Nutrition for athletes is tricky. Often, the sport itself and the level of participation will determine nutritional needs. However, there are general nutritional requirements that you should still follow in order to achieve your primary fitness goals. Breaking it down into three main situations—before, after and in-between sports participation—can help you understand your nutritional requirements better.
What should you eat and drink before engaging in sports?
Pre-workout nutrition allows you to fuel up before participating in any sport. While what you eat is definitely important, when you eat it is as noteworthy as well. The general rule is the closer you are to the activity, the less you should eat because your stomach needs time to digest it properly. It usually takes one to four hours for your stomach to digest everything, depending on the amount you’ve eaten. So if your activity starts early in the morning, eat light and easily digestible foods. Liquid meals, like nutritional shakes, are preferable since your body digests liquids faster.
High carbohydrate foods, vegetables, fruits and light meats like chicken or turkey, and fish should make up your pre-activity nutrition. These foods are easily digestible, but gives you the proper nutrients to help you store glucose, which the body will convert to energy. Here’s a guideline you can follow:
|Time before sports activity
||4 or more hours
|What to eat
||Fresh fruits like oranges, grapes, peaches and apples.
Supplements like energy gels.
|Fresh fruits, breads like bagel, pasta, yoghurt
||Fresh fruits, bread, pasta with tomato sauce, baked potatoes, cereal with milk, yoghurt, bread with lean meat, peanut butter or cheese.
|What to drink
||Up to 1.5 cups of sports drink
Although high fiber foods are definitely healthy, eat a minimal amount before the activity since fiber is digested slowly by the body and may cause stomach discomfort while you play sports. Another reminder, never participate in sports with a full stomach. This can cause cramping, nausea and an upset stomach.
What should you eat and drink after engaging in sports?
Pre-activity meals are about storing energy to fuel your performance. Post meals on the other hand, are about refueling your body, repairing and improving it. Post-activity nutrition can be broken down into three areas: hydration, replenishment and recovery.
Hydration. Your first priority is hydration. All that sweat can leave your body dehydrated. To know how much liquids you will need to replace, weigh yourself before and after the sports activity. Doing so will allow you to know how much fluids you lost. Drink 2.5 to 3 cups of water for every pound you have lost while participating in sports.
Replenishment. Eating within 30 minutes helps you store around three times as much energy. For each pound of body weight lost, you should eat 0.3 to 0.6 grams of carbohydrates after activity. Whole-wheat and high fiber foods are the best kind of carbohydrates. Combine it with protein, like lean meats, fish, and nuts, and vegetables and fruits and your body can easily replenish its lost energy reserves with quality nutrition. The acceptable ratio is 4:1, four grams of carbohydrates to one gram of protein.
Recovery. Protein plays another great part in your body’s recovery phase. Protein supplies the amino acids that help repair and rebuild damaged muscle tissues during the intense or prolonged activity. It also aids in stimulating the immune system, improves muscle hydration, and helps increase water absorption in the intestines. As previously stated, liquid meals are a good option. For this reason, most people get their protein fix by drinking chocolate milk after a workout. If you want a different variety, try adding a medium-sized banana to low-fat milk and make a smoothie so you can also add some much-needed carbohydrates, calcium, potassium and other nutrients.
What should you eat or drink in-between?
In-between refers to two things: eating or drinking during the activity and second, the rest of your waking hours.
Generally, you can get by with water alone during a sporting activity. When you hit the 40-minute mark, however, you start losing nutrients so water can be replaced by a sports drink. If you have been active for 90 minutes or more, then you need to replenish carbohydrates. Since you risk getting an upset stomach by eating while doing an activity, you should eat light and easily digestible foods. A banana or other fruit will suffice or a small amount of smoothie. Some people eat energy bars, but that is usually packed with too much sugar and unhealthy stuff. For a healthier alternative, pack your own trail mix made from almonds, cashews, pistachios, oats and pumpkin or sunflower seeds.
How you eat during the rest of the day also influences sports nutrition. You can’t be healthy before, during and after an activity, and be sloppy during the rest of your waking hours. Continue to eat healthy by packing your diet with fruits, vegetables, lean meats, fish, legumes or nuts, whole wheat foods and drink a substantial amount of water.
Good sports nutrition takes commitment. Commitment that will come easy if you embrace it fully and accept as a way to not just improve your sports performance, but to improve your life as a whole.