A sound nutrition plan is essential for an athlete, as it lays the groundwork for immeasurable success.

The nutritional needs of an athlete are far greater than those of a sedentary counterpart, due to higher daily energy expenditure. Athletes must be vigilant and aim to balance their daily intake with how much they burn.

During exercise the body uses energy stores (fat and carbohydrate) with some protein from the muscle to support the broad range of physical demands of exercise.
female athlete
As the body heats up and begins to sweat, energy, fluid and electrolytes are lost.

Because of this, proper hydration and dietary practices are essential for high quality performance, which comprises maximum endurance, speedy recovery and overall good health.

Athletes need protein to repair and rebuild the muscle tissue that gets damaged and broken down during intense workouts. Resistance athletes (power lifters, wrestlers, football players) typically need more protein in their diet than endurance athletes (runners, cyclists, swimmers) due to increased localized muscle strain – though endurance athletes still need more protein daily than the lay population.

The typical attitude towards protein consumption tends to be “more is better”. One needs to remember that protein is not in fact a direct fuel source for the body during intense physical activity and this slogan more appropriately applies to carbohydrates in the context of all athletes.
The body only turns to protein for energy after all carbohydrate and immediate fat stores have been used up, and in doing so it has to break down muscle to get it from storage. This is bad!

As mentioned, the main source of energy during physical activity is carbohydrate. Saturated glycogen – the storage form of carbohydrate in the muscle and liver – is crucial for sustained energy. Not only do carbohydrates support physical activity but they also promote alertness, precision and focus since carbohydrates are the fuel of choice for the brain. Carbohydrate consumption is necessary before, during, after and in between workouts to keep the body balanced.

If workouts last more than one hour, sports drinks with carbohydrates are recommended to sustain activity. “Carb loading” is effective in high intensity, endurance sports though not so much in strength-only sports.

Fats are also an important component of an athlete’s diet. Fat plays a critical role in building and maintaining a healthy immune system, which helps protect the body from all the oxidative and tissue damage brought on by exercise. AVOID low fat diets!

They not only result in depleted energy stores and essential fatty acid deficiency, but also deficiencies in many vitamins and minerals. The risk of developing heart disease is extremely low among athletes simply due to high physical and cardiorespiratory fitness, thus athletes are not likely adversely affected by excess dietary fat. That said, aim to keep saturated fat intake within moderation.

As an athlete it is very important to pay attention to your needs on a daily basis. Just like training, you get out what you put in and if you want to work out like an athlete, you need to eat like an athlete, which means making sure there is always fuel in the tank.

Written by Cielo House staff member Emily Johnston, MS RD

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