As a student-athlete, does your diet change between seasons? Contrary to popular belief, the dietary needs of a track star or tennis champion actually remain unchanged whether he or she is training or not. The main difference is in the amount of calories and fluids a student-athlete consumes while they are preparing for a competition.
“The most important thing is to make sure you have enough energy [in the form of] food, and the best kind of energy for athletes are complex carbohydrates such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains,” said Mary-Jo Lomax, a health educator at De Anza College. “A varied diet helps make sure you get all the nutrients you need.”
Here are some other top tips for eating toward efficient performance:
Refrain from binge habits
Don’t let your extra hours of training fool you into thinking that you can get away with eating junk food all the time. “A trap that you can get into is thinking, ‘Oh, I can eat this donut’ or ‘I can eat whatever I want because I work out,’ ” Lomax said. However, that isn’t usually the case. In order to do your best at games and meets, you need to prime your body with the nutrients it needs. Empty calories from junk food can easily take up most of your calorie requirements, which vary depending on your size, gender and activity level. (For more information on energy requirements, visit the MIT Sports Medicine webpage.)
Carbo-load with caution
A common practice for athletes is “carbohydrate loading,” when athletes consume a high-carbohydrate diet days before an event. This technique mainly benefits athletes who participate in long-distance endurance events that last 90 minutes or more, for a source of fuel for the body. But other athletes don’t need this— “Just make sure that the majority of your diet [about 60 percent] consists of carbohydrates,” Lomax said.
Pick your proteins
You don’t need to guzzle protein shakes or consume massive amounts of protein powder in order to gain muscle. The amount the average American eats is sufficient for the body; the rest of the work in muscle building comes from strength training. A recommended guideline is about one to 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram in body weight each day.
Get your fats
You need a moderate amount of fat each day for long-lasting fuel and for other tasks that contribute to a fully functioning body, such as cell growth and hormone production, said Lomax. Dieticians recommend consuming unsaturated fats, like the kind in nuts or fish, instead of oversaturated fats, which can be found in abundance in the typical cheeseburger or in fatty meats. Try to avoid trans fats in fried foods and baked goods that use margarine or shortening, which have been linked to a higher risk for type 2 diabetes. Make sure to check the ingredients label for “partially hydrogenated” oils.
Load up on vitamins and minerals
One thing athletes do have to worry about more than anyone else is getting enough iron to prevent fatigue and enough calcium to maintain strong bones and muscles. The recommended daily amount of iron—which you can find in red meat, beans and leafy greens—is 15 milligrams per day for women and 10 for men. Young women need about 1,200 milligrams of calcium, which can be found in dairy, per day.
For workouts of one hour or less in duration, water is the best choice to drink to maintain your body’s fluid level. Sports drinks that replenish electrolytes are best left to workouts that last over an hour. Make sure to keep drinking fluids before, during and after the workout or event to stay hydrated.
Fuel up early
Lomax suggests eating a small amount of food a couple of hours before a game or meet. “All that digestion takes energy, and you want to avoid getting cramps,” she said. Don’t eat foods high in fat, protein or simple sugars right before the game, and also avoid caffeine, which can lead to dehydration (not to mention heighten nerves). Experiment with the best meal times for you: try having a small meal two to four hours before your event, and a light snack of low-fiber fruits and vegetables, yogurt or crackers an hour prior to competing.