- The goals of training nutrition
- What is ‘ideal’ body shape and composition?
- Reducing weight and body fat
- Increasing muscle mass
- Energy requirements for athletes
- Protein needs of athletes
- Vitamins and minerals
- Supplements in sport
- Optimizing training and recovery
- Practising nutritional strategies during training
- Goals of the competition diet
- Preparing adequate fuel stores
- The pre-event meal
- Fluid and CHO intake during exercise
- Recovery after exercise
Why is sports nutrition important and who is it important for? It is easy to understand the search for a competitive edge in the elite world of sport. In many events, the margin between winning and losing is measured in millimetres and hundredths of seconds, and the stakes include international fame and considerable amounts of money. A number of prominent sports scientists have suggested that at this level, where genetics, training, equipment and motivation are all equalized, nutrition might provide the vital ingredient in success.
However, it is clear that recreational athletes are also interested in sports nutrition, as shown by the recent boom in the marked for specialized sports drinks and sports bars. Although some people consider that special sports nutrition strategies are relevant only to the elite athlete (or that these specialized sports foods are a waste of money for the non-elite sportsperson), it is important to realize that the fundamentals of exercise physiology apply to sporting activities, regardless of the talent of the athlete involved. For example, sweat losses and carbohydrate needs are created by muscular activity, whether it be undertaken by Michael Jordan or Joe Public. While for recreational athletes, the rewards of sports nutrition strategies are likely to be the satisfaction of improving ‘personal bests’ or achieving personal goals, the spin-off of better safety and enjoyment of exercise activities may be an important factor in encouraging population participation in exercise. Finally, since many of the principles of sports nutrition concur with population dietary guidelines, the interest in sports nutrition may independently help to improve the general health and nutritional status of the population.
Sports nutrition is underpinned by the sciences of exercise physiology and biochemistry, and aims to supply the body with the nutrients needed to adapt to a training program, to perform optimally during competition and to recover quickly after exercise. However, sports nutrition also involves the art of translating nutrient needs into foods and eating practices that are compatible with the busy schedule and commitments of an athlete’s lifestyle. This chapter will summarize the current guidelines for achieving both the science and practice of ‘eating to win’.
1 Brownell, KD, Rodin J, Wilmore JH, eds. Eating, body weight and performance in athletes: disorders of modern society. Philadelphia: Lea and Febiger, 1992
2 Burke LM, Deakin V, eds. Clinical sports nutrition. Sydney: McGraw-Hill, 1994.
3 Burke LM. The complete guide to food for sports performance, 2nd ed. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1995.
4 Williams C, Devlin JT, eds. Foods, nutrition and sports performance. London: E & FN Spon, 1992.
5 Wolinsky I, Hickson JF, eds. Nutrition in exercise and sport, 2nd ed. Boca Raton: CRC Press, 1994.
The goals of training nutrition
The purpose of training is to prepare the athlete to perform at their best during key competitions, and inmost situations the time and demands of this preparation far outweigh those of competition. Therefore, it is the everyday or training diet of the athlete which has the greatest impact on sports performance. The athlete shares the population nutritional goals of meeting nutrient requirements for immediate health, as well as adopting dietary strategies to reduce the risk of developing Western disease patterns in later life. Additionally, they should be able to participate in the enjoyment and social interaction that is provided by food. However, the athlete must also meet special goals of sports nutrition during the training phase including:
- to achieve a body size and composition that is ideal for performance in the athlete’s sport
- to meet additional demands for energy and nutrients that arise from the training program
- to undertake dietary strategies that optimize performance during training sessions and enhance recovery after the session
- to practice any competition nutrition strategies in advance so that these can be fine-tuned for success.
The importance and the details of these goals will vary from sport to sport.
What is ‘ideal’ body shape and composition?
The size, shape and composition of the body are important determinants of performance in many sports. In some sports, weight divisions or limits are set to encourage fair competition between opponents of equal size and strength. These sports include weight lifting, boxing, judo, light weight rowing and horse racing. In other sports, a low weight and/or low body weight level is a factor in successful performance. This may be to increase the athlete’s ‘power to weight’ ratio, or to reduce ‘dead weight’ that must be transported over long distances (e.g. in distance running, road cycling or triathlons) or moved against gravity (e.g. jumping events, hill cycling). In some sports, the aesthetic appeal of a lean body provides favourable characteristics for judging (e.g. in body building, gymnastics, figure skating), although this is usually combined with the biomechanical advantages of being small and light (e.g. in gymnastics).
In many situations, the athlete achieves a suitable body size and shape for their sport as a result of the combination of the genetics which have ‘selected’ them to excel in that sport in the first place, and their training programme. However in other situations the athlete may desire to alter their physique - typically to lose body fat or to gain muscle mass.
