Key nutritional needs for athletes

Wednesday, February 21, 2018 - 09:00

Most people are aware that athletes require adequate nutrition in order to keep their bodies in their best shape for training and competition. And while every athlete is an individual and may require specific things to meet their dietary needs based on individual physical characteristics, training and competition schedules, and overall nutritional goals, there are some basic and key elements to any athlete’s nutritional plan.

While each of these areas should be examined in more depth to get the most benefits for the athletes there are some general takeaways that can be highlighted:

Energy Intake
It is essential that athletes consume enough energy to offset energy expended during training and competition which may vary during training cycles. Not consuming enough calories (and the right calories) may be a detriment to performance and optimal body function, increase risk of illness and injury, risk of overtraining, loss of muscle mass and unwanted weight loss. Sports nutritionists' often recommend that athletes consume 4-6 meals per day and snacks in between meals in order to meet energy needs. Risk of eating disorders is sometimes a concern with athletes who are concerned with body weight and composition, maintaining a healthy diet can help with weight maintenance.

Carbohydrates play a key role in competition fueling for all athletes. While there are mixed messages about the amounts needed for performance, there is no debating the need for carbohydrate stores as a source of fuel for the muscles and brain during exertion. Since muscle fuel costs change according to the intensity and duration of exertion, carbohydrate intake should be varied to match training load. Athletes are recommended to ensure that they add carbohydrate intake before and after training sessions. The following general guidelines are recommended, but should be adapted to individual needs as required: carbohydrate intake of 3-5g/kg of athlete body mass for low intensity or skill based training; 5-7g/kg intake for moderate training; 6-10g/kg for endurance programs (1-3 hrs/day); 8-10g/kg for extreme commitments (4-5 hrs/day). Carbohydrates are not just for endurance athletes, short duration events also require glycogen stores to fuel performance. Timing of fueling, loading and refueling also play key roles.

Research over the last years now indicates that athletes engaged in higher intensity exercise need to consume more than the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of protein which was the former way of thinking, perhaps even twice as much. Dietary protein promotes greater adaptation to training and low protein intake may reduce training outcomes and slow recovery. Different types of proteins are ingested at different rates and have different properties, so a nutritional plan should be made to make sure it includes enough protein that is high quality. The best dietary sources of low fat, high quality protein are light skinless chicken, fish, egg white and skim milk (casein and whey).

Dietary recommendations for fat are the same or slightly higher for athletes than the average person. Intake will depend on the athlete’s training level and body composition goals. According to Dietitians of Canada “Fat is a necessary component of a healthy diet, providing energy, essential elements of cell membranes and facilitation of the absorption of fat soluble vitamins”. In general, research suggests that high-fat diets does not enhance performance, however, reducing fat intake in an effort to lose weight or improve body composition often means reducing the absorption of essential nutrients. A diet with fat intake less than 20% of energy intake should be discouraged for athletes.

Vitamins are essential organic compounds that serve to regulate metabolic processes, energy synthesis, neurological processes, and prevent destruction of cells.” There are two primary classifications of vitamins: fat soluble (vitamins A, D, E, & K) and water soluble (vitamins B & C). Consuming the recommended daily amounts can help maintain general health. While vitamins in and of themselves do not have direct performance enhancing properties, consuming RDA amounts may help athletes tolerate training better by reducing oxidative stress (vitamin E, C) and boost the immune system (vitamin C), which may lead to greater tolerance for heavier training.

Minerals serve as structure for tissue, important components of enzymes and hormones, and regulators of metabolic and neural control.” Having mineral deficiencies for athletes means decreased exercise capacity. Unlike with vitamins, dietary supplementation of certain minerals can improve exercise capacity. Some of the more impactful minerals include calcium, iron, sodium phosphate, salt, and zinc. Research suggests that dietary supplementation of these minerals may have health and/or ergogenic benefits for athletes under certain conditions.

Most, if not all, athletes understand the importance of drinking before, during and after athletic exertion. Maintaining and replacing water and electrolyte levels within the body is often a key element in performance. In concert with a dietitian high performance athletes should develop a fluid management program for training and competition to preserve homeostasis, optimal body function, performance, and perception of wellbeing. While this may vary by athlete, it is generally noted that fluid deficits of >2% BW can compromise cognitive function and aerobic exercise performances for hot environments and 3-5% in cool environments.

Keep in mind that all athletes are individuals and may need specific adaptations to their diet in order to maximize performance. Female athletes, endurance athletes, or older athletes for example all may have supplemental needs that should be addressed to their specific context. It is important to consult with a certified dietician when considering nutritional needs for competitive athletes. According to Dietitians of Canada, ”to help an athlete reach peak performance, dietitians work with athletes to plan for: adequate energy and nutrients from food; enough fluids and electrolytes to keep the body hydrated; and the right balance of nutrients from foods and supplements, if needed”.

(2016 revised).Nutrition for Athletes: A practical guide to eating for health and performance. International Olympic Committee.

(2016). Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Position of Dietitians of Canada, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American College of Sports Medicine.

Kreider, RB et al. (2010). ISSN exercise & sport nutrition review: research & recommendations. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 7:7.