Sport Nutrition – New fuel for an empty tank

Tips on perfect sports nutrition

Nutrition plays a key role in an athlete’s performance ability. But what contributes to good sports nutrition? How many carbohydrates and proteins do I need? We answer your questions in this article and give advice on how you will recover faster from your workout, thanks to a balanced diet.

To be able to last through long and strenuous training sessions, the body needs sufficient recuperation. It’s the only way for an athlete to recharge his or her batteries, so the next training session can be done with full strength. A first step is to get enough sleep, which means 8 – 9 hours per night. Another important component in the recovery process is nutrition, which fulfills the following functions:

  • Carbohydrates refill the muscle and liver glycogen storage
  • Fluid & electrolytes lost through sweat are replaced
  • Proteins support the repair and adaptation processes of the cell tissue
  • The immune system supports the body during these processes.

Carbohydrates

If energy is needed fast, glycogen is the number one supplier. However, the storages that are found in muscles and the liver are limited, which makes refilling them after a training session, in the form of a meal or a small snack, necessary. After sports, the meal should be rich in carbohydrates – a good guideline is 1.0 – 1.2 grams per kilogram body weight. The daily requirement is (depending on the intensity of the activity) between 7 – 12 g per kg body weight. It’s said that the lower the intensity, the lower the carbohydrate proportion can be.

"A snack that contains 50 gram of carbohydrates, can already contribute to the regeneration process after an intensive training session."

Not only the amount of carbohydrates is relevant when it comes to after-practice meals, but also the timing. The earlier these are taken, the better the rate of the so-called glycogen synthesis. In this process glycogen is extracted from the carbohydrates and stored in the muscles and liver. But before athletes start filling their stomachs, certain factors that affect the size of the meal should be considered, such as:

  • Total daily intake of carbohydrates / energy balance
  • Good meal digestibility
  • Time until the next training

If the next training is just around the corner or the next bigger meal won’t be served anytime soon, then a snack that contains 50 g carbohydrates can already support the athlete’s regeneration.

Proteins

During an intensive training session, microinjuries will inevitably occur in the athlete’s musculature. More intense forms of these microinjuries are what we call “muscle soreness”. Proteins are the component that repair the muscle tissue after such intensive exertion. Just like with carbohydrates, early intake after exertion will positively affect the recovery process. The first hour after training is especially important, to build up muscles and strength effectively. A total amount of 15 – 25 g of protein in the meal, along with the accompanying carbohydrates can suffice in successfully supporting the recovery process. A total protein amount of 1.2 – 1.7 g per kg body weight, split across the day is recommended for athletes. The following applies here as well: the more intensive the training session, the more nutrients should be supplied. For example: During a period of high intensity strength training, a daily supply of up to 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight can be sufficient.

Fluids

Especially during intensive training sessions, athletes will sweat a lot. Players lose not only fluids during training, but also important minerals. Negative effects can already be seen at a fluid loss of 2 %.

"By the time you feel thirsty, it's already too late!"

The general drop in performance is reflected in perceived tiredness, lowered mental abilities and along with it lowered decision making abilities, concentration and coordination. On top of that, the fluid deficit also slows down the transport of nutrients which are badly needed for recovery. Against many assumptions, thirst is not a good indicator to determine if the body needs more fluids – By that time it is already too late. Coaches should always remind their players to drink regularly throughout the day. This means that a regime of drinking small amounts (200 – 300 ml) in sufficient time intervals (15 – 20 mins) should be carried out. If a lot of water is drunk at once, it will lead to important minerals being washed from the body. For very large amounts, it can even become dangerous.

Aside from the amount of fluids, the composition of the drinks is also important. Especially for days with a lot of sweat loss, the salt and mineral content should be considered. A practical solution here could be a 1.5 l water bottle with 1 g of salt added to it. Especially on hot days, where athletes lose a lot of sweat during practice or a game, this simple trick should help to supply the body with a sufficient amount of minerals and fluid.

Immune system

During strenuous training sessions, the body is focusing on its energy supply. During this process the body suppresses the immune system, which is why athletes tend to get sick after a particularly intense and long training periods. The immune system is however an important component in the restoration process of strained cells (muscles, ligaments, tendons, etc.) therefore a balanced nutrition is necessary to strengthen it. Vitamin C plays an important role in the healing and recovery process and can be found in great abundance in citrus fruits, kiwi, and broccoli. Vitamin C also helps in the construction of new proteins and has an antioxidizing effect. Blue berries, cherries, plums, green tea, coffee and ginger likewise contain high amounts of antioxidants, which keep so-called free radicals (responsible for diseases, inflammations etc.) in check. If the body has its vitamin C and antioxidants taken care of, it can concentrate fully on the recovery process. But as with all nutrients, a natural equilibrium should be respected. The nutrients should be consumed through fresh food, and not high dosage pills, as an overdose of vitamins has its risks.

"The immune system plays an important role in the reconstruction of the tissue structures and contributes to the recovery after training sessions."

Two more nutrients are of special meaning with regards to injuries. For one thing Vitamin A (which can be found in sunflower seeds, carrots, spinach, sweet potatoes and many others) supports the cultivation of white blood cells (Leukocytes) which help to neutralize viruses. For another thing, Omega 3 fatty acids (fish, flax seed, walnuts) help reduce infections and swellings after an injury. It shows that the immune system plays an important role in the reconstruction of the tissue structures and contributes to the recovery after training sessions. The immune system also profits from sufficient supply of carbohydrates. These lower the hormonal stress levels in the body and allow the immune system to work with full strength.

Especially in athletes, nutrition contributes to his/her performance ability. After strenuous training sessions, it is important to quickly fill the tank. Like with a car, you should take care to use quality fuel – otherwise you should not be surprised when your own racing car is slower than the competition’s. Athletes should set great value upon fresh and wholesome food, instead of processed ready meals. A balanced and varied nutrition that provides enough energy and essential nutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, etc.) is the Alpha and Omega of athletes. Simple rules like 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day can boost recovery after a hard training session.

In this sense, the following applies: You are what you eat – and drink 😉

Florian Klingner

Florian is a Sports Scientist and graduate from the German Sports University in Cologne. In our Blog he'll share his knowledge with you.

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