Reducing weight and body fat
Sometimes the need to lose body fat is desirable and achievable. Some athletes become overfat due to poor dietary intake (e.g. as a result of poor nutrition knowledge or erratic eating patterns due to travel) or due to a period of a low energy expenditure (e.g. during the off-season, or while injured). These athletes can be assisted by changes to nutrition, training and lifestyle to regain their ‘optimal’ body fat level. In general, body fat losses are achieved by a sustained program of moderate energy restriction and appropriate training/increased energy expenditure.
However there is much concern about athletes who seek to achieve body weight and fat goals that are extreme and unnatural. There is considerable pressure on athletes in many sports to achieve very low body fat levels in the belief that ‘less is better’, or to achieve body fat and weight standards that are arbitrarily set by coaches or other authorities. These practices do not allow for individual variability in physique, nor do they encourage safe and healthy methods to achieve loss of weight and body fat. This situation is particularly true for female endurance athletes, whose desired body fat levels often seem below the ‘natural’ level for the individual, despite their heavy training programme. The problem is compounded in the case of females in ‘aesthetic’ sports (e.g. gymnasts and figure skaters), where training is skill-based and energy balance must be changed primarily through energy restriction. Problems also occur in weight division sports where the tradition is to compete in a weight class which is considerably below ‘normal’ training weight, and to ‘make weight’ by ‘dieting’ to reduce body fat levels, superimposed by acute dehydration during the day(s) prior to the event. Performance in ‘weight making’ sports is likely to be impaired due to the effects of fuel depletion and dehydration. However, in the larger view there appears to be an increased risk of disordered eating and eating disorders among athletes in sports in which low body fat levels are emphasized.
It is a challenge of sports nutrition to assist athletes to set and achieve body weight and body fat goals that are truly ‘ideal’. This should include the notion of individuality, allowing the goals to be set according to the athlete’s history and realistic potential. Studies of elite sports show that, although there is a ‘typical’ physique that seems favourable for performance, there is considerable variation in the physique of well-performing athletes. The athlete should be aware of the disadvantages of fad diets and of extreme fat/weight loss techniques. They should also recognize that there may be penalties for achieving very low body fat levels, at least when it does not seem to be penalties for achieving very low body fat levels, at least when it does not seem to be the athlete’s natural physique. These include hormonal, physiological and psychological disturbances and may result from the low body fat level itself, as well as from the methods involved in achieving it (i.e. restricted eating, overtraining, stress). An ‘ideal’ weight and body fat level for any athlete should guarantee consistently good performances over a long term period, promote good health, and allow the athlete to consume a diet of sufficient energy and nutrients that allows all goals of training to be achieved. The need for individualized and expert advice on management of body weight and fat is the most common reason for an athlete to seek the services of a sports dietitian.
Increasing muscle mass
The other physique change desired by athletes is an increase in muscle size and strength. This is principally achieved by a suitable resistance training programme and genetic potential; however an adequate energy intake and usually, a positive energy balance is required. Although the protein needs for optimal muscle gain remain an emotive area for many athletes (and scientists), the primary dietary requirement for gain in muscle mass is energy. For some athletes, dietary counseling is required to provide strategies for increasing energy intake in an already high energy diet or in a busy timetable.
Energy requirements for athletes
The energy requirements of athletes vary markedly and are influenced by the size of the athlete, the need to lose or gain weight, growth, and the training load (frequency, duration and intensity). Dietary surveys of athletes find that male athletes generally report energy intakes varying form 10-25 MJ/day (2500-6000 (Cal/day) over prolonged periods.
However, while the energy requirements of female athletes might reasonably be - 20-30% lower than their male counterparts, principally to take smaller size into account, some surveys of female athletes often report an ‘energy imbalance’ whereby reported intakes of 4-8 MJ/day (1000-2000 Cal/day) are lower than expected and sometimes do not seem to cover the costs of the training programme itself. There appears to be no physiological explanation for this. Rather, systematic under reporting of food intake or ‘restricted’ eating during the period of the food diary due to concerns about body fat levels are suspected.
Protein needs of athletes
The protein requirements of athletes are increased by training. This results from the small contribution of protein oxidation to the fuel requirements of exercise as well as the protein needed to support muscle gain and repair of damaged body tissues. While athletes undertaking recreational or light training activities will meet their protein needs within population protein RDIs, a guideline for increased protein intake for heavily training athletes, both endurance and strength-training, has been set at 1.2-1.6 g/kg BM/day. These targets are easily met within the increased energy requirement enjoyed by athletes who undertake such training. Indeed most dietary surveys show that athletes who eat a typical mixed diet report protein intakes within or above these goals. Despite this evidence, many body builders and weightlifters eat unnecessarily large amounts of protein-rich foods or buy expensive protein supplements.
