Athletes are dedicated to their sport. They exercise daily, train with professionals, perform weight lifting, engage in team practices, and athletes compare their performances with opponents. All this commitment is an effort to make the human body work more efficiently. Continuous exercise and training strengthens the muscles to work better in conjunction with the bones. Baseball pitchers would want to train the arm muscles to throw a blazing fast pitch, long distance runners would work to control the respiratory system in order to finish strong at the end of an extensive race, and football players build on agility and muscular endurance sequentially outrunning the opponent. Today’s athletic generation has cause competiveness in sports to reach unprecedented levels. However, are athletes consuming the right foods to fulfill these activities? Adequate nutrition is an integral aspect to athletic performance. Athletes that demand for higher performance in their sports or training, should have a high nutritional value in relation to their activities. This will require healthy eating habits between activities. It is critical to maintain a balance healthy diet before and after performance in order to achieve maximum performance. A good diet with adequate nutrition such as calories, vitamins, minerals, protein and water will help provide the energy required to carry out the activity.
Athletes acquire energy from the foods they eat. Food can be further divided into two categories: macronutrients and micronutrients. Macronutrients supply an athlete with direct sources of energy for daily life activities and physical exercise. Macronutrients include proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. Micronutrients aid in the processes of life, such as digestion and food metabolism. They are not able to provide energy, but they are essential in generating energy for the human body. Examples of micronutrients are: vitamins and minerals.
Protein is a macronutrient involved in many chemical processes of life. Proteins are specialized for different organs and species. Proteins are combinations of amino acids that combine in various ways to make muscle, bones, tendons, skin and many other tissues. When proteins are broken down by the body at ingestion, amino acids are formed. There are 20 amino acids which help form human proteins, however only 9 are essential. Meaning 9 out of the 20 proteins are supplied by the food we eat, because the human body is unable to produce them through synthetic processes in the cell. Protein is one of the components in body tissues, necessary for cell growth and repair, as well as in hormones, enzymes, the immune system, and body fluids. Athletes need protein primarily to repair and rebuild muscle that is broken down during physical exercise. It also aids in optimizing carbohydrate storage. Protein is the last source of energy used when other macronutrients are available. When the body lacks adequate carbohydrate, the body turns to protein as a source of fuel for physical activity. During extreme physical activity, muscle tissue becomes an energy source because there is an insufficient amount of fat and carbohydrate consumed. Therefore it is necessary to maintain a balance of protein intake everyday, to make up for the protein lost in the muscle tissue during an increase in intensity when training.
Research has shown an amino acid known as creatine can help enhance athletic performance. Derived from other amino acids, glycine, arginine, and methionine, creatine is stored in the skeletal muscle as creatine phosphate. The job of creatine phosphate is to help facilitate the production of energy. With an increase store of creatine phosphate in the body, the ability to produce energy during high intensity training is improved. As well, the googelpeed of recovery after the exercise will improve. Athletes can obtain creatine primarily from meat and fish.
Carbohydrates are the primary fuel for the exercising muscles and are essential for supporting an athlete’s training and performance. They are the major energy source for anaerobic and aerobic activity. Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose molecules and stored in our skeletal muscles and liver as glycogen. The amount of glycogen stored affects stamina and endurance. After an athlete is done training, glycogen is released from the liver into the bloodstream to restore the glucose levels in the blood and glucose is transported to cells for energy. If the blood glucose levels are low, athletes may feel irritable, tired, and lack concentration interfering with their performance. Glycogen stored in the skeletal muscles provides fuel for the exercising muscles during high and low-intensity activities. There are limited carbohydrate reserves in the body and exercising causes the glycogen stores to become depleted very quickly. During exercise, muscle cells run out of glycogen, the muscles lack energy and fatigue sets in. The performance will suffer, but will vary depending on the sport and its intensity. Therefore, daily carbohydrate consumption and training is necessary to maintain glycogen for optimal performance. In order for athletes to obtain enough energy to maximize athletic efforts, carbohydrates also aid in fat metabolism. The presence of carbohydrates is essential in utilizing fat for energy. In general, endurance athletes use up more carbohydrates than athletes that use energy fro strength and power. To explain this, because endurance athletes are participating in physical activity over a longer period of time, a greater amount of carbohydrates is required by the body to supply the energy for the duration. Whereas athletes involved in strength and power events require less amount of carbohydrates needed by the body to supply a sudden burst of energy for powerful but short-lived physical actions. Athletes should choose foods that provide the most carbohydrates per calorie. Adequate intake of carbohydrates will prevent protein from being used as energy. When protein in used as a subsidiary, it is broken down to make glucose for energy. As a result the body limits its ability in developing and maintaining tissues, because protein is stressed upon for energy. Ideal sources of carbohydrates include: whole-grain cereal, pasta, brown rice, and bread products. As part of a healthy diet, athletes should include at least two carbohydrate-rich foods accompanying each meal, and at least one with every snack.
