Invisible training of the athlete’s biggest muscle: the brain
28 Sep 2023

For more than a decade, the medical specialist in Nutrition María Antonia Lizárraga monitored what the players of Futbol Club Barcelona ate, how they digested it and how they rested. A privileged field work from which she drew conclusions that explain the focus of her current research work at the Barça Innovation Hub: “It is exciting to know that our brain, which barely weighs 2% of our body weight, takes a lot of energy and that by knowing how to manage it and recovering it to give it to the muscle we can have a trainable health that in the case of nutrition goes beyond calories, carbohydrates… we are talking about the integral health of the athlete and I am passionate about that”.

Innovation is inherent to research and open-mindedness. Thus, new approaches to measuring athlete health, and therefore performance, cannot be a single discipline. Nutrition goes hand in hand with mental health, neuroscience and epigenetics. To understand the speed at which knowledge is advancing, it is enough to go back just a couple of decades, to 2003 when the discovery of the complete genome map was announced. “The second great discovery after the genome is the connectome, which is specific to each individual, like a fingerprint. It is a map that draws all the neural connections and activation of various regions of the brain. The connectome is the connections that your brain has made since birth as a result of what you have eaten, the affection you have been given, how you have lived. Knowing that these connections exist, that they form a map, we know that we can activate them by eating certain foods or that even the muscle can have a memory so that what we do in the early stages of life leaves hibernating cells that can be reactivated throughout our lives. That is, they are trainable as for example sleep. That is to say, if I have slept well I will eat an avocado toast and if not, my irascibility will lead me to eat a food that is not the right one. It is important to know that our brain and nervous system will always adapt in order to survive and save energy, and to do so it will try to anticipate its response in a reflexive manner according to what it has previously experienced and memorized,” explains Lizárraga.

With this scientific umbrella, it is inevitable to go down to the practical cases. Cases that are even visible to any professional sports fan: why does Rafael Nadal eat bananas? Why does a cyclist, after an enormous effort, get welcomed at the finish line with an ultra-sweetened drink? Why do soccer players celebrate with pizzas in the locker room after the finals?”Let’s see, for example pizza. For me it has a connotation of happiness or celebration. For example, we have been making homemade pizzas for a long time with a very thin carbohydrate base and calculated proportions… that is to say, on top there was no thick layer of four cheeses… but they are delicious because the chefs put tortilla, avocado or salmon on top and they are very popular”, explains the specialist.

But the actual diet and lifestyle habits of an athlete who performs extreme efforts and a regular citizen have little to do with each other. “For example, we see on the label of a drink that has no sugars but sweeteners and we think that since sugar is bombarding our lives, it is healthier. But let’s stop and think about the athlete who at the time of the match or training, in full effort, it is precisely water, salt and sugar that he needs. And that is what will hydrate him faster and will even enter the muscle faster than water alone. So, 90 minutes into overtime, don’t give the player an empty calorie drink with sweeteners,” he says.

Beyond scientific progress, the personalization of the care and nutrition of athletes or even genetic interpretations, one of the great advances of the sports elite in this area is through the awareness of the player. “The athlete who reaches the top is because he or she has made good choices. And for that we encourage them to do some inner listening. Until now we believed that all the information was received from outside: temperature, opponents, field conditions, stress, the public that pressures me… but one of the main sources of information in the human body are the signals sent by the viscera to the brain through the vagus nerve, which is the least vague of the nerves. We are talking about the interoceptive information from the heart or the stomach and also the proprioceptive information that is worked with yoga and other strategies to connect the muscles with the brain,” he adds.

The old clichés of absent-minded footballers who neglect their diet or rest are either exceptions or legends. “There is no longer a player who comes back from the summer with three extra kilos. They are becoming more and more professional because they are aware of what is good for them and they have more and more tools and devices to measure themselves. Therefore, individual freedom is increasingly higher because the professionals themselves are the ones who are most interested in knowing how their body works, what can help them avoid injuries or improve their performance,” says Lizárraga. In fact, there is a wide range of training opportunities for professionals in this area.

Finally, it is important to have faith in science and stay away from popular beliefs in order to make good decisions. Even if popular wisdom always has a dose of science. “For many years we were told that Popeye’s spinach was the food with the most iron and it was discovered that there had been an error in the food composition table that had added zero too much iron to spinach. But today athletes drink spinach and beet shakes because they have nitrates that improve blood profusion. Therefore, Popeye drank them for the iron but they were good because of the nitrates,” Lizárraga stresses.


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