Vitamins and minerals
A moderate to high energy intake and a varied diet based on nutritious foods are the key factors that ensure an adequate intake of protein and micronutrients. Dietary surveys of athletes show that when these factors are in place, the reported intakes of vitamins and minerals are well in excess of RDIs and likely to meet any increases in micronutrient demand imposed by exercise. Thus the generalized need for micronutrient supplementation is not justified. Furthermore studies do not support an increase in performance with such supplementation except in the case where a pre-existing deficiency was corrected. However, not all athletes eat varied diets of adequate energy intake. It has already been discussed that some athletes are ‘restricted eaters’, who eat low energy intakes for prolonged or intermittent periods in an attempt to control body fat and weight levels. Restriction of dietary variety is also found among, but not limited to such athletes. While fad diets and disordered eating are typical causes of reduced food range, other underlying problems include poor practical nutrition skills, inadequate finances, and the limited access to food and erratic meal schedules that may be typical of an overcommitted lifestyle. Nutrition education to increase dietary quality and quantity is the preferred management route. However, low dose, broad range multivitamin/mineral supplementation may be of benefit where dietary restrictions are resistant to change, or where the athlete is travelling to places with an uncertain food supply and eating schedule.
Iron is involved in sports performance through its role in oxygen transport in the blood (haemoglobin) and muscles (myoglobin), as well as its action as a cofactor for many of the enzymes involved in fuel oxidation. A low iron status can reduce performance, although it is still uncertain how to distinguish true iron deficiency from some of the alterations in iron status measures that are caused by exercise. For example, endurance training causes a drop in haemoglobin levels due to an increase in blood volume. This haemodilution, often termed ‘sports anemia’, does not impair exercise performance, but has probably caused an overdiagnosis of the true prevalence of iron deficiency in athletes.
Nevertheless, some athletes are at true risk of becoming iron deficient when increased iron needs (e.g. due to growth, or small but consistent iron losses from the gastrointestinal bleeding or ‘footstrike’ damage to red blood cells are compounded by a poor intake of bioavailable iron. Low iron consumers include ‘restricted’ eaters, vegetarians and other athletes eating high CHO, low meat diets. The haeme form of iron found in red meat, liver products and shellfish is much better absorbed than non-haeme iron found in plant foods such as wholegrain cereal foods, legumes and green leafy vegetables. Low iron status, such as that indicated by serum ferritin levels lower than 20 ng/ml, should be considered for treatment. Present evidence does not support that iron deficiency without anemia reduces exercise performance. However many athletes with such low iron status, or a sudden drop in iron status, frequently complain of fatigue and inability to recover after heavy training. Many of these athletes respond following an improved iron status. At the very least, treatment may prevent the situation from progressing to clinical anemia.
Evaluation and management of iron status is best done on an individual basis by a sports medicine expert. Prevention and treatment of iron deficiency may include iron supplementation. However this should be considered as a part of the management plan along with dietary counseling to increase the intake of bioavailable iron, and appropriate strategies to reduce iron loss. Mass supplementation of athletes with iron, or self-diagnosis of low iron deficiency, are to be avoided since they exclude the opportunity for a more holistic plan. Dietary guidelines for increasing iron intake should be integrated with the other nutritional goals of the athlete, so that goals of high CHO intakes or reduced energy intake to reduce body fat can be met simultaneously. This is where the expertise of a sports dietitian is most useful.
Since exercise is considered to be one of the best protectors of bone density, the recent discovery of low bone density in some female athletes seem contradictory. It appears that some female athletes are either losing bone density, or failing to optimize the gaining of peak bone mass that should occur during the 10-15 years after the onset of puberty. One confounding factor appears to be menstrual disturbances found in greater prevalence among some groups of female athletes, particularly those undertaking sports in which there is an emphasis on low body fat levels. Although the situation is complicated and multi-factorial, it is likely that reduced oestrogen levels and other hormonal abnormalities associated with menstrual disturbances are involved. ‘The female triad’ has been used to describe the concurrence of stress fractures/low bone density, menstrual dysfunction and disordered eating among some female athletes. While this highlights attention to the serious problems involved, it also tends to simplify complex issues an independent problems into a single syndrome. Clearly, each of these problems, whether they appear together or independently, requires expert diagnosis and management. Often a team, including a sports physician, dietitian, psychologist, coach and parents may be involved.
Optimal nutrition is important to correct factors that underpin the menstrual disturbances, as well as those that contribute to suboptimal bone density. Adequate energy intake and reversal of disordered eating or inadequate nutrient intake may be important. Calcium requirements must be met, and may include an increased goal of 1200 mg/day in those athletes with impaired menstrual function. Strategies to meet calcium needs must be integrated into the total nutrition goals of the athlete. Where adequate calcium intake cannot be met through dietary means, usually through use of low-fat dairy foods, a calcium supplement may be considered.