Prior to competitions, athletes like to load muscles with glycogen to delay fatigue that occurs during endurance events. A diet that contains high nutritious carbohydrates of 55-65% of total calories, is sufficient enough to provide adequate glycogen storages that will help support the athlete in the duration of their performance.
Fat is the predominant fuel source during prolonged exercise. The body has unlimited storage capacity for fat, which makes it the largest reserve of energy in the body. It is integral for many metabolic processes including energy production, synthesis of vitamin D, cholesterol, hormones, and transporters of lipid soluble vitamins. Fat can be classified into two categories based on its structure: unsaturated and saturated fats. Unsaturated fats are obtained from plant sources. Advantages of unsaturated fats include lowering cholesterol and reducing the risk of heart disease. Saturated fats on the other hand, come from animal sources and cheese. Saturated fats are not recommended in large consumption to athletes, because an excess of this macronutrient will raise cholesterol or lipid levels in the blood and lead to heart diseases. However fats do hold its place in sports nutrition. Fats are less oxygen-rich, but they can release a greater amount of energy at a greater speed than other nutrients. This will provide an athlete with a concentrated source of energy. Fat becomes calories that are less accessible to athletes performing short-lived activities. Fat is essential for longer and lower intensity endurance exercises. Fats play a second major role in the body, insulation. Fats assist in insulating and protecting vital organs and parts of the body. Athletes can obtain fat from food sources such as milk, butter, meat and oils. Athletes need to carefully monitor the type and the amount of fats they eat.
Vitamins are essential micronutrients athletes need to produce energy. Mostly vitamins come from the food we eat, with the exception of vitamin D. Instead of participating in the metabolic processes of nutrients, vitamins help to regulate the reactions in metabolic processes. Vitamins are responsible in facilitating energy release and synthesizing bone and tissue. Absence of a vitamin prevents certain metabolic processes to occur in the cell, and eventually affects the metabolic balance in the body as a whole.
Another micronutrient occurs naturally on earth. It is found in the earth’s waters, soil, and the plants we eat. This micronutrient is known as the mineral. There are seven key minerals: calcium, potassium, phosphorous, magnesium, sodium, chloride, and sulphur. Two minerals that deserve special attention from athletes are iron and calcium. Iron is a main component in the blood. It is critical for red blood cell formation, function and myoglobin composition. Iron operates in the blood as oxygen carriers, a key role in sport performance. If iron levels are low, athletes develop signs of tiredness, poor appetite and an increase in resting pulse rate. This results because inefficient supply of oxygen is distributed to parts of the body. Oxygen combines with glucose to form ATP molecules, the main source of energy for muscles. The greater amount of ATP is stored in the muscles, the more powerful they will be when it performs work. However, when iron levels are low in the blood, muscles do not receive enough oxygen to support exertion. This results in lactic acid being produced and the athlete to endure pain and fatigue in the muscles. Also excess amounts of oxygen in the body help athletes to metabolize lactic acid back to useful energy molecules after exercise. This allows the muscles of athletes to recover faster and be able to carry out physical activity again without resting for long periods of time. Iron can be obtained from many food sources including cereals, red meats, and bread products.
