There is little doubt that sports nutrition and sports supplements are vital for athletes looking to gain the edge over their competition. Even a fraction of a percent of improvement can make all the difference to elite athletes, or even amateurs looking to progress to the next level. Those undertaking intense cardiovascular or anaerobic training, such as sprinters, rugby players, weight trainers, endurance athletes or tennis players can greatly benefit from proper sports nutrition and supplementation. A well-planned diet, just with a well-planned training routine can provide an athlete with a number of benefits, such as faster recovery, increased strength and power, better injury prevention and higher energy levels. Here is a discussion of some key ingredients vital for any successful athlete, as well as some recommendations based on what type of athlete you are!
These are the body's preferred fuel source, as it can quickly and easily convert them to energy. Any unused energy will generally be stored as bodyfat, although for an athlete, this is not usually an issue as their energy needs are much higher than usual. If the body doesn't have enough carbohydrates for energy, it will look to amino acids from protein intake, or it will look to break down muscle for fuel. This is extremely worrying for anyone involved in sports as muscle is responsible for so many functions, such as strength, power, endurance etc. Athletes need to make sure they have adequate intake of carbohydrates to fuel their performances and to recover from them. Both fast and slow digesting carbohydrates should be consumed by athletes, although the timing is important. More on that later.
Absolutely essential for any athlete, a high protein intake will ensure recovery from exertion, building of new muscle, building of strength, overall organ and bodily health. If the amino acids (which make up protein) are lacking in the body, an athlete will struggle to produce power, to contract muscles and to utilise energy. Protein should be one of the most important considerations for anyone concerned about sports nutrition. Protein can come from a variety of sources, such as meats, eggs, dairy and supplements, all of which digest at different rates and provide different benefits.
Fats are also vital for any serious or aspiring athlete. Adequate intake of healthy fats will ensure a number of functions in the human body are supported. These include joint lubrication, heart and brain health, and fat oxidisation. Healthy fat sources are found in many foods such as fish, avocado, nuts, meats, oils as well as in supplements such as fish and flaxseed oils.
The supplement industry is growing at a rapid rate as research supports the creation of new and exciting products to benefit every type of athlete. Any nutritional deficiencies can be addressed with supplements, such as protein powder, multivitamins and fish oils. There are a whole host of other supplements, however, that have been specifically designed to enhance the performance of athletes or sportspeople.
A nutritional must, a high protein intake ensures that athletes can recover and grow from their workouts or from their sports. Sportspeople require much higher protein levels compared to regular individuals due to the amounts of amino acids used during intense training. Since it is not always easy or convenient to consume high protein foods such as meats or eggs, protein powders can provide an athlete with a quick surge of amino acids on the go.
With numerous studies showing the huge benefits to anyone involved in aerobic or anaerobic training, creatine is essential to improving the performance of an athlete. Although it is a naturally occurring substance found in meat, it is difficult to ingest creatine at a high enough amount and so creatine supplements have been designed to assist any athlete who wishes to gain strength, size, power or recovery ability.
Branched Chain Amino Acids
Especially important for those who train or compete in endurance sports such as distance runners, cricketers or tennis players, BCAA's provide the fastest absorbing amino acid source possible, to ensure that muscles are repaired as they are being damaged during performance. Amino acid supplements usually contain electrolytes which help restore salts to the muscles lost during exercise (adequate sodium is necessary for a muscle to contract), as well as leucine (the key muscle building amino acid), isoleucine and valine (the muscle sparing amino acids). When BCAA's are used by an athlete, they will promote faster recovery, muscle growth and protection from muscle breakdown.
Athletes utilise more nutrients to function in their sports than regular people, and as such need to have adequate intake of vitamins and minerals to support these functions. Even with a great diet made up of a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, it's extremely difficult for sportspeople to have all the bases covered when it comes to vitamins and minerals. For this reason, multivitamin and mineral supplements can be of great assistance to any athlete.
Which Sports Nutrition and Supplement Recommendations are Right For Me?
Firstly, a general recommendation such as this should not be accepted over professional advice specific to your needs. Also, make sure that any supplements you do take are not banned or restricted by your sport's governing body. Caffeine, for example, is restricted at certain levels for some athletes. That having been said, here are some general principles that you should apply to gain maximum benefit from all your hard work and training.
- If you are a strength based athlete:
Such as a rugby player, weight trainer, wrestler or fighter, you need to give yourself every opportunity to be at your strongest for the entire period of your sport. Make sure your game-day meals are high in protein and carbs - you want the maximum energy and amino acids flowing through your body at all times. A creatine supplement taken before and during your sport will help you promote maximal power output and keep your strength levels up for as long as possible. You might even want to try a pre-workout product which contains ingredients such as caffeine, beta alanine, creatine, citrulline and electrolytes - this will help you be at your strongest and last longer. Don't forget to get fast digesting carbs and protein as soon as possible after the game to help you recover.
- If you are an endurance based athlete:
Such as a long distance runner, cricketer or golfer, your primary objectives are to keep energy levels up and to prevent muscle breakdown. You will want to get in a good amount of medium and slow digesting carbs and protein before your performance (porridge and cottage cheese are great options) which will give you a steady stream of energy and amino acids throughout. During your training or match, sip on a BCAA drink with fast absorbing carbohydrates such as dextrose - this will ensure you have a constant stream of energy and will keep your muscles firing all day. As soon as possible after the event make sure to have a large intake of protein and carbs to recover from all that damaging exercise.
- If you are a mixture of strength and endurance athlete:
Such as a tennis player, medium distance runner or swimmer, then you will want to find a mix of the two recommendations above. You want to keep your strength levels high but also keep your energy levels up so that you can perform with power the whole time.
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