Supplements in sport
It is considered that more than one in every two athletes is a consumer of the supplements that fill health food outlets, sports magazines and specialized sports shops. Such supplements can be divided into two categories: sports supplements are nutritional ergogenic aids. Sports supplements have been described as products that allow an athlete to achieve known nutritional goals, and in addition to micronutrient supplements that are part of a prescribed dietary plan, this category includes products such as sports drinks, sports bars and liquid meal supplements. These latter products have been specially manufactured to help an athlete meet known specific needs for fluid and carbohydrate, or generalized energy and nutrients, in situations where normal foods are not practical. This is particularly relevant to intake immediately before, during or after exercise. These supplements can be shown to improve performance directly or indirectly by allowing the athlete to achieve their sports nutrition goals. However, since it is the use of the product rather than the product itself achieves this effect, there is an important role for nutrition education of the athlete. The cost of these products is greater than that of normal food and must be balanced against the convenience that they provide.
Meanwhile it is nutritional ergogenic aids, products that promote a direct and ‘supercharge’ benefit to sports performance, which best capture the imagination of many athletes. These products continually change in fashion, and include micronutrients in megadoses, free-form amino acids, ginseng, bee pollen, inosine and carnitine. In general, these supplements have been poorly tested, or have failed to live up to their claims when rigorous testing has been undertaken. Exceptions to this are creatine, caffeine and bicarbonate, each of which may enhance sports performance in certain athletes under specific conditions. However, the athlete should seek expert advice about these supplements to ensure that such conditions apply to their own situation, and that these ergogenic aids are used correctly. Meanwhile the remainder of these products are considered to offer only a placebo effect to athletes, which should be balanced against their considerable expense. In many cases the athlete would be better rewarded by directing their money and endeavour to a more credible area of sports performance, such as better equipment, improved training techniques, or advice about nutrition or psychological preparation.
Optimizing training and recovery
An important dietary energy need is for adequate carbohydrate (CHO) to meet the fuel requirements of the training programme. The energy requirements for exercise are met largely by oxidation of fat and carbohydrate. Whereas body fat stores are adequate to supply the energy cost of exercise for may days, CHO stores are vulnerable. With prolonged training each day the body may turn over in excess of its total body CHO stores. Furthermore, there is an obligatory need for CHO oxidation when the intensity of exercise is high (e.g. >70% V02 max). Therefore, daily replacement and supplementation of CHO intake may be needed to provide the fuel needs for a strenuous training programme, particularly to maintain the intensity of training sessions. Inadequate CHO intake will gradually lead to a depletion of muscle glycogen stores and may reduce the ability of the athlete to complete their desired training load.
The guidelines for healthy eating in most countries recommended an increase in CHO intake, particularly from nutrient-dense CHO-rich foods such as cereal and grain foods, fruit, starchy vegetables and legumes. It is generally recommended that CHO intake should provide at least 50-55% of total energy intake. Although the exact CHO needs of athletes vary according to their muscle mass and training load, this general guideline is likely to meet the fuel requirements of most athletes.
For some athletes, it is important to maximize daily glycogen storage. This may be to support the fuel needs of a prolonged and high intensity training programme, or to ‘fuel up’ in anticipation of a prolonged competition bout. In such a case, an intake of approximately 7-10 g of CHO per kg body mass (BM) per 24 hours in needed. This may represent 50-70% of total energy intake of the athlete, and requires both planning and good knowledge of nutrition to achieve. Practical challenges which limit the intake of CHO include the bulkiness of many high-fibre CHO-rich foods, and the reduced opportunities for eating in a busy day. A pattern of ‘grazing’ (frequent meals and snacks), together with reliance on portable and compact CHO-rich choices is recommended (see Table 1). Eating a CHO rich snack or meal providing at least 1g CHO per kg BM straight after a training session is considered good practice for enhanced recovery. It appears that the depleted muscle is most responsive to CHO supplied immediately after exercise. More importantly, it allows the athlete to optimize the refuelling time before the next training session; a factor which may be important for athletes who undertake more than one training sessions each day.
TABLE 1. STRATEGIES FOR HIGH CHO EATING
The athletes should be prepared to be different - a Western diet is not a high-CHO diet. CHO foods and drinks should make up at least half of all meals and snacks.