When athletes want to develop stronger bones, they think of calcium. Calcium is a micronutrient from the popular dairy food group, comprised of milk, yogurt and cheese. 99 percent of the calcium in our body is stored in the skeletal system, while the remaining 1 percent is accumulated in the muscle cells. During muscle contraction, calcium ions are released to trigger the process. Calcium ions are released into the sarcoplasm and then they find their way to attach onto the troponin molecules. Without the attachment of troponin molecules and calcium, the interaction of actin and myosin leading to muscle contraction will not occur. Thus, if muscle contractions are not generated, athletes are unable to perform their activity. Low calcium levels in the body are in relation to developing low bone density. This causes the bones of the body to become more fragile and vulnerable to stress fractures, as the limiting amount of calcium will be used for muscle contraction. Therefore in order for athletes to withstand intense physical activity, an adequate amount of calcium should be included in their meals.
Lastly athletes need to stay hydrated for optimal performance. The human body consumes energy during physical exercise and creates heat. The body’s temperature would rise drastically, causing the body to overheat if heat was not released. In conjunction with the release of heat, the body’s sweat glands discharge fluid to the surface of the skin and evaporate. This overall process is an effort to cool the body, however the body must pay for the cost of dehydration. Water comprises 50-60 percent of the weight in human bodies. This portion of water in the human body helps to regulate heat and maintain a constant body temperature. Water helps to transport nutrients to cells and extract waste products. Water distributes the heat generated by physical activity throughout the body and enables the body to perspire. In general fluids, not just water, are lost when humans perspire, urinate, through feces, and respiration. This is particularly important for athletes because they are under physically active conditions. A constant replacement of fluids is necessary for the human body to continue to operate and achieve its optimal performance. Research have discovered when athletes sweat, they lose 1-2% of body weight which is linked to a decrease in blood volume. This process manipulates the heart to work harder to circulate the blood, building up muscle cramps and dizziness. Athletes establish proper hydration by drinking the right fluids during physical activity. This means drinking fluids properly throughout the day when thirsty, and especially before an activity begins. In the course of a long competition, where fluid is being lost in sweat, sport drinks are good subsidiary fluids and electrolytes. The sodium levels in the drinks are ideal replacements of sodium secreted in sweat. Low sodium levels can affect concentration. In general it is not advised for athletes to drink sport drinks such as Gatorade, on a regular basis or every time they participate in physical activity. These fluids can interfere with the body absorbing the proper nutrients.
The principle that underlies healthy eating and enhancing sports performance is to maintain a balance between the food we eat and the amount of energy that is going to be used for work. Since athletes participate actively in physical exercise, they will need to absorb more energy in the foods they eat. The above principle is expressed as an energy equation: Energy storage = Energy intake – Energy output. Energy storage represents the amount of energy left in the body after the amount of energy used is reduced from the amount of energy taken in by the body. If athletes absorb insufficient amounts of energy from food sources, optimal performance will not be achieved. Muscles will weaken without nutrients and negative health consequences become a concern for athletes.
Athletes spend many hours training and undergoing physical activity so the body can excel in sport performances. It is important that athletes keep their bodies nourished in order to supply fuel for athletic endeavours. It is necessary for athletes to develop a focus on maintaining proper nutrition, so the hours spent during physical activity and rest are not subjected to waste. Good nutritional habits are necessary to achieve optimal physical performance, however it does not mean that we should differentiate foods into good or bad. To maintain a healthy lifestyle, athletes should consume foods from various food groups and make better food choices at the same time. Daily food choices should include macronutrients such as protein, carbohydrates, and fat, micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals, and most importantly fluids, commonly water. Athletes are better equipped to meet their maximal athletic potential if the right foods are taken in the right amounts to fuel the body. Great athletic accomplishments are determined by good nutrition.