If you are an athlete, focusing on nutrition is just as important as training if you want to perform at your best and minimize injuries.
Athletes need the same macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fats) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) as most people, just in different proportions. Depending on the type and amount of training you do, you may need to eat more or less of certain types of foods. Here are 11 general diet tips for athletes.
11 diet tips for athletes
1. Don’t be afraid of carbs
Carbs are your main source of fuel. Carbs require less oxygen than fats to be converted into energy, which is ideal for high-intensity workouts. As a general rule, you should be getting about 6-10 grams of carbs per kilogram of body weight a day. However, loading up on carbs doesn’t mean you should be eating tons of pasta. Opt for complex carbs such as whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and nuts.
2. Eat healthy fats
Fats act as a crucial energy source, particularly when you are doing high endurance workouts (rowing, long-distance swimming, and cycling) that last for over an hour. For ultra-endurance activities that last for 6-10 hours, fats can provide up to 60%-70% of your energy consumption. Experts suggest that at least 20% of your total daily calorie intake should be made up of fats for optimal athletic performance. Adequate fat intake ensures proper absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K).
3. Get enough protein
Although protein provides less energy than fats and carbs, it is essential for muscle building, post-workout recovery, hormone production, and maintenance of healthy bones. Protein requirements for athletes are generally higher than that of the general population. According to the Academy for Nutrition and Dietetics and American College of Sports Medicine:
- Endurance athletes should have between 1.2-1.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight a day.
- Resistance and strength-training athletes should have about 1.2-1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight a day.
4. Stay well hydrated
Drinking plenty of fluids each day is important for everyone, but even more critical for athletes. Vigorous physical activity can increase the risk of dehydration, resulting in muscle cramps, increased risk of injuries, and poor athletic performance.
Athletes should have about 5-7 milliliters of fluids per kilogram of body weight approximately 4 hours before an event. Sipping chilled water or electrolytes during the event can also help offset fluids lost through sweating. Chilled fluids are recommended because they are more easily absorbed than warm fluids, and they help lower core body temperature, which can further ensure optimal athletic performance.
Athletes are also advised to weigh themselves before and after the event to calculate fluid loss, which can be replenished afterwards by drinking about 16-24 ounces of water for every pound lost during the event. Weight gain following an athletic event suggests overhydration, which should be avoided as it can lead to electrolyte imbalances.
5. Consume enough minerals
Minerals such as sodium, calcium, magnesium, iron, and potassium are necessary for proper muscle function, heart function, brain function, oxygen transportation, and blood pressure regulation.
In order to make sure that you are meeting your mineral requirements through your diet, you may need to take supplements or electrolytes. You can make electrolyte drinks at home by adding 6 tablespoons of sugar and ? teaspoons of salt to each quart of water. An alternative is coconut water.
6. Eat plenty of vitamins and antioxidants
Vitamins and antioxidants are essential for healthy muscles, strong bones, energy production, and overall health. Eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, seeds, and nuts in order to meet your daily vitamin and antioxidant needs. Supplements are only required in cases of diagnosed deficiencies and should be taken as prescribed by a doctor.
7. Get enough fiber
Eating enough fiber helps promote optimal cardiovascular health, gut health, and digestion. You can get dietary fiber from whole foods including whole grains, vegetables, and fruits.
8. Limit caffeine intake
Moderate caffeine consumption enhances athletic performance. However, excessive caffeine consumption can lead to lack of sleep, increased urine output and related fluid loss, and disturbed sleep. Keep in mind that caffeine is present not only in coffee or tea but also in sports drinks and energy drinks.
9. Don’t skip your pre-game meal
Studies show that having a meal about 3-4 hours before physical activity improves athletic performance. Depending on the intensity of the workout, this pre-game meal should contain 500-1,000 calories.
In order to avoid indigestion or stomach upset, opt for a starchy, easy-to-digest meal over a high-protein or fat-rich meal to avoid indigestion. Complex carbs can provide you with a sustained fuel reserve for optimal physical performance. If you have less than 2 hours left before a competition or training session, you can consume a liquid meal to avoid any gastrointestinal distress. Make sure to drink plenty of water.
10. Don’t skip your post-game meal
Training or competitions can drain your fuel reserves. Experts recommend consuming a small meal within 30 minutes of finishing your training or game to ensure proper recovery and minimize muscle loss. An ideal post-game meal should contain a mix of carbs, fats, and protein. If eating a proper meal is difficult, you can have a milkshake, protein shake, crackers, or fruit.
11. Beware of ergogenic supplements
Although there are several sports supplements that are touted to enhance athletic performance, scientific evidence is lacking to support most of the claims. Some supplements may contain hormones, steroids, or excessive salt, which can be harmful to your health, especially if you are under age 18. Talk to your doctor before taking supplements or other boosters for athletic performance.
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