Eating To Win: Nutrition For Optimal Athletic Performance

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Just as a car engine needs the proper gasoline and oil for peak performance, as an athlete you need the proper nutrition to perform at your best. Strength, speed, and endurance all can be optimized with the right nutrients. But the nutrients you need can vary depending on your sport and your training regime, says Aloiya Earl, MD.

“Athletes work hard practicing, conditioning, lifting. But if their nutrition isn’t optimized, then they’re not getting the most out of their work,” says Dr. Earl.

Do Athletes Need To Eat Differently Than Non-Athletes?

“Sports nutrition is different than nutrition for the average person,” Dr. Earl explains, “because as an athlete you typically need a higher caloric intake.” You also need different macronutrient ratios (fats, proteins, carbohydrates), she adds. “Even from one day to the next, an athlete may need to adjust their macronutrient and calorie ratios depending on whether they’re training hard, moderately, or if it’s a light training day.”

During the off-season it’s still important to maintain the right balance of nutrition. “We call this the recovery period. During this time, you need to feed your muscles the right amount of protein so you don’t lose that muscle,” says Dr. Earl. “You might have the same exact weight as a non-athlete, but your nutrition requirements are different.”

Are All Macronutrients the Same?

“No. Your fats, proteins and carbohydrates need to be high quality,” Dr. Earl insists. For example, a cheeseburger contains fats, proteins, and carbohydrates, but the fuel it provides you is low quality. Dr. Earl recommends healthy fats like eggs, almonds, almond butter, peanut butter, and avocado. Her ideal carbohydrate choices include whole grain bread, whole wheat crackers and pasta, and brown rice. “They have a much better nutritional value than highly processed, sugary carbohydrate sources.”

Can All Athletes Benefit From the Same Diet?

Your sport, and the position you play within that sport, will determine the diet that is best for you. “Someone who’s an endurance athlete, for example, will have a completely different nutritional demand than someone who’s more of an explosive, power, and strength type athlete,” Dr. Earl explains. “In football, for example, linemen will need something totally different than the special teams, like kickers. Each athlete needs an individualized nutrition plan.”

Your physician can do a detailed assessment, along with lab work, to develop a customized eating plan for your situation.

How Can I Tell If My Diet Is Lacking?

Signs that your diet may be inadequate include:

  • All-day fatigue. Some fatigue is expected after practice and games. But if your fatigue comes on quickly, lasts all day, affects your athletic performance and also your ability to focus (in school, for example), your diet may be the reason.
  • Irregular menstrual cycle. Female athletes who typically have regular periods may suddenly have very light periods, no periods, or skip months. This is a common sign of calorie deficiency and hormonal imbalance that puts you at high risk for a stress fracture.
  • Ongoing weight loss. Although additional exercise can cause weight loss, you need to be sure you’re meeting your exercise demand with the appropriate amount of nutrients so your weight remains stable.
  • Sports performance begins to plateau. If you’re doing everything right but your performance reaches a plateau, it often can be corrected by improving the quality of nutrients you eat.

To learn more about sports nutrition, talk to your doctor or health care provider or search for a provider.

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