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Competitor

March 2002

p. 56

 

Ingestion Suggestions

by Jeff Banowetz


 

The number of supplements

for  athletes can— and often do— fill a shopping cart.

 

What do you-really need to achieve your peak  performance?

 

While the  choices are vast, here is a rundown of some ways

 to help improve  your overall diet 

and get your body the fuel it needs.

 

Diet is obviously an im­portant part of an athlete’s life. Store shelves are filled with products that claim to cure every ailment imagina­ble and increase your performance to heroic lev­els. Yet, when it comes down to it, diet usually takes a back seat to other training concerns.

Some athletes watch their diet meticulously, aware of every calorie that enters their body. Others think that, since they exer­cise, they can get away with eating whatever they want. And to a certain ex­tent, they’re right. Burning a lot of calories enables you to eat a lot of calories. Just make sure that you’re get­ting the right calories.

The nutrition mistakes you make can lead to diminished performance as well as unhealthy choices.

Nancy Clark, MS,- RD, author of Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook, describes too many athletes this way:   “They don’t eat enough for breakfast or lunch and don’t eat a snack before they work out, so they’re lightheaded when they work out.   Then they get home and pig out.   They’re so hungry that they don’t have time to cook things like vegetables.”

That’s just one of the traps athletes can fall into when trying to fit a sport into a busy schedule. While diet may never get the at­tention it should, there are some basic rules that everyone should follow.

When to Eat

But skipping meals will eventually not only make it more difficult to follow a healthy diet, but impair performance.

“Eating at regular meals makes a huge difference,” Clark says. “If you eat cereal in the morning with fruit... you’re not going to have that overriding hunger later in the day. And most cereal is fortified, so you’re also getting many of the vitamins you need.”

Keeping an organized schedule also will discourage you from picking up convenient foods that offer minimal nutritional value and empty calories.

Eating later in the day gives your body less time to burn the calories. Waiting until 10 p.m. or a, big dinner before going to bed isn’t the best idea — particularly if you’re trying to lose weight.

Proper Hydration

The need for hydration has been given so much attention that some athletes drink too much water — which can actually be more dangerous than not enough. In fact, several recent deaths during endurance events have been attributed to hyponatremia, the condition brought about by ingesting too much water. The problem arises when an athlete drinks so much water that they dilute the essential elements necessary for the body to actually use it. This can be easily avoided by adding sports drinks or juices to the mix.

‘This condition [is] more common in women says Eric Sternlicht, Ph.D., author of the book "Fuel Up: Using the Principles of Sports Nutrition to Perform like a Pro“  Some women know they should be drinking a lot, but don’t want any calories with it. So they don’t necessarily get what they need."

It should be stressed that this is a rare condition, associated with endurance events where participants are sweating for four or five hours. Dehydration continues to be a problem for many athletes.

“Part of it is that we live in a society with lot of caffeinated drinks, which leads to dehydration,”  Sternlicht says. “But a large part is that people don’t  realize  much they need to drink during exercise. Thirst isn't enough of an indicator”

Incipient dehydration sometimes feels like hunger. Often that hungry feeling will go away with a large glass of water.

 Sodium

Recent studies show that sodium has very little to do with hypertension in the large majority of cases. For athletes, reducing the amount of sodium in your diet is usually negative.

"It‘s the wrong thing to do,”  Sternlicht insist.  "[Athletes] actually need the sodium,  particularly after an event or exercise, where they just lost it. Go ahead and have some pretzels, salt salty foods or sports drink. You need that.”

 

Add More Fruits & Vegetables

While you can get vitamins through supplements, it’s just as easy — and often more effective — to get them from vegetables. Unfortunately, vegetables take some preparation, and too many people skip them.

“Do your fruit duty in the morning so that you make sure it gets done,” Clark says. “Then try to eat a plate full of color.  Have a variety of vegetables—even if it’s on pizza. You can really get everything you need from your diet.  It’s just a matter of doing it.”

