What’s for dinner? Food plays an important role in athletic performance

Published 3:50 pm Tuesday, October 10, 2017



Danville Athletic Trainer

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As an athlete you demand a lot out of your body. Not only do you want to be able to perform at a high level — run fast, jump high and hit hard — but it is also necessary to be able to perform for the duration of the game, or at least longer than the competition.

Much like an automobile, in order to run for a specified amount of time there has to be fuel in the tank and enough of it. Nutrition makes a very important piece of the puzzle for optimizing athletic performance.  

Often times athletes, especially teenage ones, go for quick, easy and cheap food. Although this is good for schedules and budget, it can equal poor performance on the playing field. A meal from a fast food place is usually greasy, calorie dense and high in sugars.

Although these things are not bad for us in moderation, when we eat them right before a sporting event it can have adverse effects such as feeling sluggish or nauseated. Fast food is also often lacking in a very key area: There are no real nutrient-dense foods offered. It is especially important for an athlete to get a well-rounded meal complete with carbohydrates, protein and fat.

Most people think of carbohydrates as pasta, bread and grains, when in fact a lot of our ideal carbohydrates should come from fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables are also made up of a high percentage of water, so they do double duty and help an athlete stay hydrated. Typically, if an athlete is thirsty they’re already well into the realm of dehydration and it makes it more difficult to play catch-up, particularly during a game or practice situation. Although pasta, bread and grains are good for us, and we can use them for energy, athletes should also eat them in moderation. They are complex carbohydrates and they will be utilized for energy long after consumption.

Conversely, proteins are a very important part of an athlete’s diet and takes on an even more important role when considering their recovery. During strenuous activity, the body relies on the muscles to perform both at high speeds and in order to produce power or strength. Each time we recruit our muscles for movement, we are using energy and creating damage. This damage is not the injurious type, but instead it’s how we naturally build muscle and increase performance.

In order to repair this damage, however, our body needs some assistance. The assistance comes in the form of nutrients, water and rest. Proteins are made of the building blocks that muscle is made of, so by consuming protein you are replacing what was lost with activity. Although there is a big push for protein shakes and supplements, nutrients are best when they come from natural foods. Some good sources of protein are animal meat, nuts and beans.

A big issue with today’s general population in the U.S. is our portion sizes. Athletes expend more energy, so in order to maintain their weight and strength they need to replenish the same amount, which means they can eat more than most other people. But it is safe to say that more is not always better when it comes to diet and nutrition. It is true that some food for energy, regardless of where it came from, will probably be better than none in the world of athletics. However, it is also true that nutrition can play a very big role in how an athlete performs and adapts.

The important things to take away about nutrition for the athlete are that carbohydrates give us energy and protein helps our bodies recover. There are many ways to get a good fill of carbohydrates and proteins, so there isn’t always a “right” answer when it comes to filling your plate. It is important to remember that moderation is key with fast food, snacks and high sugar foods. Don’t give up your favorite foods but make sure that your body gets the fuel that it needs in order to maintain and improve athletic or day to day performance.