Just as a car runs best with a full tank of gas, your body needs the right kind of “nutritional fuel”. A balance of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, minerals, vitamins, and water will give your body what it needs for peak performance.
Carbohydrates or “carbs” (found in pasta, bread, cereal, rice, potatoes, fruit, milk, yogurt, etc.) are especially important for athletes because they supply the body with glucose for energy. Extra glucose is stored in the muscles and liver as glycogen, your energy reserve. During short bursts of exercise such as sprinting, basketball, gymnastics, or soccer, your body relies on glycogen to keep your blood sugar levels stable and thus maintain your energy. If you don’t have enough glycogen, you may feel very tired or have difficulty sustaining the activity – effects that will, undoubtedly, impact your performance! During longer exercise, your body uses your glycogen stores first, next turning to fats stored in your body to fuel performance.
Fat is an important source of energy used to fuel longer exercise and endurance activities, such as hiking, cycling, and long-distance running. Eating a diet that is too low in dietary fat may decrease athletic performance and cause other health problems, such as deficiencies of certain vitamins which require fat to be absorbed.
Protein is needed for your body to build and repair muscles. Small amounts of protein may also be used for energy.
Vitamins and minerals are not sources of energy, but they have many important functions in the body. For example, vitamin D and calcium are needed for strong bones, and iron is needed for blood cells to carry oxygen throughout your body. Certain minerals, like potassium, calcium, and sodium are called electrolytes. They are important during exercise because they have an effect on the amount of water in your body and on how your muscles work. Athletes should eat a balanced diet with a variety of foods to make sure they get enough vitamins and minerals. It is fine to take a regular multivitamin, but supplements with high doses of vitamins and minerals do not improve performance and may actually be harmful.
Water is essential to keep you hydrated. Dehydration (when your body doesn’t have enough fluids to work efficiently) can cause muscle cramps, and dizziness or lightheadedness. When you are physically active, dehydration is not only dangerous, but can also keep you from performing your best.
Healthy Eating Tips for Athletes:
Eat a variety of foods. Because different foods have different nutrients, you should eat a variety of foods to get all the nutrients you need to stay in peak condition. For example, oranges provide vitamin C and carbohydrates, but not iron or protein. A piece of grilled chicken provides iron and protein, but not vitamin C or carbohydrates.
Eat regular meals and snacks. Skipping meals will hurt your performance. Eating regular meals and healthy snacks is the best way to fuel your body for athletic events.
Eat enough calories. Calories fuel your body for exercise and replace energy that is used up during sports performance. Cutting calories keeps you from performing your best. As exercise and athletic training demands energy above and beyond your body’s day-to-day needs, it is essential to meet these needs in order to compete at full strength and recover quickly after a workout.
Drink plenty of fluids. Athletes need more fluids than non-athletes. Do not wait until you are thirsty to start drinking water, because thirst means that you are starting to dehydrate. Remember to drink even more in hot and humid weather.