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Pre-season Sports Nutrition

July 04, 2010

Summer is a perfect time for athletes to get their bodies ready for fall or winter sports. No matter what the level of play, working out at your best with proper nutrition and hydration can mean competing at your best.

At the upper levels of competition, where talent is more similar among athletes, those who pay attention to their food and fluid intakes have the competitive edge. The type and timing of healthy foods can reduce the risk of injury as well. For younger athletes, healthy foods and adequate calories also allow for growth and development needs.

Off-season is the key time for athletes wanting to change body weight or body composition. Changes should be made gradually as the goal is often body fat loss and lean muscle gain or maintenance. Rapid weight loss can cause a loss of both body fat and muscle.

Ideal weight loss would be no more than 1 pound a week during training (about 500 fewer calories a day than required for weight maintenance). Foods/beverages that contain minimal nutritional value should be limited rather than healthy options. If calorie intake goes too low, dietary protein will be used for fuel instead of muscle building.

Two common mistakes made by strength athletes (and promoted by supplement companies) are over-consuming protein or choosing isolated protein found in supplements as the predominant form of protein intake. Protein is indeed important for muscle building and repair, but there is an upper limit as to how much the body can use. This is about 0.9 gm per pound of body weight per day. Higher intakes can add calories that can potentially add to body fat and/or can negatively affect the balance of carbs, protein, and dietary fat. When protein displaces needed carbs, athletes have less energy for workouts. Very high intakes of animal protein can cause a diuretic effect leading to dehydration despite adequate fluid intake.

In addition, excessive protein generally means the athlete is consuming fewer fruits, vegetables, and whole grains that have hundreds of nutrients needed for peak performance. These nutrients work behind the scenes and process the energy needed for physical activity. Some also contain antioxidants that help protect the body from tissue damage.

When it comes to excessive use of isolated protein supplements, most athletes can get all the protein they need from consuming protein foods found in a healthy diet. Food sources of protein have the added benefit of containing a wide range of nutrients beyond just protein that contribute positively to muscle building, repair, and activity.

Whey protein has gotten a lot of press from studies that show it may be a little better for muscle building than other sources. This is one of the proteins found in milk and studies have indicated that drinking milk is just as good or better than getting it from protein supplements. It is suggested that some of the reason for this is the other ingredients found in the milk besides protein.

Both endurance and strength athletes should be consuming about 55 percent to 60 percent of their calories from carbs. These are an athlete's primary brain and body fuel source. Food sources are whole grains, fruit, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, low fat milk/soy milk and yogurt. Less healthy carb sources can indeed provide energy to working muscles, but will not supply nutrients needed to maximize performance and health.

Healthy dietary fats are also important to include nuts, seeds, peanut butter, olive/canola oils, avocado. Since athletes tend to require a lot of calories for activity, a baseline of fat intake (about 25 percent of calories) can provide a concentrated source of calories so the volume of food intake does not have to be excessive. These fats provide essential fatty acids, help with the uptake of certain nutrients, and are also needed for sex hormone production. In males, this means more testosterone to promote muscle tissue. In females, it helps promote normal menstrual cycles and resulting benefit to bone. The omega three fatty acids found in some of these fats can help reduce inflammation after a workout.

Timing of food intake also appears to be important. Athletes should plan to eat every three to four hours throughout the day to protect stored energy and provide more frequent opportunities to consume a wide range of healthy foods. They should try to get a source of carbs and protein about 30-60 minutes before and after exercise. Consuming a combination of carbs and protein as soon as possible after a workout can maximize muscle building and speed recovery of muscle tissue.

The carb portion of the recovery meal or snack replaces stored energy in the muscles and can promote storage of even higher amounts for use at the next workout. Examples of the recommended carb/protein combo include a peanut butter sandwich and a piece of fruit or a bowl of cereal with fruit and milk, or yogurt and fruit, 16 ounces of chocolate milk, or a trail mix of nuts/seeds/dried fruit/cereal.

Since even a small amount of dehydration can negatively affect performance, athletes should consume at least 64-80 ounces of fluid a day more if you sweat heavily, wear padding (as in football), or it is hot/humid. About two hours before exercise, start consuming about 20 ounces of fluid. About 30 minutes before, drink another 8 ounces and then drink 4-8 ounces every 15-20 minutes during activity. Any water weight lost during exercise should be recovered by 20-24 ounces of fluid for each pound of water weight lost. The goal with proper hydration, however, is to lose minimal water weight during exercise.

Attention to appropriate food and fluid intake can make the difference in the success of your athletic endeavors.

Pamela Stuppy, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, is a registered, licensed dietitian with nutrition counseling offices in York, Maine, and Portsmouth. She is also the nutritionist for Phillips Exeter Academy and teaches healthy cooking classes at Stonewall Kitchen Cooking School. Visit her at