The common expression “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” certainly describes the benefit of fruit as part of a healthy diet. For athletes, healthy eating, particularly just prior to competition, is essential for peak performance.
“If an athlete has a morning competition, the meal eaten the night before should be well balanced and something commonly eaten,” said sports dietitian Brett Singer, RD, LD, of the Memorial Hermann IRONMAN Sports Medicine Institute. “While carbohydrates are important, ‘carb loading’ is not necessary. A meal of grains, starchy vegetables or fruits should suffice.”
Carbohydrates serve a key role in providing energy to fuel muscles and the central nervous system. Complex carbohydrates are found in pasta, potatoes, cereals and whole grains. Simple carbohydrates are found in fruits, milk, sugar and honey.
During digestion, carbohydrates break down into glucose, traveling through the bloodstream to various tissues and organs, including the muscles and brain. If the body doesn’t need glucose, it is stored in the muscles or liver as glycogen.
When exercising, glycogen is broken down and utilized for energy. Yet, the body is capable of storing only a limited amount of carbohydrates in the muscles. That’s why tournaments require careful nutritional planning.
“With a tournament, the emphasis should be on nutrition the night before, the morning of and between games,” said Singer. “If you’ve got three to four hours before the start of the event, you can have more protein and fat. If you only have one to two hours, you may feel more comfortable limiting fiber, fat and protein, which slows digestion.”
Singer recommends limiting protein to 10 to 20 grams at each meal.
“There’s too much emphasis on protein and too little emphasis on carbohydrates, especially with soccer, swimming and endurance sports,” said Singer. “When exercising, only about 1 to 2 percent of energy comes from protein.”
For a pre-game breakfast, consumed three to four hours before starting play one egg, two slices of toast with jelly, fruit, and a sports drink provide about 15 grams of protein and 120 grams of carbohydrates. Eating anything heavier could mean the food is still digesting when the game starts, leading to loss of energy or even stomach discomfort.
After a game or practice, normal dietary intake is sufficient for recovery. However, if an athlete has an event within 24 hours, it is important to refuel within 30 to 60 minutes after exertion, starting with a sports drink. One to two hours later, eat a small recovery meal such as a sandwich, a large bagel with jelly, or fruit and yogurt.
“Cells and muscles are more welcoming of glycogen immediately after exercise, helping replenish muscle glycogen,” said Singer. “Make sure the food is easily digestible, though, so you can perform at the next event.”
If time is limited between events, sports drinks may be the best option for refueling. If the next game is three to four hours away, a more substantial meal like a foot-long submarine sandwich, a large banana, a 20-ounce sports drink and another small piece of food is suitable.
“Usually the rule of thumb is that if you’re two hours or more away from an event you can have 1 gram of carbohydrates per pound of body weight,” said Singer.
The Institute offers a comprehensive suite of nutrition-based testing and counseling services to provide athletes with a competitive edge. One test is the Calories Per Hour Running or Cycling. During this test, athletes learn how many calories they consume per hour and the source – carbohydrates or fat.
“Sometimes the ‘ah-ha’ moment for athletes is seeing that they’re burning a lot of carbohydrates,” said Singer.
Another test measures the amount of calories burned at rest, which helps guide nutrition plans. And the VO2 max test measures peak oxygen usage at maximum exercise level.
When providing nutritional counseling, Singer considers each athlete’s performance goals. For example, football players might want to add muscle mass during the off-season to prepare for varsity play. Cross-country runners and swimmers might want more energy to go the distance.
“You can train as much as you want, but if you eat poorly, you won’t be able to perform at your maximum,” said Singer. “I want to make sure I give my athletes every opportunity to perform at their best.”
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