Feeding the Athlete
Whether you are an athlete focused on enhancing performance or at the beginning of your fitness journey and trying to maintain enough energy for a workout, planning the right meals will help you meet your goals. It is important to think about what, how much, and when to eat so that you can properly fuel your fitness. Child and teen athletes can usually get adequate nutrients for recreational sports by eating a normal healthy diet with a variety of foods from all food groups each day. If your child or teen participates in competitive endurance sports like running, swimming or are exercising vigorously for 1.5 hours or more per day, it’s important to fuel properly for performance as well as to support normal growth. Persistent weight loss during childhood and adolescence can cause growth stunting. If you are not sure if your child is getting enough calories and nutrients to support growth, consult a dietitian or doctor.
Carbohydrate is an important nutrient for athletes. It is stored as glycogen in the muscle and accessed to fuel the muscle during exercise. When glycogen stores are low, it can feel a bit like running or working out with extra weight. Fatigue sets in much more quickly and performance suffers. Regular daily intake of carbohydrates will fuel most workouts and after school activities. There is no need to carb load for recreational sports. Endurance athletes need to plan to eat extra carbohydrates while training and especially before and after competitions to load and reload glycogen stores. When you're choosing carbs, look for whole-grain foods like whole-wheat pasta, brown rice, whole-grain bread and cereal, and plenty of fruits and vegetables.
Eating enough protein is important for muscle synthesis. During exercise, muscles break down and after exercise the body uses protein to repair and build muscle. If the body runs low on glycogen during exercise, it will break down muscle protein as a back-up fuel. Protein-rich foods include fish, lean meat and poultry, dairy products, beans, nuts, and soy products. The body is primed to absorb animal proteins eaten immediately after exercise and use this to rebuild muscle. Too much protein intake can cause dehydration.
The amount of carbohydrates and protein needed depends on type, intensity and duration of activity as well as the individual’s level of fitness. Personal recommendations are also based on an athlete’s body weight. A dietitian can calculate an athlete’s individual nutrient needs to meet their performance goals. Nutrition needs can vary from day to day depending on the activity, so the United States Olympic Committee Sport Dietitians and the University of Colorado have created the “Athlete’s Plate” graphics below. These are meant to be a fueling guide for light and moderate training as well as hard (competition) days. These are really nice visuals of appropriate plate division that will ensure the athlete will get just right amounts of carbohydrate, protein and fats needed on any given day. On a moderate training day, your athlete should have carbs on about a third of his plate and on hard training days carbs should take up about half of the plate.
Timing is important as well for endurance competitions. In the day preceding a competition, it’s ideal to fill half your plate with grains/carbohydrates and snack on fruits between meals. Include a salty snack. Drink plenty of fluids. A full meal can be eaten up to 3 hours before competition. If you have to eat within 2 -3 hours, eat a smaller balanced meal, (think of a child’s plate). Within 1-2 hours of event, limit to shakes and smoothies, but avoid dairy if you are sensitive. A simple carbohydrate snack 30 minutes before may provide a burst of energy for the event. Keep it simple and easy to digest like Gatorade, fuel gels and energy bars that are meant to fuel workouts.
It is important to begin replenishing lost fluids, carbohydrates and protein immediately after a hard workout or competition. The body is primed to refuel and take these nutrients in within the first 2 hours following a workout. Drink plenty of fluids. Eat a carbohydrate rich snack and include 20 grams of protein to rebuild muscle.
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