A normal diet asks for about 1 gram/lb of body weight of CHO to be healthy; however athletes need more. Endurance and high intensity athletes (such as soccer, field hockey, lacrosse, basketball, tennis, volleyball, track) require 3-4 g/lb of body weight of CHO. This is because the sugar made by carbohydrates is an athlete’s primary energy source and is responsible for muscle contraction. Glycogen is created through these carbohydrates for storage and read-to-use energy. Due to athletes being in such high demand for CHO, carbohydrate intake should be about 55-65% of daily intake, as opposed to 45-65% for the average person.
Eating enough carbohydrates before working out or competition can avoid muscle fatigue, therefore ensuring optimal performance. It is also important to replenish any glycogen stores fully that may be depleted. If there are not enough carbohydrates before exercise, muscles are broken down and cannot perform as needed, in return, putting stress on the kidneys and they will not be able to filter out the toxins produced from protein breakdown. To avoid this from happening, types of carbohydrates and timing of intake are important. A large carbohydrate meal 3-4 hours before competition/exercise containing about 150-300 grams (600-1200 calories) is needed. For examples of meals and snacks, refer back to the pregame guide posted above. A smaller carbohydrate snack should be eaten 1-2 hours before. A liquid CHO drink, such as Gatorade, can be helpful during exercise to keep the glycogen stores full.
While eating the right amount of CHO before is important for fuel, eating the right amount after is just as important. Due to the glycogen stores being used up, meals having a 4:1 ratio of carbohydrate: protein is the most efficient way to replace almost 100% of glycogen and lost nutrients faster. It is important to eat as soon as possible within the first 2 hours after exercise. The quicker you eat, the less time your body is breaking down muscles and glycogen stores and the faster the muscles are able to build and replace glycogen stores so they are ready for the next exercise. This time after exercise, the body acts like a sponge and can absorb the nutrients quickly. Studies show that waiting longer than two hours can decrease glycogen storage, which decreases recovery time and the ability to perform again within a short period of time.
The current recommendation for protein is .8g/kg/day. Like carbohydrates, these needs go up for athletes. Endurance or high intensity athletes need 1.2-1.4g/kg/day due to some being burned in the muscle. Strength athletes need 1.5-1.7g/kg/day to increase muscle weight. This increase is due to the rapid breakdown of muscle protein during exercise. Protein isn’t normally stored in the body, so consuming the right amount per day is important for repairing and rebuilding muscle. Protein after working out is just as important because, as shown in the carbohydrate section, protein and carbohydrate combined together within two hours after exercise result in maximum recovery.
Many athletes have been known to over consume protein, some up to 2.0 g/kg/day. A big misconception is that eating more protein can help gain more muscle. Unfortunately this is not true and can be very dangerous. When more protein is ingested than what the body needs, nitrogen, created during protein breakdown can build up and becomes toxic. The kidneys need to filter out the excess nitrogen and byproducts which also increases urine production causing dehydration. Also, because the body does not store protein, it is eliminated, so the excess that was eaten becomes a waste of food.
The best way to calculate daily protein needs:
- Find weight in kilograms (divide weight by pounds by 2.2)
- Multiply weight in kilograms with the number of g/kg you need depending on your workout
This will equal the amount in grams that you will need in a day. The amount of grams can be found on food labels or online, so it is easy to track.
Example : a 160 pound male playing soccer in season.
160 lb ÷ 2.2 = 72.72 g
72.72 g x 1.4 g/kg = 101.8 grams/day
Fat intake for athletes should be about 20-35% of daily intake, which is the same for a nonathlete, with no more than 10% coming from saturated fat and less than 1% coming from trans fat. Fat has been given a bad name and it has been thought that eating fat can cause someone to be fat; however, this is not always the case. Fat is needed in the body at its recommended percentage. Fat is important due to the vitamins it contains such as A, D, E, K. Vitamin A helps with vision, skin formation, bone and teeth development, and is an important antioxidant. Vitamin D also helps with bone and teeth formation and hardening and increases calcium absorption. Like A, Vitamin E is an important antioxidant. Lastly, Vitamin K helps with blood clotting. Fat is also used as the primary energy source for low-intensity exercise for a longer time. Due to its slow digestion through the GI tract, it can be used to longer lasting energy; however, because of the slow digestion, eating a meal with fat should be eaten with enough time for it to digest.
Unsaturated fats are known as the good fats and are divided into two categories: monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fats are shown to decrease LDL (the BAD cholesterol in the body). Polyunsaturated fats are proven to not only decrease LDL but lower risk of cardiovascular disease. These fats also replace the unhealthy fats, such as saturated and trans fats. Examples of healthy unsaturated fats include nuts, seeds, peanut butter, vegetable oils (olive oil, canola oil, flaxseed oil) instead of butter or tropical oils (palm oil, coconut oil), fish, avocado, and corn. Saturated fat comes from animals products like milk, cheese, yogurt, eggs, and meat. Trans fat comes from mostly baked goods. Saturated and trans fats are linked to high cholesterol and high blood pressure (hypertension) which are not good for athletes due to the links to cardiovascular disease.
Although hypertension and high cholesterol are normally found to be lower among athletes due to the high level of activity, they can still occur. Exercise naturally causes blood pressure to increase due to the increase in amount of blood needed in muscles and tissues. If the blood pressure is already high or the arteries are blocked, the heart has to work harder than it already has to, leaving the athlete more tired, decreasing performance, and possibly lead to heart problems later in life.
Recommended fluid intake for a healthy sedentary person is 2-3 L per day, coming from drinks and foods. For an athlete, this number is up to 4x that amount. Unfortunately, knowing how important water is to athletes, many still don’t drink enough fluids. Fluids are important for lubricating joints, temperature regulation, transportation in the blood, and it aids in digestion. Specifically for athletes, fluids can help increase performance, decrease muscle pain, and delay fatigue.
About 8-10 fl oz of water should be consumed every 10-20 minutes during a workout/competition. If a high-intensity exercise is lasting longer than 90 minutes, an energy drink is recommended due to the amount of carbohydrates, fluids, and electrolytes it contains. This is to keep the body as fueled as possible. However, the sports drink does not replace all water in the body that was lost, so normal water is recommended after. The best way to determine how much water an athlete should consume after a workout is by weighing themselves before and after. Due to sweat loss, water weight decreases which can be measured on a scale. For every pound lost during the work out, it should be replaced with 20-30 fl oz of water.
Water leaves the body by sweat, breathing, and in the urine. A few ways to tell if you are dehydrated are by having dark yellow urine, muscle cramps, lightheadedness, and dry mouth. Many people count on having a dry mouth to remind them to drink water, but unfortunately by this point, the person is very dehydrated. Not drinking enough water could result in a decrease in blood volume, causing the heart to work harder than it already does to circulate blood, which is the last thing you want to happen during exercise. Also, when less water is in the body, less will come out through sweat, causing the body to overheat leading to heat stress and collapse. Studies show that even a 2% bodyweight decrease leads to a 10-20% reduced performance affecting reaction time, judgment, and concentration.