by Maria Breen, MS, RD, LD – sports nutritionist, University of Georgia
As a child athlete, I thought that sports nutrition could be summed up with two words: Pasta Dinner.
In my mind, loading up on carbs the night before a game equaled energy. While my thoughts were not totally off base, I now recognize there is so much more to sports nutrition than a plate of spaghetti. One of the fastest-growing areas within professional and college athletic programs is sports nutrition. As the sports nutritionist at UGA, my role is to educate athletes about what they should eat to provide them with energy to get through long days of training, practices, and classes.
Athletes of any level can benefit from a healthy diet and proper hydration. Eating a well-balanced diet is particularly important for adolescent athletes, because the foods they consume influence their growth and maturation in addition to their sports performance.
There is no set nutrition prescription for athletes. Too often, athletes seek out a ‘magic bullet’ nutrition plan or supplement. While real food may be far less glitzy than supplements, consuming the right types of food at the right time is a highly effective performance enhancer and good for overall well-being.
A well-balanced diet for athletes is the same as one for all individuals. It should include all the major food groups: grains, fruits, vegetables, proteins, dairy, and fats:
Carbohydrates or ‘carbs’ – whole grain bread and cereals, starchy vegetables, and fruit – should be the base of an athlete’s diet. Carbs provide energy for our muscles to perform work.
Protein should be a priority. It aids in muscle recovery and repair.
Fruits and vegetables should be a staple component in the diet. They are a major source of vitamins, minerals, and immune-enhancing nutrients.
Timing your meals and snacks is also an important sports nutrition concept. Athletes should eat three solid meals and two to three snacks every day. As a general rule, it is never a good idea to enter into exercise either ‘starving’ or ‘stuffed.’ Breakfast should be eaten within one hour of waking, another meal about two to four hours before practice, and the last meal should follow a workout. The post-exercise meal functions as recovery, and should be eaten within 30 minutes of completion of practice or a workout. If athletes cannot get a meal immediately following exercise, it is good to consume a recovery snack. This could be something as easy as drinking a glass of low-fat chocolate milk in the locker room after practice, or packing a PB&J sandwich for the carpool home from the fields.
In addition to eating healthfully, athletes should be mindful of their hydration. Low-fat milk, 100% fruit juice, or water should be consumed with meals. Carrying a water bottle around during the day encourages additional hydration. During practice or competition either water or sports drinks are recommended.
During competition, many variables are out of control of an athlete; however, nutrition is one area that is not. Whether your athletic goals are for competition or recreational exercising, sports nutrition can help you perform at your best. You cannot out-train poor nutrition, so fuel up to win.
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