- Nutritious CHO foods should be the focus of meals and snacks,
- a) wholegrain breads and breakfast cereals
- b) rice, pasta, noodles and other grain foods
- c) fruits
- d)starchy vegetables - e.g. potatoes, corn
- e) legumes (lentils, beans, soy-based products)
- f) sweetened dairy products (e.g. fruit flavoured yogurt, fruit smoothies)
Many foods commonly believed by athletes to be carbohydrate-rich are actually high-fat foods (e.g. cakes, takeaway foods, chocolates and pastries). The athlete should be aware of low-fat eating strategies.
Sugar and sugar-rich foods are useful for the athlete, especially when added to a nutritious carbohydrate food meal, or when needed during and after exercise. Not only do they taste appealing, but they provide a more compact form of CHO.
When carbohydrate and energy needs are high, the athlete should increase the number of meals and snacks that they eat, rather than the size of meals. This requires organization to have snacks on hand in a busy day.
Lower-fibre choices of carbohydrate-rich foods may be useful when energy needs are high, or when the athlete needs to eat just before exercise. These choices are more compact and less likely to cause gastrointestinal discomfort during exercise.
Carbohydrate drinks (e.g. fruit juices, soft drinks, fruit/milk smoothies) are also a compact source for special situations or high-carbohydrate diets. This category includes many of the supplements made specially for athletes (e.g. sports drinks, liquid meal supplements).
The athlete who needs to optimize muscle glycogen storage, either to recover between prolonged training sessions, to fuel up for a competition, should aim to eat 7-10 g CHO/kg BM per day. It may require expert advise to design an eating program to achieve these levels.
The athlete should eat a high carbohydrate meal 1-4 hours prior to competition. The type and amount of foods, and timing of this meal will vary with the individual and their event. All strategies should be practised in training. Suitable meal choices are suggested in Table 3.
Post-exercise recovery of muscle fuel stores is enhanced by eating a high-carbohydrate meal or snack within 15-30 minutes of exercise. An intake of at least 1 g CHO/kg BM is recommended (see Table 4). Nutritious carbohydrate-rich foods and drinks can provide protein and other nutrients that may also be useful in recovery.
Carbohydrate should be consumed during lengthy training and competition sessions when additional fuel is needed. A guideline of 30-60 g CHO per hour is suggested, and both CHO foods and drinks can be used by athletes to achieve this. However, sports drinks offer the advantage of looking after fluid and carbohydrate needs simultaneously, and being specially designed for sports situations.
Fluid needs are also an important consideration in the performance of, and recovery after, training sessions. This issue will be discussed in detail in the competition nutrition session and is summarized in Table 2.
Practising nutritional strategies during training
It is worth noting that many athletes do not appear to optimize fluid and carbohydrate intake strategies during training sessions as well as they do in the competition setting. Sometimes this is simply due to practical limitations: during competitions, access to fluid and CHO is improved due to the provision of aid stations, or to the scheduled breaks which allow intake. However there is some evidence that athletes may not rate attention to these needs as highly during training. In some cases, the erroneous (and dangerous) belief that an athlete may become ‘tougher’ by exposing themselves to dehydration during training still persists. It is important that the athlete optimizes their performance during training by attending to fluid and CHO needs as well as possible. Furthermore, the training situation provides an opportunity to perfect competition intake strategies. This might include assessing the extent of fluid losses during exercise and learning to tolerate fluid intake while exercising, or assessing the optimal amount to carbohydrate that may be needed during a prolonged exercise event.
Goals of the competition diet
Eating for competition is a challenging area of practice for the sports dietitian or team physician. There is considerable pressure on the athlete (and the sports medicine professional) to succeed, and the outcome may be definite, public, and carry significant financial implications. The nutritional goals of a sports competition may be unique to the specific event, and include:
- in weight-classed sports, to achieve the weight-in target without sacrificing fuel stores and body fluid levels.
- to ‘fuel up’ or store adequate carbohydrate stores prior to the event.
- to minimize dehydration by appropriate fluid intake strategies before, during and after the event.
- during prolonged events or other events where body carbohydrate stores become depleted, to supply additional carbohydrate during the event.
- to avoid gastrointestinal discomfort during the event.
- to promote recovery after competition, particularly in sports played as a series of heats and finals, or as a tournament.
Preparing adequate fuel stores
Preparation for competition should aim to match the body’s carbohydrate stores of liver and muscle glycogen to the anticipated fuel needs of the event. Normalized glycogen stores can be achieved by a high carbohydrate intake, in conjunction with a reduction in exercise volume and intensity for the 24-36 hours pre-event. This is considered sufficient for most sports events, particularly events lasting less than 60 minutes. Athletes who compete in events longer than this (particularly events longer than 90 minutes) may try to maximize their muscle glycogen stores by undertaking a exercise-diet programme known as glycogen (or carbohydrate) loading.