Too Much Protein, Too Many Carbs

According Sternlicht,  the biggest dietary problem athletes make is over-emphasizing either protein or carbohydrates.

"It depends on whatever diet they're following, but it's either too many carbs or too much protein.  You need them both, and shouldn't take one at the expense of the other".

 

Sternlicht's book provides tables that illustrate the optimum amount of protein and carbohydrate by body weight and intensity of exercise. He also offers sample diets to meet those goals.

 

Proper Nutrition After Exercise

Studies have found that eating protein immediately after exercise — along with replenishing electrolytes can help with muscle recovery.  (For a more complete look at the science, check out Edmund R.  Burke’s book,  Optimal Muscle Recovery.) It has been particularly successful for cyclists, marathon runners and other endurance athletes who are exercising for long periods of time.

Several supplements take advantage of this formula to provide necessary protein after exercise. These products — like Endurox R4 or Jogmate — are easy to use and offer a proper ratio of protein and carbohydrate. But adding protein to the usual carbohydrates immediately after exercise is what’s really important, and that can be accomplished by a turkey sandwich, peanut butter or any number or sources that taste best to you.

“Exercise is a stress,’ Sternlicht says,  “Fitness comes in recovery. I’m surprised more athletes haven’t discovered the benefits of this.”

Antioxidants

Antioxidants have received a lot of attention in recent years, particularly in what they can do to help reduce the cellular damage that may be caused by exercise. This group of vitamins, which includes vitamins C, E and betacarotene, is necessary to help the body fight free radicals.

During metabolism, a small number of high-energy oxygen molecules can leak out. These free radicals react with parts of the body and can cause damage to cell membranes. This is considered by some to be a factor in heart disease, cancer and symptoms of aging. During exercise, the formation of free radicals is intensified, creating a release of more into the body. But exercise also increases the body’s own antioxidants, which may offset the free radical increase.

While not conclusive, some studies suggest that antioxidants can be important in preventing injury and helping with muscle recovery.  Of course, once again, antioxidants are readily available in a healthy diet. Fruits, vegetables and soy products contain antiox­idants — broccoli, cauliflower, onions and garlic are great sources.

If you’re not getting enough vegetables, it may be worth taking a daily supplement to ensure that you’re getting at least the recommended daily allowances of these vitamins.

Calcium

Weight-bearing exercise has proven to be beneficial to increasing bone density.  But it doesn’t do enough without an adequate Supply of calcium, particularly during adolescence and young adulthood. Without enough dietary calcium, both men and women can be susceptible to stress fractures and, later in life, osteoporosis.

Some people have cut down on natural sources of calcium, including milk and cheese, because of their fat content.  Lactose intolerance also develops in many people as they age, causing them to cut back on dairy products. Both of these issues can be easily overcome by drinking nonfat or lactose-free milk, or by getting sodium through dark green vegetables and legumes. If these sources aren’t common in your diet, consider supplementing.

Caffeine

Athletes often avoid caffeine since, as a diuretic, it stimulates water loss. But recent studies show that small amounts of caffeine can boost performance. It helps improve alertness and mental ability, and may also improve physical performance — enough so that the International Olympic Committee has banned large doses of caffeine before competition.

On the negative side; in addition to contributing to dehydration, caffeine can produce gastrointestinal distress, nervousness and irritability. And the benefits seem to diminish with continued use. In other words, people who use a lot of caffeine don’t get the same performance boosts as those people who use it rarely.

Many products, including energy gels, now come with caffeine. It maybe worth ex­perimenting to see how your body reacts to these. Just don’t make a habit of using them.

Avoid Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil

Finally, while it’s important to get the good things into your system, eliminating the bad stuff can also make a difference. In particular, avoid saturated fat and partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.  Be careful — you may find them in some surprising sources.

"Hydrogenated vegetable oil is something want to avoid,” Sternlicht says.  "Yet you'll even find it in some energy bars.  Make sure you read the labels before you buy.”  - Jeff Banowetz