By Nancy Clark
From J Exerc Sci Fit, Vol 6, No 2, 130–134, 2008
Nutrition should be an integral part of an athlete’s training program. Yet, in the United States, American athletes and fitness exercisers alike commonly report that they do not eat as well as they should; they admit that nutrition is their missing link. Consequently, they may fail to attain the most benefits from their training programs and their competitive efforts.
The purpose of this paper is to highlight the sports nutrition errors commonly made by American athletes who live in a culture where food is considered “fattening”, eating-on-the-run is the norm, and fast foods are a common alternative to home-cooked meals. Given the rapidly changing food culture in China, this information may help Chinese athletes avoid making the same nutritional mistakes.
Missing Link #1: Respect for the Power of a Proper Sports Diet
“Too many athletes show up for training but they don’t show up for meals. They might as well not show up for training.” These words, spoken by a successful collegiate ice hockey coach, are true indeed. Instead of rushing to training sessions and competitions only to show up poorly fueled, busy athletes would be better off taking a few minutes from their training time to fuel properly and be able to perform better.
Solution: Educate and repeatedly remind athletes about the benefits associated with optimal fueling pat- terns, so they understand that eating a proper sports diet will help them reach their performance goals.
Missing Link #2: Sufficient Calories During the Active Part of the Day
The same athletes who show up underfueled for training are generally the ones who undereat nourishing meals during the daytime, only to overeat sweets and treats with little nutritional value in the evening. This pattern fails to support an optimal sports diet and long-term health. Two reasons why athletes undereat during the active part of their day include:
(1) They are “too busy” to eat. Wrong. If they can find time to train, they can also find time to fuel for training.
(2) They want to lose undesired body fat.
To do so, they restrict their calorie intake at breakfast and lunch. Given that the vast majority of female athletes wants to lose about 2.5kg (5lb), calorie restriction is com- mon. In a survey of 425 female collegiate athletes, 43% of the women reported feeling terrified of be- coming overweight, and 22% were extremely preoccupied with food and weight (Beals & Manore 2000). This fear that “food is fattening” certainly deters many weight-conscious athletes from eating optimally.
Solution: Weight-conscious athletes should pay attention to when they eat. The best time to eat is during the active part of the day, so they will have the energy needed to exercise hard. Increased daytime calories reduces the evening appetite, and this can help weight- conscious athletes consume 10–20% fewer calories at the end of the day. They end up losing weight when they are sleeping, instead of when they are trying to train hard.
Missing Link #3: Equal-sized and Regularly Scheduled Meals
Too many American athletes eat in a crescendo, with the biggest meal in the evening. The better plan is to divide their calories evenly throughout the day, eating every 4 hours, so the athletes are always in the process of fueling-up or refueling.
Solution: A sports dietitian can help athletes create a food plan for a balanced sports diet with the appro- priate amount of calories at each meal. For example, a 2400-calorie fueling plan for an active woman (or a dieting man) who trains after work might look like this:
The first three meals provide the energy needed for a strong workout. The last meal provides the nutrients needed to recover from the workout.
Missing Link #4: Beneficial Amount of Dietary Fat
Some athletes eat too much (>35%) of calories from fat, such as butter, oil, salad dressing and fried foods. The fat displaces the carbohydrates needed to optimally fuel muscles and replenish depleted glycogen stores. The athlete who eats a plate filled with fried chicken for dinner is not carbohydrate-loading on rice, potato or pasta! His performance can suffer due to glycogen-depleted muscles.
Other athletes eat too little fat (<20%of>
Missing Link #5: Pre-exercise Fuel
Athletes who believe they have “no time” to eat before their workout need to think again. Eating 100–300 calories of a pre-exercise snack even 5 minutes prior to exercise enhances performance, assuming that:
(1) the athletes will be exercising at a pace they can maintain for more than 30 minutes and
(2) they can tolerate pre-exercise food. In one study, the subjects ate dinner and then the next morning exercised to exhaustion. They were able to exercise for only 109 minutes with no breakfast, but for 136 minutes with 400 calories of breakfast. That’s a 20% improvement (Schabort et al 1999)!
In another study, athletes biked hard for 45 minutes, and then sprinted as hard as they could for 15 minutes. When they ate a 180- or 270-calorie snack just 5 minutes before they exercised, they improved 10% in the last 15 minutes. They improved 20%when they had first eaten a meal 4 hours prior to the exercise, and then enjoyed the snack 5 minutes pre-exercise (Neufer et al. 1987). That is a significant improvement!
Another study looked at the importance of pre- exercise water and carbohydrates for exercise that lasted less than an hour. The athletes ate no breakfast, biked hard for 50 minutes and then sprinted for 10 minutes to the finish. They were able to: sprint 6%harder when they consumed adequate water versus minimal water; sprint 6%harder with adequate carbohydrates versus no carbohydrates and minimal water; and sprint 12%harder with a sports drink (adequate carbohydrates plus water) (Below et al. 1995). Fueling appropriately certainly enhances performance!
Solution: Athletes need to train their intestinal tracts to be able to tolerate pre-exercise food. They also need to plan their sports diet to accommodate their training. For example: athletes who exercise in the morning can plan to eat part of their breakfast (such as a banana) before the workout, and then afterwards refuel with the rest of their breakfast (such as a bagel and a yogurt); athletes who exercise at lunch could eat part of their lunch (half a sandwich) before the workout and then enjoy the rest of the lunch afterwards; for afternoon or after work sessions, athletes could eat a granola bar or some pretzels pre-exercise, and then refuel with chocolate milk.
Missing Link #6: Optimal Protein Intake
Some athletes eat too much protein (>2g/kg); others eat too little (<>