The original CHO loading protocol, as described by Scandinavian researchers in the late 1960s, used extremes of diet and exercise to first deplete the supercompensate glycogen stores. Recent work has demonstrated that trained athletes do not need to undertake the severe depletion phase to subsequently achieve an increase in glycogen stores. Instead they need only to taper their training and ensure a high (8-10g/kg BM/day) carbohydrate intake over the 72 hours prior to and event to achieve similar increases in muscle glycogen to those reported by the more extreme regimens. Some studies have reported that athletes do not have sufficient practical nutrition knowledge to achieve such carbohydrate intakes and may require dietary counseling.
The pre-event meal
The pre-event meal offers a last chance to fine-tune fluid and fuel levels prior to the event, as well as to ensure gastrointestinal comfort. An athlete who is well-tapered and has been consuming high carbohydrate meals over the last 2-3 days may already have optimized muscle CHO stores. In this case, the major concern is to top-up liver glycogen stores after an overnight fast should the event be early in the day. Conversely, if preparation for the event has been less than optimal due to inadequate recovery from the last exercise session, food eaten in the pre-event meal (1-4 hours pre-event) may significantly contribute to muscle fuel availability.
In summary, the optimal pre-event meal obviously varies between individual athletes, and is influenced by factors such as the time of day of competition and the degree to which the athlete has prepared or recovered fluid and fuel status since the last exercise session. The menu recommended for pre-event eating should include high-carbohydrate, low-fat foods, with reduced fibre and protein content being an additional recommendation for those who experience gastrointestinal discomfort. Fluid intake is also important, especially in preparation for events carried out in hot conditions. While some athletes may be able to comfortably consume a larger meal or snack 3-4 hours prior to competition, those involved in early morning events may prefer to consume a smaller snack 1-2 hours prior. Liquid meals such as commercially available supplements or fruit smoothies provide a practical alternative for athletes who find it difficult to consume solid foods prior to exercise. The athlete is advised to experiment with various pre-event routines during training to define the optimal strategy. Some suitable pre-event meal choices are summarized in Table 3.
Fluid and CHO intake during exercise
The maintenance of body temperature is a major concern for the athlete, particularly during exercise in hot, humid conditions. Evaporation of sweat from the skin provides a major mechanism of heat dissipation, with the athlete’s sweat rate being determined by exercise intensity, the state of heat acclimation, and the prevailing environmental conditions. Sweat rates as high as 2-3 L/hr have been reported in some athletes exercising at high power outputs in hot and humid conditions. However, during more prolonged, moderate-intensity exercise such as running and cycling, sweat rates in most athletes are closer to 1.0-1.2 L/hr. Unless this fluid is replaced, the athlete will eventually become dehydrated.
Dehydration of as little as 2% of an athlete’s body mass has been shown to significantly reduce high-intensity exercise capacity. Furthermore, the effects on exercise response appear to be directly related to the degree of dehydration, and the athlete cannot acquire a tolerance to dehydration as is popularly believed in some sports. It appears that the effects of dehydration on exercise performance are related to the type of event or sport being undertaken. While aerobic exercise, particularly in the heat, is impaired at such low levels of dehydration, events requiring strength and power do not seem to be affected by such small fluid losses. However, minimal dehydration may negatively impact on mental function and should therefore have a greater impact on team and racquet sports which involve skill and decision making processes, than endurance sports such as running and cycling. Dehydration has also been shown to reduce the rate of gastric emptying which may further compromise exercise performance. For these reasons, the athlete should aim to minimize net fluid losses during all types of exercise.
In terms of optimal fluid balance, the athlete might be advised to consume fluids to keep pace with sweat losses; or at least 80% of sweat loss rate. However, in most competition and training situations, athletes are limited to drinking what is practical rather than optimal. This appears to 400-800 ml of fluid per hour under most sports conditions. Whether this is done at aid stations, at formal breaks between quarters or halves of a game, or from drink bottles carried by the athlete will vary according to the sport. However, athletes should be encouraged to establish a drinking routine that takes into account their sweat losses and their opportunities to drink fluid (see Table 2). This may not be optimal when sweat losses greatly exceed the general rate of gastric emptying (about 1 litre per hour), but the athlete should aim to minimize dehydration. The athlete should drink early and frequently (e.g. 150-250 ml every 15-20 minutes) to prevent rather than try to reverse dehydration. Special consideration should be given to athletes who need to consume fluids during events, literally ‘on the run’ (e.g. marathon runners, cyclists, cross country skiers, triathletes). These athletes may need to balance their intake against the possibility of gastrointestinal discomfort or upset, as well as the time lost while eating/drinking (i.e. slowing down to approach an aid station or to handle fluids/food). Fluids that are palatable are likely to be consumed in larger quantities; for this reason, cool and sweet-tasting drinks are promoted.
