Nutrition for Athletes
By Sandra Brown
A good healthy diet will give you vitality, protect your immune system from infection and illness (avoiding time lost from training and racing), promote recovery from races, training and injury, and generally keep you in good shape for life and sport.
Fruit and Vegetables
Eat 5-10 portions daily of fruit and vegetables, including a wide variety. Mix up the colours, as different coloured fruit and veg (eg, red, yellow, green, black) contain different vitamins and minerals, and make their own different contributions to your health. Broccoli and all types of cabbage, red, green and yellow peppers, and carrots and other root veg are all very good. Apples and oranges are traditional health favourites, and bananas are a particularly good source of potassium (to counteract the effect of sodium and help prevent high blood pressure.) Dark fruits, which are common in autumn, are thought to help to fortify the immune system for winter. Dried fruits (dates, figs, prunes, apricots, raisins, bananas etc) are rich in vitamins, minerals and fibre, and easy to carry around as snacks.
Ultra distance athletes need more protein than normally recommended amounts, for general well-being, muscle maintenance and repair, injury prevention and recovery. Fish of all kinds is excellent. Eat plenty of low fat yoghurt, fromage frais, cottage cheese, for their calcium content as well as protein. Enjoy a few mixed nuts each day. Lean meat is also fine. Eggs and cheese are very nutritious, and especially useful after races.
Soya is a source of protein and good for its antioxidant and health-giving properties. Plain tofu is quick and versatile - no need to cook unless you want to. Soya and other bean dishes are useful, tasty and health-boosting for vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike. Vegetarians especially can help to ensure they get sufficient iron by eating iron-rich fruits and veg (including broccoli and green, leafy veg,) wholemeal bread and cereals.
Athletes need carbohydrates - including bread, cereals, potatoes, rice, pasta - for energy, to keep muscles fuelled, and to support muscle maintenance and repair, and to support the immune system especially after hard training and long races. If you don’t eat adequate carbs, the body will run down muscle, and the immune system will suffer. A word of warning; don’t assume you need very large amounts of carbs - the amount you need depends on your size and training volume. A good intake of fruits/veg and of protein are both more important to your health than carbs, and both will provide energy. Too many carbs can mean too little of important nutrients, and can lead to unwelcome weight gain if you eat too much for your training/racing energy needs. Too many refined carbs, sugary foods and foods with a high glaecemic value, can lead to energy peaks and troughs, and even contribute to borderline diabetes, so choose non-sugary and unrefined carbs, don’t eat too much at once, and combine carbs with protein, fruit and veg.
Be fairly sparing with fats, and be selective. Some fat in the diet is important to health and to the absorption of vitamins; choose monounsaturated fats like olive oil and peanut butter for preference. Try to avoid saturated and hydrogenated fats in food and cooking (visible meat fat, butter, margarine, cream and most fats sold for cooking.) Substitute vegetable oils (especially olive oil, as in the Mediterranean diet) and use them for all salad dressings and in baking. Don’t fry food, or dry fry with a minimum of oil. Instead of putting butter/margarine on bread, get used to the taste of bread on its own, or use a little honey, jam, vegemite, cottage cheese or quark instead.
Salt is a major contributory factor to raised blood pressure and hypertension. Don’t add it to food in cooking or at the table (you will soon adjust to a different and more subtle taste.) Avoid salty snacks, which are often also fatty. Training and racing will lower your resting pulse rate and blood pressure; for most people this is good news. Reducing salt intake will help in this. If, after a long race, you feel a desire for savoury foods, especially if you have been taking in lots of sweet food and drink, then enjoy them, and take the chance to eat some protein, but don’t pile on the salt. Cravings like this are the body’s way of restoring and rebalancing its levels of energy, protein, vitamins, and minerals.
Drink plenty, much more than you probably think is needed! Drink a pint or so of water or very diluted juice/squash/energy drink before you go out training, and drink some more when you return. Use skimmed milk, and drink as much as you like for its calcium and vitamins. Now for the boring bit! At parties, try to stick to juices and soft drinks mainly, and at dinners develop a taste for fizzy water. Red wine may be good for the immune system, but moderate exercise is even better, and for most athletes is their preferred route. If you like wine and it