain bagel or carrot and veggie sticks, which provide both carbohydrates and a rich array of nutrients, says Dubost.
2. Consume Enough -- but Not Too Much -- Protein
Protein does not provide a lot of fuel for energy, but it is important for maintaining muscle tissue.
- The average person needs about 1.2 to 1.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight a day. That's about 88 grams of protein for a 150-pound person.
- A strength athlete may need up to 1.7 grams per kilogram of body weight. That's about 150 grams of protein for a 200-pound athlete.
"Milk is one of the best foods for recovery after an event, because it provides a good balance of protein and carbohydrates," says Dubost. Milk also contains both casein and whey protein. The combination may be particularly helpful for athletes. Research shows that whey protein is absorbed quickly, which can help speed recovery immediately after an event. Casein is digested more slowly, helping to ensure long-term recovery of muscle after a grueling event. Milk also contains calcium, which is important for maintaining strong bones.
Although protein is made up of amino acids, Dubost says there is little evidence that taking specific amino acid supplements offers an advantage. What's more, consuming too much protein can put a strain on your kidneys. Instead of supplements, she suggests eating high-quality protein, such as lean meats, fish, poultry, nuts, eggs, or milk.