TABLE 2. FLUID INTAKE STRATEGIES FOR ATHLETES
1. Monitoring weight changes over an exercise session may provide the athlete with a guide to the extent of sweat losses and their success in replacing these during the session. (1 kg B = 1 Litre of fluid). This may allow the athlete to devise a fluid intake plan for future sessions as well as to estimate the current fluid deficit that needs to be replaced.
2. The athlete is reminded that they cannot ‘toughen’ up or adapt to dehydration. Instead they may sacrifice their performance in these sessions.
3. The athlete should begin all exercise sessions well-hydrated. This means replacing fluid losses since the last session (including dehydration used to ‘make weight’). In some situations aggressive rehydration strategies may be needed.
4. The athlete should drink during the pre-event meal, and again in the hour prior to exercise. This is particularly important in hot conditions. It may also be useful to ‘prime’ the stomach with a large bolus of fluid immediately prior to exercise (e.g. 200-400 ml). Since gastric volume is a factor in promoting gastric emptying, in situations where the athlete requires to drink large volumes during exercise, this technique may optimize the rate of fluid delivery from the stomach. This strategy needs to be practised to learn individual tolerance.
5. The athlete should drink during all training and competition sessions. The ideal situation is to replace at least 80% of sweat losses (predicted by point 1). However, in many sports, practical issues such as the opportunity to drink and gastric comfort may limit the athlete’s intake to 400-800 ml/hr, which may be considerably below this. In any case, the athlete should form a fluid intake plan that optimizes opportunities to drink and minimizes dehydration. The athlete should not rely on thirst or good luck to dictate their fluid intake.
6. The athlete should explore the opportunities for fluid intake to their sport. Access to fluid may be provided by aid stations, by individual handlers, or may require the athlete to carry their own supplies. In many sports there is opportunity to drink during formal breaks in play (e.g. half-time) as well as informal breaks (e.g. stoppage in play due to rule infringement or player substitution). Athletes who drink while they exercise (e.g. runners, triathletes, cyclists) should practice this to learn techniques of grabbing and consuming drinks on the run, as well as to tolerate the fluid.
7. Drinking early in the event is important, with the goal of preventing large fluid deficits rather than reversing them. Drinking the largest tolerable amount at frequent intervals will help to keep the stomach at optimal (comfortable) volume, thus facilitating gastric emptying.
8. A cool, flavoured beverage is most palatable to athletes and will enhance voluntary fluid intake.
9. Sports drinks (containing 5-7% CHO and 10-25 mmol/L sodium) provide a palatable choice that should match fluid and carbohydrate needs of athletes inmost exercise situations.
10. After exercise, fluid deficits should be replaced quickly, especially if another training or competition session is scheduled within 2-12 hours. Where fluid deficits are greater than 1-2 L, the retention of ingested fluids is important, and will be enhanced by replacing sodium losses simultaneously. Sodium may be replaced by drinking sports drinks or Oral Rehydration Solutions, or by eating salty foods. In general, salt losses are well replaced by daily eating patterns, but aggressive rehydration techniques may require acute salt intake strategies. However, this will only minimize rather than prevent urine losses during the recovery period. In general, a volume that is 150% of the fluid deficit must be consumed to allow full replacement of fluid losses during the 4-8 hours after exercise.
TABLE 3. SUITABLE PRE-EVENT MEAL CHOICES - high CHO, low fat
- Breakfast cereal + low-fat milk + fresh/canned fruit
- Muffins or crumpets + jam/honey
- Pancakes + syrup
- Toast + baked beans (note this is a high fibre choice)
- Creamed rice (made with low-fat milk)
- Rolls or sandwiches with banana filling
- Fruit salad + low-fat fruit yogurt
- Spaghetti with tomato or low-fat sauce
- Baked potatoes with low-fat filling
- Fruit smoothie (low-fat milk + fruit + yogurt/ice-cream)
- Liquid meal supplement (e.g. Sustagen Sport, Exceed Sports Meal, GatorPro)
Carbohydrate depletion is a common cause of fatigue during prolonged intense, being caused muscle glycogen depletion and/or hypoglycaemia. Many endurance and ultra-endurance events challenge the athlete’s carbohydrate reserves despite pre-exercise strategies to maximize fuel stores. Carbohydrate intake during such exercise may benefit performance, both by preventing hypoglycaemia in those individuals susceptible to small changes in blood glucose concentration, and by supplying additional fuel for muscle glucose oxidation. Numerous studies have reported benefits to endurance capacity and/or performance in prolonged exercise events when carbohydrate is consumed.
