Every athlete wants to perform at his or her best. That’s why we practice so often and train so hard. We know that if we put in the right type and amount of work, we will see the results on the field. A very critical component of athletic success is proper nutrition. Nutrition is important for general health and well being and can greatly effect an athlete’s performance through its influence on energy, recovery and achieving proper body composition and/or weight.
In order to perform your best you need to be able to train at the highest level possible. This requires maximizing both your energy and recovery. Having your body properly fueled, not only pre and post practice or workout, but all throughout the day can make a huge difference. Having maximum energy lets you train as hard as possible over an extended period of time. Providing your body with the quality nutrients it needs to recover allows you to maintain this high level of effort from one practice to the next so that you can reach your performance peak. The end result is that you are in the best shape possible and can last longer and recover faster during a game or competition than your opponent. Even if they are more skilled than you, if you have the ability to out work them because you are in better shape, you will win! This is what following the principles of good nutrition year round can do for an athlete.
The six elements of foods are; protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals and water. All of these are very important to athletes although in varying amounts. Ideally, athletes should consume 4-6 evenly spaced meals throughout the day consisting of 4-6 servings of protein, 3-5 servings of complex carbohydrates and 2-3 servings of healthy fats. These amounts can vary based on goals, current weight, gender, athletic endeavor, etc. But it is important to have a basic understanding of the different food elements and how they effect your body and performance.
Protein (chains of amino acids) is what the muscles are made of and an adequate protein intake is necessary for the growth, maintenance and repair of muscle tissue. High quality protein foods include egg whites and whole eggs, chicken, turkey, lean cuts of meat, fish, and quality dairy such as Greek yogurt and low fat milk products. Every single meal should contain a serving of protein as it needs to be consumed throughout the day.
Carbohydrates often get a bad rap but for hard working athletes are of tremendous importance. Most athletes should consume the majority of their calories from high quality complex carbohydrates and fruits. For a sport like football for example which utilizes a lot of anaerobic type energy- short burst of activity consisting of 10-30 seconds of max effort, followed by a recovery period- a diet consisting of 55-65 percent carbohydrates is ideal. Some good sources of quality carbohydrates for sustained energy would include starchy carbs like oatmeal, potatoes, brown rice, whole grain breads and pastas, beans and lentils, a variety of fruits, and fibrous vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, asparagus, squash, etc. Stay away from sugary or processed carbs like cakes, cookies, sodas, pastries, etc. as these will cause unwanted energy fluctuations, limit the ability to consume higher quality foods, plus can easily lead to unwanted fat storage.
Fats are needed for energy, nutrient absorption, hormone production and overall caloric balance. Eating good healthy fats will not make you fat and should make up at least 15-20 percent of the daily calories for most athletes. Good sources of fats for athletes would include, nuts like almonds, walnuts, and cashews, avocado, hard cheeses, extra virgin olive oil, flax seed oil, coconut oil, fatty fish like salmon, peanut and almond butter, etc. Since fats are a very concentrated source of calories it is easy to over-consume them. Two to three servings of healthy fats in addition to what naturally occurs in other quality food choices should be sufficient.
Vitamins and minerals are nutrients the body needs in minute amounts that contribute to a number of positive body functions related to metabolism, proper cellular function and energy production among other things. Although they are often taken in supplemental form, it is important to consume a wide variety of nutritious foods to get as many as possible in their natural and balanced state.
Of all the nutrients that can contribute to athletic success, water may be the most overlooked and important. The body is about 70 percent water and a dehydrated body simply won’t function properly in terms of power output, recovery, energy production and maximum performance. Athletes must take care to stay properly hydrated throughout the day and especially during times of increased physical output such as during practice and games. Start hydrating with extra fluids 1-2 hours before your athletic event and continue to consume fluids at regular intervals (15-20 minutes) throughout the duration of your activity. The amount will take some experimentation and can vary depending on the sport, temperature and overall activity level but consuming 6-8 ounces every 15-20 minutes is a general recommendation. If you allow yourself to become dehydrated to the point of cramping during a practice or game, it is extremely difficult and unlikely to be able to continue without a recovery period. After an event, athletes must take care to replace lost bodyweight due to fluids before their next athletic session. Fluids should be consumed at a rate of 1 pint for every pound of lost body weight before the next workout or practice. While sports drinks can have their place for endurance athletes, good old fashioned water is often all you need.
One important aspect for every young athlete to remember is that there are two sides to nutrition. Not only must you strive to give your body the best possible foods and nutrients, you must always take care not to do it harm. Nutrition is also about not giving your body anything that is bad for it and will have a negative effect on your performance and even your life. Your body does not need and should not be given cigarettes, alcohol, drugs or any substances that can harm you physically, mentally, and/or emotionally. As an athlete you are in a special club and the membership to remain in this club is disciple, dedication and commitment. Your teammates, coaches, parents, classmates and friends are all counting on you to give your best efforts and become all that you are capable of being. You have sacrificed a lot to get to this point and many others have sacrificed for you to have every opportunity possible. You owe it to them and to yourself to always give your best effort. Following proper nutrition principles and maintaining maximum health will help contribute to your individual success and the overall success of your team.