Sports nutrition is one of the most common topics I am asked to weigh in on by athletes of all ages. For the high school athlete, there is often a lot of misunderstanding and poor information available about how to keep your body running with the best amount and type of fuel available. You train hard, try to sleep well, and try to stay fit over the summer to get ready for the fall. However, unless you are eating and drinking well, you may not reach your potential. Here are some basics to get you started, but it is important to understand that every athlete’s needs are a bit different, and meeting with your physician or a sports nutritionist can help fine-tune what is best for you.
Keeping appropriately hydrated is essential, particularly when exercising in the heat. Drinking too little can seriously impair performance and predispose to injury of muscles during a workout. Even a 2% dehydration status (often measured by weight loss during an exercise session) can impair performance in some studies! There is no clear AMOUNT of fluid recommended, which is what everyone asks- the real answer to how much you should be drinking is simply “enough to make your pee pale yellow”. This amount varies significantly on lots of factors, but in general, if your urine is dark yellow, you are dehydrated, and if it is perfectly clear, you are probably drinking too much. Replenishing your fluids after exercise is essential for your muscles to recover, so be sure to drink plenty after a workout, particularly in the heat.
Water is best for hydration! Sports drinks are often over-used for hydration, and add unnecessary carbohydrates (sugars) and in some cases extensive caffeine.
Carbs are still the building blocks of athletic performance and are the easiest fuel for your body to utilize. Although the 1970s “carb loading” craze is no longer appropriate, having a “full tank” of carbohydrates in your system, usually in the form of fuel called glycogen, is key to doing well in athletics. Having 50-100 grams of carbohydrate in the hours leading up to exercise helps avoid the “crash” that athletes with an empty stomach know all too well about. Similarly, eating carbohydrates (particularly with protein) AFTER your workout is important for muscle recovery and getting those glycogen stores back up to where they should be. Complex carbohydrates, like those found in whole grains, give a more long-lasting energy boost and are much preferred in general to simple sugars or processed sugars. However, if you are participating in athletic activities over 60 minutes, it is beneficial to performance to have simple carbohydrates (usually in the form of combined glucose and fructose, two types of simple sugars) during your event or activity.
Protein is important for muscle building and recovery from vigorous exercise and is essential for performance. Protein is found most commonly in meats and fish, as well as dairy, but vegetarians have excellent plant-based options as well in the form of beans, tofu, nuts, and other sources. Most athletes require 0.8-1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day (a kg is 2.2 lbs). Some studies suggest significant muscle-building activity may require 1.6 g/kg/day, but protein intake over this is not felt to be beneficial. Protein is best absorbed and utilized right after exercise, so timing your protein intake can help maximize its effect on recovering muscles. Many of my high school athletes feel they need much more protein than they actually do, particularly when taking supplements that advertise/ promote a much higher daily intake than what is recommended.
Micronutrients and Vitamins:
If you follow a balanced diet with lots of vegetables and a variety of foods, you are getting plenty of micronutrients and vitamins needed for athletic performance. Student-athletes with specialized diets (lactose intolerance, celiac disease, vegetarians) may have to monitor their intake of important micronutrients and vitamins such as calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12 to make sure they eat enough food rich in these items.
When talking about nutrition, it is important to recognize that many athletes feel they need to take supplements or vitamins to improve their performance. For those who do not follow a balanced diet, or who have special dietary needs, sometimes targeted supplements are needed, but in general, most supplements are not needed and can be at best misleading and at worst dangerous. Although laws have become more strict in the past few years, there are still significant issues of purity and contamination with many supplements, as well as blatant false advertising regarding contents and effectiveness. Studies have shown that some supplements contain dangerous chemicals not listed on the label, and others that are contaminated by illegal anabolic steroids. Most supplements have NOT been shown to increase athletic performance in scientific studies, other than a very slight improvement in performance with small(!) amounts of caffeine and appropriate creatine use (too much can cause kidney damage- a common occurrence with this supplement). If you feel you might need a supplement due to nutritional challenges, speak with your athletic trainer, physician, or nutritionist about if they feel it is needed. I always recommend that when athletes do need a supplement, they purchase one verified by an independent testing lab (NSF is the most common and is reliable- there will be a notification on the label) which has verified purity and label honesty.
The key to your best athletic performance is putting the best fuel in your tank, and that usually is simply following a balanced diet heavy on vegetables with adequate lean protein and complex carbohydrates. Staying away from excess caffeine and simple sugars in energy drinks and junk food, and ensuring adequate fluid intake, will make your workouts more enjoyable and more productive!