Both solid foods and carbohydrate drinks have been used successfully to supply carbohydrate during exercise. Carbohydrate drinks are particularly useful because of the decreased risk of gastrointestinal side-effects, and the simultaneous supply of fluid. Although early studies reported that gastric emptying was reduced following the intake of carbohydrate drinks greater than 2.5% in concentration compared to plain water, there are now many studies that report that carbohydrate drinks of 5-7% concentration are emptied rapidly and do not compromise fluid replacement. Today, commercial sports drinks are manufactured using a combination of carbohydrate types (glucose, sucrose, glucose polymers etc.) to achieve a palatable beverage with a carbohydrate content of 5-7% and a moderate sodium level 10-25 mmol/L). These sports drinks provide a practical way to achieve carbohydrate and fluid needs during exercise and post-exercise recovery. The athlete should experiment with carbohydrate intake strategies during training to perfect a competition (see Table 2).
Recovery after exercise
In some sports, competition is conducted as a series of events or stages. Examples include track and field and swimming events where athletes may compete in a number of brief events, or heats and finals, all in the one day. In tennis tournaments and cycle tours, competition may extend for 1-3 weeks with competitors being required to undertake one or more lengthy bouts each day. The value of rapid recovery between events is clear; and recovery strategies must consider the extent and type of nutritional stresses involved as well as the time interval between competition bouts. Even where athletes compete in a weekly fixture, optimal recover is desired to allow the athlete to undertake training between matches or races.
Immediate intake of carbohydrate food has already been identified as a key strategy in enhancing glycogen refuelling (see Table 4). Despite the intake of fluid during exercise most athletes finish the session at least mildly dehydrated. From a practical standpoint, the success of post-exercise rehydration is dependent on how much the athlete drinks, and then how much of this is retained and re-equilibrated within body fluid compartments. Flavoured drinks may encourage greater intake than plain water, in addition to the benefits of carbohydrate content on muscle fuel needs. Urine losses appear to be minimized by the replacement of lost electrolytes, particularly sodium, simultaneously with fluid replacement. The inclusion of sodium in the drink (particularly in levels as high as in Oral Rehydration Solutions used in the treatment of diarrhoea), or the concurrent consumption of salty foods, may be an important strategy in the rapid recovery of moderate-high fluid deficits. Since caffeine and alcohol promote diuresis, consumption of large amounts of alcohol and caffeine-containing drinks may also impair rapid fluid restoration. The current practices of some athletes, particularly in team sports, to consume excessive amounts of alcohol after competition requires re-education. Disadvantages include impairment of rehydration and thermoregulation, exacerbation of soft tissue damage, as well as behaviour that provides a high risk of accidents.
While eating for optimal competition recovery may simply represent an extension of everyday nutrition patterns, it is important to remember the practical implications of the competition situation. Some consideration may need to be given to ensuring the availability of suitable foods at the competition venue, particularly where athletes are often competing interstate or overseas. The post-event phase is often a time of conflicting priorities, with the athlete being distracted by requests for drug testing, equipment checks, travel, media interviews and team activities. IT is vital that the athlete is aware of the importance of recovery nutrition, and that creative and practical ways of achieving this can be organized. Nutrient-dense supplements in liquid (e.g. liquid meals) or solid form (e.g. sports bars) may provide a practical alternative to food in some situations.
These serves provide 50g of carbohydrate - the athlete may need 1-2 serves depending on their body weight. Many other carbohydrate snacks or meals may be eaten according to the athlete’s appetite or availability of these foods.
TABLE 4. SUITABLE POST-EXERCISE RECOVERY SNACKS
- 800-1000 ml sports drink
- 500 ml fruit juice or soft drink
- 250 ml high carbohydrate supplement (e.g. Exceed High Carbohydrate Source, Gatorlode)
- 250-350 ml fruit smoothie
- 250-350 ml liquid meal supplement (e.g. Sustagen Sport, Exceed Sports Meal, GatorPro)
- 50g jelly beans or lollies
- 70-80 g chocolate bar
- 1 round jam or honey sandwich (thick-sliced bread + lot of jam or honey)
- 3 muesli bars
- 3 medium-large pieces of fruit (e.g. apple, orange, banana)
- 2 cups breakfast cereal + skim milk
- 2 x 200g carton low-fat fruit yoghurt
- Cup of thick vegetable soup + large bread roll
- 2 cups fruit salad + 1/2 carton of low-fat fruit yogurt
- 1 large bread roll + banana filling
- 1-2 pieces of thick crust pizza
Sports nutrition combines science and practice to assist athletes to be healthy, train effectively, and compete at their best. The special nutritional needs of athletes must be met within a busy schedule and with creative strategies that combine a number of nutritional goals simultaneously. Special fluid and food intake strategies before, during and after exercise can improve athletic performance and enhance subsequent recovery.