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A Nutrition Plan for Athletes

By Sheryl Lozicki

A good nutrition plan is critical for you to perform at your athletic best. It promotes optimal training by increasing muscle response time that is free of aches and pains, and positive mental outlook by improving alertness and reducing exercise induced irritability. An elite athlete's nutrition plan has been finely tuned and is a good place to start when rewiring your own.

Calories

Calorie levels are matched to an elite athlete’s energy needs year round. They do not gain weight during the off season as they correctly fuel their body, never over- or under-feeding it. This perfect balance prevents them from breaking down muscle to be used in the absence of adequate energy or storing excess as fat, leading to increased muscle drag. Low energy intake in women--fewer than 1,800 to 2,000 calories/day, for example--is a major nutritional concern causing muscle tissue breakdown and compromised hormone production. Male athletes who drastically reduce activity post-season, while not compensating with calorie changes and weight training, experience an undesirable rise in percent body fat.

Hydration

An elite athlete uses sports and recovery drinks to ensure that he is hydrated prior to, replenished during and refueled after workouts. The American Dietetic Association (ADA) and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommend individuals drink 5 milliliters to 7 milliliters of water or sports beverage per kilogram body weight four hours prior to exercise. This allows adequate time to maximize hydration and excrete any excess fluid. One cup of fluid is recommended 15 minutes prior to exercise, and then 7 ounces to 10 ounces for every 15 to 20 minutes of activity. Water is a good choice for activities lasting less than one hour. Sports drinks that provide fluid for hydration, carbohydrates for energy and electrolytes for the sodium and potassium lost in sweat are desirable in longer events or when the heat and humidity index is high.

Snacks

The ADA and ACSM recommend athletes replenish their muscles with 1 gram to 1.5 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight within 30 minutes of their workout. This includes 2 cups of fluid for every pound lost due to sweat. Elite athletes also snack between meals to maintain a constant flow of energy and keep glycogen (energy stores) in the muscle and liver high. At the 2010 Winter Olympics, for instance, athletes snacked on Snack-ens, a pretzel mix with bagel chips, craisins, salsa rice triangles and green apple chips.

Breakfast

Successful performance can only be ensured with a full tank of gas, even in the morning. Once the body gets behind in hydration or fuel, muscles perform less optimally, the mind is less focused, and the stomach is slower to empty. A light breakfast, sports drink or energy bar improves early morning training efforts. Some athletes need to train their stomachs, just as they train their body, to tolerate refueling before an early-morning workout.

Balanced Meals

To perform at their best, elite athletes do not skip meals. They eat three meals each day that contain a minimum of three food groups. Each meal includes a good source of protein (low-fat milk, yogurt, cheese, meat, beans or legumes) to support continuous muscle growth and repair. They purposefully select fruits and vegetables that are high in antioxidants and minerals, such as iron and potassium, and promote good muscle contraction. They are also wise to include omega-3-rich fish, spreads and nuts to reduce inflammation and promote a healthy heart.

Dessert

In order to perform at your athletic best, you must maximize your training sessions, believe in your ability to succeed, and make nourishing selections 90 percent of the time. That leaves 10 percent of your total calories for discretionary indulgences. This means that if you eat 2,400 calories/day, you can munch on 240 calories, such as the amount found in one packet of M&M’s, four and half Oreo cookies, or just less than 1 cup of vanilla ice cream.

Breakthrough Perfromance

Many athletes have said that their breakthrough performances occurred when they stopped eating “whatever,” and began to “eat to perform." Incorporate these attributes into your nutrition plan. Eat with a purpose; achieve your personal best.

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