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Proper Nutrition Advice For Athletes

This month, I had the opportunity to answer some athlete training and nutrition questions from Craig Lane at Boise State University.  As coaches, teachers, and parents, we are often faced with many nutrition issues with our young athletes.  For the record, my nutritional advice is based on research, experience, and practical knowledge that comes from working with thousands of athletes over the years.  I am not a registered dietician or a licensed nutritionist.  For more in-depth, individualized, specific nutrition information, it’s important to seek the services of an experienced registered dietician.

1.  How do the nutritional aspects of training differ between sports?

Effective nutrition differs among sports for a variety of reasons.  The most significant are:

1.  The energy systems required for competition

2.  Volume, duration, intensity, and frequency of training activities

3.  Body mass requirements of the athlete

During game play, athletes are required to expend energy at maximal rates of intensity for their sport.  The energy stored is necessary to repeatedly and effectively perform comes from what the athlete eats. Depending on the magnitude and duration of energy output, different nutrients are more effective for providing the most efficient, usable fuel for the activity. Here is a quick, basic look at how 3 primary “macro” nutrients affect performance during an activity.

Carbohydrate: The primary fuel for brain is glucose (blood sugar).  Carbohydrates can be stored in the muscle and broken down to glucose very quickly to be used as fuel.  This is essential in creating and maintaining the fuel for power, strength, and endurance over moderate durations of time.

Protein: While protein can be broken down into glucose, it is a very inefficient process.  Protein functions primarily to maintain a high rate of muscle function and repair tissue.  When muscles have high-intensity demands placed on them, protein helps prevent breakdown of the tissue, allowing it to function optimally and repair.

Fat: Fat serves as a basic foundation for sustained energy.  While it is not effective in providing energy for short-term activities, when an activity is repeated for a long time, fat begins to provide a foundation for energy production.

The amounts of each “macro” nutrients depend on the demands of the sport. Does the sport require short, repeated bouts of maximal intensity with periods of rest such ad football, hockey, or tennis?  What about repeated bouts of moderate intensity with limited rest like soccer, lacrosse, or basketball?  Maybe the sport requires a sustained bout of moderate to low intensity activity with no rest such as endurance sports like a triathlon or marathon?  To determine basic nutritional needs, look at how each nutrient functions.  If the sport required high intensity, maximal intermittent efforts, the nutrition should favor protein and carbohydrates, but not neglect fat.  If the sport requires low intensity, sustained activity, fat will play a larger role with carbohydrate, but again, protein can not be neglected. For specific needs for specific sports, contact a registered dietician.

Since most athletes practice more than they play in games, and performance in practice summates to create game performance, proper nutrition during the practice schedule is essential.  Different sports at different levels have different practice schedules.  Sports also may require practice and training activities such as weight training and conditioning that are not directly related to game tactics, but introduce an increased need for energy and recovery.  During tactical training, athletes may spend exaggerated times in the energy systems required for their sport.  This creates an exaggerated need for energy and recovery.  A nutrition program should be aimed at fueling and replenishing the energy systems required during training for a sport.

The most significant nutritional intervention many coaches will find themselves dealing with is in regards to body mass, particularly, lean body mass.  Different activities in sports dictate different needs for body mass.  Contact sports often require greater body mass than non-contact sports.  Too much body mass, particularly from fat, can be detrimental to an athletes’ performance.  Too little body mass, particularly lean muscle tissue, can negatively affect strength, power, and recovery.  Body mass is affected by an athletes nutrition intake, their level of activity during training and games, and their individual metabolism.  When designing a nutrition program for an athlete to increase or decrease body mass, it’s important to assess their caloric expenditure from activity, their current food intake, and their individual metabolic rate.  Objective information is helpful, but this process often comes down to trial and error for each individual.

2.   How does nutrition differ between positions within a sport?

Considering the information above, depending on the tactics of the sport, different positions may have different tactical energy requirements.  This, in addition to individual metabolic factors, should be assessed when creating a nutrition program for an athlete.  Individual metabolic rates can create differences in nutritional needs for athletes in the same sport at the same position.  Two athletes can have an identical training and game schedule but may require different nutritional strategies to create optimal performance.  That is why many world-class athletic organizations consult registered dieticians with the ability to individually assess athletes.

3.  What athletes have you worked with and how does their “off season”

training differ from the effort they put in during the season?

In my 12 year performance coaching career, I have had the opportunity to work in the collegiate as well as Olympic environment.  In my current role as the Director of Athletics at Fitness Quest 10, I have worked with thousands of male and female youth, high school, collegiate, and professional athletes from a variety of sports.  When an athlete is training during the “off-season” they have the opportunity to focus on improving general physical tools such as strength, power, speed, agility, conditioning, etc. Since there are no games or sanctioned contests scheduled, athletes can allocate mental and physical energy to improving these tools. During this time, athletes can train at higher volumes and frequencies because they are not concerned with preserving energy for games.  If an athlete is able to enter their season stronger, faster, and in better condition, they should be able to execute game tactics better.

In-season training observes a decrease in the volume, duration, and frequency of non game-related activities.  During the “in-season” phase of training, mental and physical energy shifts to practicing specific game tactics.  General physical preparation is still part of a program and the goal is still to improve physical tools but tactical training commands a great deal of time, as well as mental and physical energy.  The goal of an in-season training program is to preserve the gains made during the off-season.

Brett Klika C.S.C.S., Director of Athletics at Fitness Quest 10, is a human performance specialist, motivator and educator. A graduate from Oregon State University, Brett has directed sport camps all over the nation. While in college, amidst playing club soccer and lacrosse, Brett worked with the strength and conditioning department for 3 years. A year long resident sports performance internship at the Olympic Training Center brought Brett to San Diego. Brett’s work with the Olympic athletes, as well as local high school athletes nurtured a passion for creating excellence in individuals.

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