Nutrition, as a science, began to be studied in the mid-18th century. However, the origin of sports nutrition dates back many centuries, to ancient Greece, when the original Olympic Games began to be held.
Back then, it was already clear that the athlete, or whoever practices sports, must focus on their nutrition: in addition to being healthy, it must be balanced and as varied as possible, eating as many different foods as possible. This is an aspect that often does not happen since many athletes end up eating just two or three types of food.
Athletes must ask themselves what to eat, when to eat and how much to eat. They must adjust to the day they train more or less, or to whether they are in preseason, in full competition or out of season. This concept, called nutritional periodisation, means eating differently based on whether one trains one way or another: some foods will be eaten, especially the most energetic ones. Periodisation seeks to improve both performance and health and optimise weight and body composition.
In this way, if an endurance sport is practised, more carbohydrates will be eaten. However, if it is a strength-based sport, more protein should be eaten. It should also be considered that it must be adjusted to the duration of the effort and the size of the athlete.
Another aspect that is increasingly important in sports is timing. That is, when to eat food: besides eating in a varied way, with a diet appropriate to the sport performed, one should eat at certain times of the day, close to training. The goal is to take advantage of the hormonal response that both food and exercise have, synchronising it with the circadian rhythm of the body and the time of day.
Nutrition can help both prevent injuries and accelerate recovery. For example, eating a dish of pasta or fruit after exercise slows down a series of inflammatory and stress signals activated by the exercise itself.
Warning athletes to avoid injury
In order to avoid the accumulation of fatigue (which, many times, is the precursor to injury) it is essential to inform the athlete that there are moments when they are more fragile and vulnerable, with lower defences. And at times even with a muscle that needs to reduce inflammation because, if it does not recover, it can become chronic and be more prone to rupture and cause injuries.
Therefore, to prevent injuries, what is eaten and the moment in which it is eaten is key, especially in situations of high demand such as in daily training, each time with more load. This accumulated effort strains the body’s adaptation every day, demanding more and more. If an optimal recovery is not put in place (and nutrition plays an increasingly important role, together with rest and emotional management) an excessive inflammatory process post-exertion and injury can take place.
The current trend is that the athlete internalises the importance of nutrition and takes care of themselves every day, with a comprehensive vision of their health. The challenge is for an athlete to “listen” to their body, digestive sensations, fatigue, etc. which can serve them and the nutritionist as valuable information to correct or improve their diet individually. The athlete must also detail to the nutritionist what foods work better or worse, to modulate one or the other. And they must know that food is not just energy or calories, it is more than that, there are foods with anti-inflammatory properties.
Training, nutrition and performance
The main factors that affect sports performance capacity are mainly, genetic inheritance and the quality of the training process. But, obviously, nutrition plays a key role to optimise performance capacity. Thus, for an athlete to be able to perform at their best, both training and nutrition must be optimal and be perfectly coordinated.
Other aspects that must be considered are the gastrointestinal function and the protection of the immune system. Gastrointestinal function can influence both health and sports performance, so it is the basis for the development of nutritional strategies. On the other hand, it is recommended that the diet is quantitatively adequate and rich in a series of micronutrients fundamental for immunity such as zinc.
Sports nutrition goals
In summary, the athlete’s nutrition aims towards two great goals. The first one is to achieve the development of an adequate training diet, which allows them to deal with the physical stress that training represents, providing all what’s necessary to achieve an optimal adaptation. Besides, it must facilitate adequate recovery between sessions. An important characteristic is that it must be possible to easily adapt it to special situations, such as changes in load or changes in the body composition wanting to achieve.
The second goal is to develop an optimal competition diet. Like that, an athlete will be able to reach the competition in favourable conditions which will help achieve their best performance on the pitch. It involves both the food before the competition and that during the competition and post-competition.