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Just as a race car can’t go far or fast without the right kind of fuel, neither can an athlete compete at his or her best or recover afterwards without the right nutrition. Marathon runners, triathletes, soccer players, long-distance swimmers or cyclers, competitive weight lifters, or anyone else exercising for longer than an hour and a half all require extra nutrition to fuel their body to make it to the finish line, let alone maintain peak performance.
Athletes will benefit from following these nutritional guidelines before their next big race.
When you eat carbohydrates (think potatoes, bread, pasta, cereal, rice, fruit, and beans), your body converts them into a sugar called glucose. Glucose is then changed into glycogen and stored in your muscles or liver. When you exert yourself during exercise, your body takes the stored glycogen and uses it for energy. With normal amounts of exercise, this stored glycogen provides enough energy to fuel your body. Exercise for longer than 90 minutes and you’ll deplete your glycogen stores, causing your body to run out of fuel.
To ensure adequate energy stores, endurance athletes should carb load (eat lots of carbs in the three to four days prior to an event). More than half your calories should come from foods high in carbohydrates. Do this by eating a meal at least three hours before exercising and then replenish your carbs, fluids, and electrolytes every 20 minutes with a sports bar, energy gel, sports drink, or fruit juice.
On top of this, help your muscles recover following intense exercise by eating refined carbs (whole grains, fruit, vegetables).
Alone, extra protein won’t make your muscles grow faster. But when combined with exercise and strength training, protein will support muscle growth and provide energy when carb stores run low.
An athlete who eats a few extra calories will get the protein he needs for his or her sport of choice. But be careful. Too much protein can lead to weight gain, kidney problems, or dehydration. Weight lifters and endurance athletes should aim to eat 0.5 to 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight. Rather than supplements, the best sources of protein come from poultry, fish, lean meats, beans, eggs, nuts, and milk.
Support muscle repair following a strenuous workout by eating a meal high in protein or drinking a glass of milk.
Strenuous exercise can quickly lead to dehydration as your body uses more fluids and perspires. It’s essential to drink before, during, and after exercise to replace lost fluids and to keep the body at a normal temperature.
For example, two hours before a marathon or long-distance bike race, drink 16 ounces of water. During the race, down another 8 to 12 ounces of cool liquid at least every 15 minutes. Don’t wait until you’re thirsty, it may be too late.
Part of hydration includes replacing lost electrolytes—mainly sodium, calcium, and potassium, which help regulate the nervous system, muscle function, hydration, and blood pressure. Sports drinks containing electrolytes are a valuable asset to endurance athletes. A smart thing is to dilute sports drinks with water, which will provide a balance of electrolytes and fluid.
Energy from carbohydrates, muscle strength from lean protein, and hydration from water are the three key ingredients to performing at your best. In addition, a balanced diet, enough rest, and healthy lifestyle choices all play a role in your ability to outrun, outlift, and outsmart your opponent.
Watch for symptoms of dehydration: thirst, dry mouth, dizziness, swollen tongue, heart palpitations, confusion, lack of sweat, and decreased urine.