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In today's sporting world, there are very few differences between top class athletes. What separates the winners and the losers could simply be the food they eat. As well as ensuring they have a healthy diet they need to take into consideration the certain nutrients that they need in order to perform to the highest level. All athletes, no matter what sport, need to incorporate nutrition into their lifestyle. Becoming an elite athlete requires not just good genes, good training and conditioning but also a sensible diet. Optimal nutrition is essential for peak performance. Nutritional misinformation can do as harm to athletes as good nutrition can help. Therefore it is essential to ensure that you factorise all the important nutrients into your diet.
The athletes illustrated come from a range of different sports, but all are most likely to consume the same types of food in order to perform at their current level of achievement. All of them require a high consumption of carbohydrates in their diet to ensure they can continue for the longest period of time possible. Many athletes (especially the likes of footballers, tennis players and any other athletes involved with sports requiring you to be at your best for long periods of time) will consume high carbohydrate snacks at intervals during a competitive match. Examples of these high-carbohydrate snacks include bananas, cereal bars or even a high-energy drink. Even athletes such as Usain Bolt will consume high carbohydrate foods before a race despite only running for just under ten seconds. Athletes benefit most from the amount of carbohydrate stored in the body. In the early stages of moderate exercise, carbohydrates provide 40-50% of the energy requirement. Carbohydrates yield more oxygen per unit of oxygen consumed than fats. Because oxygen is often the limiting factor in long-duration events, it is beneficial for the athlete to use the energy source requiring the least amount of oxygen per kilocalorie produced. As your work-intensity increases, your carbohydrate utilization also increases.
During exercise, lots of liquid will need to be consumed to replenish the liquid lost through sweat during exercise. Dehydration can make it hard to get the most out of your workout, and, in extreme situations, can even be dangerous to your health. However, drinking too much water at the wrong time can also hinder performance. Dehydration can cause even the best of athletes to not perform at his or her best; it can lead to muscle fatigue and cramping.
Surprisingly, fat is also an important component of the elite athletes’ diet.
Fat provides body fuel and contributes as much as 75% of the energy demand during prolonged aerobic work in the endurance athlete. Active muscles quickly burn through carbs and need fats for long-lasting energy. Experts advise athletes to concentrate on healthier fats, such as the unsaturated fat found in most vegetable oils. Choosing when to eat fats is also important for athletes. Fatty foods can slow digestion, so it is a good idea to avoid eating these foods for a few hours before and after exercising. Usain Bolt, the night before his Olympic final in which he ran the world record, ate a box of McDonald’s chicken nuggets as these were the only food product he felt 100% sure he would not get food poisoning from.
Protein intake for athletes can differ dependent on their needs. For example, strength-training athletes’ protein needs differ from those with endurance needs because endurance athletes do not need to develop the muscle mass which weigh lifters do, for example. In weight training, glucose is used for energy and, because weight training is intense, fat and protein cannot be used for energy production. Protein intake increases for strength athletes to supplement and help with the rebuilding of tissue and muscle after the exercise. Because endurance athletes exercise for long periods of time (2 - 5 hours), they can use protein as a source of 5% - 10% of their total energy expended. This protein (as well as protein used for tissue repair) needs to be replaced; thus, an elevated level of intake can be beneficial.
It was touched on earlier that energy drinks can influence a performance and make it better. Top athletes can often be seen drinking these energy drinks, such as Lucozade, which contain glucose and fructose; these simple sugars provide a source of energy which replaces that lost during exercise, as well as allowing a greater rate of uptake of water by the small intestine. The complex carbohydrates maltose, maltodextrins and dextrose break down slowly to release glucose and energy as well as increasing the rate of sodium uptake by the small intestine. Also, other solutes such as sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium ions are included to replace electrolytes that are lost in sweating. However, water is the biggest component of a sports drink. Sweating during exercise removes water from the body so the drink replenishes the supply of water in the body, preventing dehydration. If an athlete does become dehydrated, it is thought performance could drop by as much as 20%.
Overall, it is clear that nutrition plays a key part in our diet and it is essential that athletes incorporate this factor into their lifestyle in order for them to perform at their peak.
This article was originally published in Portsmouth Point magazine's Olympics edition.