While food is what we eat, nutrition is what we need. Although the nutrition requirements vary according to the event in which the athlete participates, there are certain general guidelines regarding the diet of athletes. A healthy diet includes the following elements.
Carbohydrates are the chief providers (about 50%) of energy during the early stages of a medium level exercise, and when the exercise is of a short duration (about 1 to 1.5 hours). Carbohydrates provide more energy, for the same amount of oxygen consumed, as compared to fats. Oxygen is obtained from inhaled air; thus burning of carbohydrates results in less exhaustion. Carbohydrates are available in honey, fruit, milk, cereals, potatoes, lasagna, other grain products, and sugar.
Fats are the main energy providers during long duration exercises; free fatty acids supply half of the energy expended during moderate exercise (the other half being provided by carbohydrates). Fats are a concentrated source of energy and their use in providing energy helps avoid the use of protein for the same purpose. This is useful since protein is required for the growth of tissues.
Proteins are the building blocks of the body, and perform the task of building and repairing tissue and muscles. They, along with carbohydrates and fats, provide energy and play a significant role in strengthening the immune system. The intake of proteins may have to be increased for an athlete. However, excessive intake of proteins results in increased water requirement for eliminating nitrogen through urine, thus leading to dehydration. Extra protein intake also results in a higher metabolic rate that requires more oxygen.
Minerals are an important constituent of an athlete’s diet. Potassium is one of the essential minerals that regulates muscle activity. Potassium-rich foods like oranges, bananas, and potatoes provide enough quantity of the mineral. However, excessive intake leads to hyperkalemia, thereby causing muscle weakness and palpitations.
Iron is required for the formation of hemoglobin and therefore in carrying oxygen. It is contained in meat, poultry, fish, and some vegetarian diets as well. Excessive intake of iron can lead to constipation. Calcium is essential for building strong teeth and bones, and zinc is required for normal growth and for energy production in muscle cells. Dairy products are a good source of calcium. A normal diet is enough to replenish the loss of sodium due to sweating. Excessive sodium intake should be avoided.
Vitamins assist in better absorption of iron and play an important role in the metabolism of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. Fruits and vegetables in general, contain vitamins. Fibers keep the bowels regular and reduce blood cholesterol. Vitamins act as antioxidants, thereby preventing cell damage. Athletes are more vulnerable to cell damage as they inhale more oxygen.
And last but not the least, water. Water levels directly affect fluidity of blood which transports nutrients, and therefore energy, inside the body. It also regulates the body temperature. Low temperature fluids should be preferred as a source of water as they are absorbed quickly. It is better to consume water at regular intervals during the day and not wait until the thirst makes itself felt, because by then, the athlete is exhausted. This is in addition to the ad hoc consumption during exercise.
Apart from the nutritional requirements, certain dietary practices are of great help. To start the day on a high metabolism and keep the hunger in check, it’s necessary to have a healthy and adequate breakfast. Ideally, five meals should be eaten daily. This spreads out the intake, helps digestion, and keeps the energy levels high. Post-exercise meals aid in quick recovery of lost energy. Also, it is advisable to stay away from canned and fried foods.
Proper nutrition goes a long way in determining the output potential of an athlete. It’s one of the most important factors that will determine his or her success story.