Nutrition for athletes, how does it influence physical performance?

A balanced diet is essential to enjoy good health and, furthermore, in athletes it is also essential to obtain good sports performance , both in professionals and in people who are starting to practice a sport. 

Like the diet of the general population, it must provide all the necessary nutrients , which in the case of athletes are more specific and vary according to the sport that is practiced, among other parameters. In this post we explain the relationship between food and physical performance. 

What is sports performance and why is it related to nutrition?

Sports performance is the relationship between the goals achieved by an athlete, and the resources used to achieve them. This performance is influenced by several factors, among which are physical capacity and factors related to health, which may be simultaneously influenced by genetics, circumstantial factors, psychological factors, among others, and, one of the most important, feeding. 

Although an adequate diet, by itself, is not an element that can lead an athlete to win a competition, having an inadequate diet at the specific sporting moment in which they are, as we will see below, can influence detrimental to their athletic performance. 

An adequate diet for athletes will provide all the necessary nutrients in each of the different moments of sports practice:

  • Training
  • competition
  • Recovery
  • Rest

Depending on each of these moments, nutrition for athletes will focus on providing the necessary energy and providing nutrients to maintain and/or repair tissues (especially muscle). In this way the body will obtain at all times all the nutrients it needs for optimal sports performance. 

What nutritional needs should be covered by nutrition for athletes?

As you have seen, food varies depending on the moment of the sporting activity in which we find ourselves, and for this reason it is also one of the most determining factors in sports performance. Now we are going to explain what are the general nutritional needs that an adequate diet for athletes must cover, taking into account that this has to be adapted to specific circumstances such as age, sex or type of sport, among others. 

Energy needs of athletes

Before seeing how much energy an athlete needs, let’s see some concepts related to the amount of energy that we all need. 

Did you know that, in addition to when we do sports or any physical activity, we also consume energy while at rest? 

Therefore, the total energy that human beings need is divided into three groups: 

  • Minimum energy that we need to maintain vital functions , a process called basal metabolism. 
  • Energy after the consumption of food, called thermogenic action of food and that includes the processes of digestion, absorption and metabolism of the same, essential to be able to use the components of food.
  • Energy necessary to carry out physical activities, which involve body movements thanks to the contraction of our muscles. This includes the movements that we carry out as part of daily life, and the performance of a specific sporting activity. 

We get all our energy from food, and it is important to eat a balanced diet and exercise regularly to maintain good health. If you would like to know more about what a balanced diet is and the role of sport in our health, you can read articles on our blog such as “the beneficial health effects of a balanced diet”.

Athletes perform more physical activity than sedentary people, which is why they also need more energy and, therefore, to obtain it they must consume nutrients according to this energy expenditure. 

But do all athletes need the same amount of energy? The answer is no, since, as we have mentioned before, it will depend on the specific type of exercise they do, the intensity or the duration of it. 

The key role of carbohydrates in nutrition for athletes

In the previous point, we have seen that our body needs energy both to maintain vital functions and for each of the physical activities we carry out throughout the day, including sports. Well, carbohydrates are the most important source of energy. In addition, our body can also obtain energy from fats and proteins, as we will see later.

Carbohydrates are the first source of energy used by the body, and that is why they have a fundamental role in sports performance, since they are an essential source of energy during training and competition and, in addition, a correct intake of the same help in muscle repair after sports activity.

For this reason, in the diet for athletes, it is essential that the carbohydrate intake be adequate, otherwise there may be a lack of energy during training, as well as a slower recovery. 

When talking about carbohydrates, it must be taken into account that they are present in most whole grains, potatoes, rice, pasta and dairy products, among other foods, but that not all carbohydrates are the same (they differ mainly in if they are composed of glucose, fructose, starch or galactose), and not all are assimilated at the same speed. That is why, depending on the physical activity that we carry out, some sources of carbohydrates will be preferable to others. 

Why are proteins important in nutrition for athletes?

As we have mentioned before, proteins can also be a source of energy for our body. However, our body only uses them as a source of energy during long periods of fasting, when there is not enough fat or carbohydrate, or during periods of prolonged physical effort, common in some sports. 

In athletes, proteins can contribute between 5% and 10% of the total energy they use. 

But then, what role do proteins play in our body during sports? Well, although we can also use them to provide energy, their essential role is “construction”, since they are made up of amino acids that are part of cellular structures, enzymes, hormones, etc. They are the main constituent of cells and essential for the growth, repair and continuous renewal of body tissues. 

