It’s the end of summer, and most athletes are looking towards the upcoming competition season. In order to make sure that both the team and individual players are the strongest they can possibly be, most coaches emphasize proper training in order to give athletes the boost they need to be as prepared as possible.
However, one thing that coaches may neglect when considering how to strengthen their team or trainees is proper nutrition. There are a lot of eating habits that athletes may not realize hinder their performance or otherwise reach their full potential. What an athlete consumes has a major effect on performance. Even small changes to what someone eats can improve his or her athletic ability, and give an athlete a competitive edge.
One of the most significant changes athletes can make to their diets to keep their energy up and help recovery is to cut out most processed foods, especially sugars. Eating a lot of processed carbs does cause an energy spike, but leads to a sudden crash whereas eating real, simple sugars sustains energy levels. Some examples of great simple carbs that maintain an athlete’s energy include quinoa, rice, oatmeal, sweet potato, fruits, and vegetables. However, foods packed with complex sugars, such as Pop-Tarts, candy, chips, cereal, and especially soda should be avoided whenever possible.
Mr. Sullivan, health teacher and coach of the Deerfield High School (DHS) boys and girls swim teams, is a strong believer in consuming natural, real carbs to maximize endurance. “Processed sugars are huge in terms of hurting an athlete. If you can go to a [processed] sugar-free diet or consume a very small amount of sugar, I’d say after two weeks you’re gonna start noticing a difference in energy level and sleep patterns. Your muscles and body will feel much better, and after a month you will wonder why you were ever eating sugar,” he explains.
Unlike natural sources of protein, synthetic proteins (like those found in most energy bars) pass straight through one’s body and are not as efficiently stored to power muscle use. “I think that eating meats or eggs is going to be better for you than a synthetic protein,” agrees rigorous powerlifter Caleb Saks, a senior at DHS.
Sullivan also advises that it is better to consume natural proteins as opposed to grabbing a protein bar before practice. Those are typically high in processed sugar to preserve taste, and include ingredients that impact the body in ways that an athlete may not be fully aware of. It is better to eat simple, real foods where it is known exactly what is in it, there are as few ingredients as possible, and the impact on the body of each ingredient is known and positive.
Protein bars are quick and easy, which is why many choose to grab a Cliff or Gatorade bar before practice. However, there are bars out there that have ingredients that are not processed, and still provide necessary protein. An example of a bar, for instance, that is both tasty and is made of simple carbs and proteins, is a Blake’s bar. It includes nuts and seeds which contain the protein needed to fuel muscle strength and recovery with the benefit of natural ingredients to maximize protein storage efficiency.
However, while it is important to eat a lot of protein to gain muscle, Sullivan warns to beware of overconsumption. If there is too much protein for the body to process, the excess can block the main arteries. Keep in mind that the ideal amount of protein that each individual should consume varies; there is no “right” amount that everyone should eat.
The bottom line is: they aren’t necessary. Some athletes take creatine — a chemical compound found in many types of red meat. However, it is better to eat red meat itself than the creatine supplement. The supplement has potential side effects including stomach pain, muscle cramping, and nausea that are less likely to occur if it is consumed in its natural form found in red meat. If an athlete has a proper, balanced diet, supplements are not needed to maintain performance.
According to Saks, sipping a little coffee before he works out is helpful. Although on the surface it may seem like drinking caffeine before a workout would not have any major benefits, athletes who do so may be on to something.
Those sips of coffee get someone’s heart rate in the working zone faster, shortening the warm-up time before an athlete’s heart rate can get to the point where the workout will have an impact. While a little coffee can be beneficial, however, too much of it can impair sleep and cause muscle tremors among other aversive health effects.
Essentially, there is no “cheat code” for how to become a better athlete faster; it is a mixture of training and proper nutrition. Too much of anything is unhealthy, so a balanced diet with real, simple foods is critical to an athlete reaching peak performance.
That isn’t to say that an athlete should never indulge in candy, chips, or Gatorade. It’s unrealistic to not be able to indulge once in a while, but cutting back on complex proteins and carbs will help to improve muscle gain, energy level, and recovery rate immensely.
These small eating tips can amount to a major change, and, may be the advantageous edge an athlete needs to succeed.
A high schooler with a love of food. See the My Story page to find out more.
"Time to eat smart."