Along with proper training, eating nutritiously pays big dividends in terms of athletic performance. The types of food and beverages and the timing of your meals and snacks can make all the difference between a top-notch performance and a less-than-stellar showing. Carbohydrates, or carbs, are the primary fuel that powers your workouts. Just as putting the wrong type of gas in your car affects how well it runs, it is the same with you -- correctly fuel your body to perform well.
Regardless of your sport, carbs are your body’s preferred energy source. Carbs provide four calories per gram. Stored in muscle cells, carbs are readily available. Fat, another potential energy source, is not nearly as efficient because it must first be released from different body sites and transported through the bloodstream before being metabolized. According to Fink, Burgoon and Mikesky in their text, "Practical Applications in Sports Nutrition," approximately 400 to 600 grams of carbs are stored in liver and muscle tissue. When carb intake is too low and body stores are depleted, blood sugar drops, causing fatigue and weakness, which is detrimental to any athletic performance.
The Institute of Medicine recommends 45 to 65 percent of your daily calories come from carbs, with a 130 gram minimum. Requirements vary depending on your weight, age, training intensity, and sport type. Multiply your weight in kilograms by 5 - 10 grams to determine your individual needs. If you exercise only recreationally or at low intensity, approximately three to five times per week, your needs are on the lower side. As your training intensifies, or if you are a competitive athlete, you will need to eat more carbs. Generally, endurance activities and intense training increase carb requirements to 70 to 75% of total calories, according to Fink, Burgoon and Mikesky.
Eat plenty of carbs at least 24 hours before working out. Your comfort level determines exactly when and how much to eat; stomach cramps may occur if you eat too many fatty foods or consume too much food immediately before working out. It may take time and experimentation to determine how your body best responds.
Include low-fat protein foods along with carbs to optimize digestion and keep blood sugar levels up. A bowl of whole grain cereal with nonfat milk and a banana work well as a pre-competition meal. If you are exercising later in the day, try some vegetable soup with hummus and whole grain crackers for a nutritious lunch.
Remember to Drink
A well-hydrated body is also essential for optimal athletic performance. Dehydration causes fatigue during exercise, states Pamela M. Nisevich, MS, RD, LD in the June 2008 issue of "Today's Dietitian." Risk increases as heat and humidity rise. Drink 2 cups of fluid, such as milk, water or juice, 2 hours before exercise, recommend Fink, Burgoon and Mikesky, followed by one cup an hour later. Check the color of your urine to determine if you are sufficiently hydrated; a light, lemonade-like color indicates you are, while a dark, yellow or gold color means you should increase your fluid intake.
- Practical Applications in Sports Nutrition: Heather Fink, Lisa Burgoon, Alan Mikesky
- Today's Dietitian: Sports Nutrition for Young Athletes: Vital to Victory
Sue Roberts began writing in 1989. Her work has appeared in such publications as “Today’s Dietitian” and "Journal of Food Science." Roberts holds a Bachelor of Science in nutrition from Pennsylvania State University, a Master of Public Health in nutrition from the University of Minnesota and a Master of Science in food science from Michigan State University. She is a registered dietitian and certified nutritionist.