Some of the best sources of protein are legumes, milk and its derivatives, meat, fish, eggs or tofu. But, just like with carbohydrates, not all proteins are created equal. First, it depends on whether they are made up of essential amino acids, that is, our body does not synthesize them and therefore we must incorporate them through the diet, or whether they are non-essential. But, in addition, proteins, among other characteristics, also have a biological value, which is the amount of essential amino acids that make up the protein. Normally, proteins of high biological value contain the 9 essential amino acids and are mainly of animal origin, such as meat, fish, eggs or milk.

Fats, essential for energy supply 

As we have seen, our body can obtain energy from fats, and these are also necessary for other essential functions of our body. In high-intensity training, such as HIIT, there are studies that show that subcutaneous fat is significantly reduced, especially abdominal fat, and also improves the amount of VO2 max, which is a marker with which we can measure our sports performance.

As with carbohydrates or proteins, not all fats are the same. They are mainly divided into saturated and unsaturated fats. Saturated fats are found in foods of animal origin, such as meat, milk, among others, although some vegetable-based oils also contain saturated fats. These types of fats are related to an increase in bad cholesterol levels in the blood, so it is advisable to reduce their consumption, and not only in the case of athletes but in the general population. On the other hand, within the unsaturated fats we find the monounsaturated ones present, for example, in olive oil, and the polyunsaturated fats whose main source is oily fish such as salmon rich in omega-3, one of the most recommended fats. Besides,

Some of the best sources of healthy fats are oily fish, nuts, olive oil or avocado. 

Minerals and vitamins: the importance of replenishing them after sports activity

Both vitamins and minerals are essential nutrients since they are essential for the proper functioning of the body. In addition, they are called micronutrients since we need them in very small amounts (milligrams or micrograms). 

Some of the most important minerals in nutrition for athletes are:

  • Sodium : participates in muscle contraction and in the regulation of body fluids, so during sports it is essential to maintain good body hydration.
  • Calcium : this is the most abundant mineral in the body and is essential for muscle building, since it participates in the transmission of nerve impulses and in muscle contraction.
  • Potassium : it is a mineral whose function is closely related to sodium since together they regulate body water levels, in addition to participating in nerve cells, in muscle contraction and in the increase in muscle mass.
  • Iron : it is part of hemoglobin, which is a molecule found in red blood cells, responsible for transporting oxygen to different organs. If we have a low iron level, the hemoglobin level will also be low and therefore the oxygen supply will be less, increasing the work of the heart and therefore the feeling of tiredness and the athlete’s ability to recover from overexertion. 

When you do sports, more minerals than normal are eliminated through sweating and the only way to recover these lost minerals is through food. The deficit of some of these minerals can have negative effects on muscle contraction and recovery after an effort, but, nevertheless, an excess of minerals can also be harmful, since it can cause toxicity and impair the absorption of other minerals. That is why, before taking any mineral supplement, you should know what your specific situation is by consulting a specialist.

Vitamins, as we have previously mentioned, are essential for the proper functioning of the body and there are some that our body cannot synthesize and therefore it is essential to supply them through the diet. There are different types of vitamins, and some of the essential ones are the antioxidant vitamins C and E that protect cells from oxidative deterioration, which can increase during sports activity by subjecting the cells of our body to greater stress. Vitamin D, which apart from influencing the immune system, participates in proper bone strengthening. B vitamins, such as B1, B6 and B12 which can increase serotonin levels and improve motor skills. 

Regarding vitamin supplements, the same thing happens with minerals, they are only beneficial when there is a vitamin deficit, so before taking any supplement, it is important that you go to a specialist and they will inform you if you really need them and They can be beneficial to your health. 

The importance of good hydration in athletes

Regardless of whether you are an athlete or not, it is important that you provide your body with the right amount of fluids. Water is the main component of our weight, since it accounts for 85% of blood, 80% of muscle mass and a quarter of bone mass. That the organism remains with an adequate level of water is important for the chemical reactions that allow us to stay alive and for nutrients to reach the different organs and tissues to take place.

Not only do we lose water by sweating, but we also lose water by breathing or urinating. When exercising, you sweat more and through this sweat we lose fluids and minerals, and therefore it is important to drink more fluids to stay well hydrated. 

In the case of athletes, it is especially important to maintain adequate hydration, since otherwise, their physical performance may be reduced. The obtaining of energy by the muscle is affected if hydration is not appropriate, so strength can be decreased and there may be a greater predisposition to suffer an injury , both muscular and joint. Some symptoms of dehydration are, being very thirsty ( a signal from your body to drink water), headache, feeling tired, or dark colored urine. 

As you have seen in this article, for an athlete to be able to obtain maximum performance, it is not enough to just train, but having a balanced diet that provides all the specific nutrients they need is also essential.

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