Nutrition plays a major role in disease prevention and health promotion. In fact, a complete, balanced and varied diet may contribute to healthier biochemical and physiological parameters in both athletes and the general population. Regarding sports, nutrition translates into more than “just” health improvement – in this field, nutrition turns out as a performance and recovery tool. But how can nutrition be so important?
The Role of Nutrition in Body Composition
Firstly, we must consider that different sports require different body compositions due to different demands of training and competition. It becomes easier to understand this when we compare the body structure of rugby players to rhythmic gymnasts. In some endurance sports, such as cycling and swimming, a leaner and lighter athlete tends to be faster, improving competition results. As so, combined with training, nutrition presents itself as an essential tool to improve body composition and, consequently, sports performance.
Nutrition as a Source of Energy
Let’s dive deeper into sports nutrition and energy needs. Athletes typically have higher energy needs, which must be fulfilled through an adequate and individualised food plan. Food preferences, health condition and schedules must be taken into account when developing a food plan for an athlete. When daily energy needs aren’t met, athletes are more prone to injuries and health consequences, such as osteoporosis, stunted growth or amenorrhea. Performance can also be affected.
Macronutrients and Supplements for Performance
During competition and/or training, certain foods and supplements may be useful. Carbohydrates are essential for energy. Simple carbohydrates (such as fruit, jam, cereal bars, isotonic drinks) can improve physical and cognitive performance during competition – this happens, for example, in football. In its turn, protein is essential to muscle growth and recovery. Healthy fats allow fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) to be absorbed, and are also a source of omega-3.
Some supplements, such as creatine and caffeine, can function as an ergogenic aid. Yet, the sport practiced must be considered when choosing the supplement. Supplements should be advised by a certified sports dietitian, as they can interact with medications or contain drugs banned by World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).
Post-training Recovery: How Can Nutrition Help?
Nutrition can also be considered when creating recovery strategies. The ingestion of carbohydrates post-training is crucial to replenish muscle glycogen stores. Similarly, the consumption of foods rich in protein stimulates muscle recovery and muscle protein synthesis. Antioxidants, which are present in fruits and vegetables, may also be a useful aid to recovery. However, nutrition also includes water: hydration is essential for recovery. On the other hand, alcohol should be avoided, as it can impair this process. An adequate recovery process will further promote performance.
Nutrition and Injury: from Prevention to Treatment
As mentioned before, an insufficient energy intake can increase the likelihood of injury occurrence. Still, there are other nutritional factors that may result in injury. These factors include dehydration, alcohol consumption, nutrients deficits, and a pro-inflammatory food profile. Overweight athletes are also more prone to injuries.
Nutrition can also be part of a recovery process from an injury. When an athlete is injured, an adequate and optimized food and supplementation plan can minimize muscle mass loss and fat mass gain, which are characteristic of the immobilization period.
An adequate nutrition is an asset for sport and athletes, presenting advantages and benefits from a performance and recovery level. It also presents itself as essential to health – healthy athletes will also be athletes with a higher sports performance. As so, nutritional strategies should be considered in sports facilities. Athletes should be engaged in nutrition appointments with a certified sports nutritionist, in order to improve health and performance.
The content of this article does not constitute medical advice by a registered healthcare professional. Please consult your physician before starting any new diet, exercise or training programme.