When it comes to fueling an athlete, there had been as many approaches as there are sports to play. Several respected bodies have merged philosophies to incorporate and publicize nutritional recommendations that can be adapted to most athletic pursuits. There is much about diet that is common sense, but the habits cultivated from family traditions just might fly in the face of that. Ethnic or regional cuisines may feature foods that upset the balance of both macro- and micro-nutrient intake. There is no doubt that the physiological needs of serious athletes have to be the first consideration in finding and combining the right fuels.
Optimal nutrition is mandatory if an athlete wants to realize his full potential during an event. Not only performance, but also recovery, is enhanced by food intake. A position paper issued jointly by the American Dietetic Association, the Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine, states, “Energy and macronutrient needs, especially carbohydrate and protein, must be met during times of high physical activity to maintain body weight, replenish glycogen stores, and provide adequate protein to build and repair tissue,” continuing that, “Adequate food and fluid should be consumed before, during, and after exercise to help maintain blood glucose concentration during exercise, maximize exercise performance, and improve recovery time. Athletes should be well hydrated before exercise and drink enough fluid during and after exercise to balance fluid losses.” (Rodriguez. 2009)
Your performance will be affected by genetics (over which you have zero control), training (over which you have total control), and diet (ditto). If you fail to consume enough energy, the body will use both fat and lean tissue as fuel. Strength and endurance will then suffer, and the immune system and endocrine glands will pay a stiff price. If you’re trying to lose weight, you still have to pay attention to energy intake. It takes calories to burn calories. This is especially true for women, who may experience amenorrhea and osteoporosis if they aren’t careful.
You can store about 400 to 600 grams of carbohydrates, or 1600 to 2400 calories’ worth. These glycogen stores can be burned in 1 ½ to 2 hours, after which fat is mobilized and you “hit the wall.” You don’t want to get more than about 60 grams of carbohydrates (CHO) an hour while in a marathon, for example, or you might cramp, but your daily intake could be 5-7 grams per kilogram a day (about 3 grams per pound) for moderate exercise that lasts less than 1 ½ hours. For more intense exercise, like that marathon or a cycling event, that lasts more than a couple hours, you’ll need 8-12 grams of CHO a day per kilogram of body weight. Do this prior to, not during, an event. (Burke. 2011) You might as well convert your body weight to kilograms now. Divide pounds by 2.2 and you’ll have it.
Eating before an event will enhance performance compared to fasting. Common sense says to eat lesser amounts an hour before an event than you would eat four hours ahead of a strenuous workout. Traditional wisdom says that consuming up to 1 gram of CHO per kg is fine one hour before the start; Consuming 4.5 gm/kg is O.K. four hours before. Take it easy on the fiber and fat, though, or you might experience GI distress. During practice sessions is the time to experiment with different foods to come up with effective refueling strategies that fit you.
Protein intake depends on the type and duration of exercise. 0.8 gm/kg/day is fine for the general public, but you’ll probably need more. An endurance athlete will need 1.2-1.4 gm/kg/day, while a weight lifter needs up to 1.7 gm/kg/day. More than 2.0 mg/kg can tax the kidneys and won’t make much physiological difference. It’s important to get protein right after exercise. There’s a 15 minute to 2-hour window during which muscle balance can be increased and muscle tissue can be repaired. Protein supplements are nothing more than a convenience. Besides, such supplements can become delivery systems for things you neither want nor need, like steroids and other illicit substances.
At the end of your performance you need to refill your buckets. That’s called recovery. Adding protein to your carbohydrate intake at a ratio of 3:1 or 4:1, CHO:Pro, can enhance recovery. (Ivy. 2001) We know of a few marathoners who eat tuna sandwiches with chocolate milk. You might opt for a bowl of Cheerios and a banana, or a yogurt-fruit smoothie and pretzels. Listen to your body. You might end with steak and potatoes. Lemon meringue pie, and carrot cake, and oatmeal cookies, and… Dream on….PSST, you can do without the sugar.
*These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA.
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