What Is Sports Nutrition?

An adequate diet regimen will minimize the risk of injury, and it will also have a positive impact on the athlete's performance.
What Is Sports Nutrition?
Saúl Sánchez

Written and verified by el nutricionista Saúl Sánchez.

Last update: 18 March, 2021

In recent years, a branch of nutrition known as sports nutrition has gained special relevance. This discipline is responsible for adjusting athletes’ diets in order to improve performance and prevent muscle injuries.

Sports nutrition specialists interpret the biochemical parameters of athletes’ serum and offer them a combination of foods that meets their needs. In this way, it’s possible to reduce the feeling of fatigue and increase performance.

Sports nutrition and performance enhancement

One of the key aspects in an athlete’s performance is their intake of nutrients. It’s essential to administer the necessary amounts of carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins every day. All these elements fulfill energetic functions, in addition to guaranteeing the homeostasis of the human body.

Protein, for example, has been shown to be essential for muscle recovery and tissue growth, which provides an increased ability to exert force. Lipids, for their part, are responsible for ensuring the correct production of hormones, in addition to modulating the levels of inflammation.

But not only are macronutrients important, but micronutrients also play a determining role. Some of them, like vitamin C, can increase the synthesis of collagen, the most abundant protein in the human body.

This is shown in a study published in the Orthopedic Journal of Sports Medicine. With its regular consumption, you can achieve a better tissue recovery after a muscle injury.

Other substances, such as vitamin D, are essential in order to guarantee the maintenance of muscle strength. There’s evidence that suggests that maintaining adequate levels of this nutrient allows you to experience an increase in the ability to exert force, in addition to reducing the risk of suffering from fibrillar ruptures.

Sports nutrition increases performance during strength training.
If proper dietary guidelines are not followed before and after training, then performance can decrease considerably.

Another objective of sports nutrition: injury prevention

Lean tissue lesions are multifactorial in origin. The management of the workload, the athlete’s ability to adapt, the competition surface, and the clothing are factors related to the appearance of muscle tears, which can incapacitate the athlete for a time.

Diet is also closely related to this risk, since the consumption of junk food or an inadequate intake of nutrients can increase the incidence of these disorders.

In order to prevent muscle injuries, sports nutrition focuses on ensuring proper recovery after training and competitions. To do this, it seeks the rapid replacement of nutrient deposits that have been depleted.

An example is glycogen, which is used for energy production during times of peak effort. Exhaustion causes fatigue and, under certain conditions, increases the risk of injury.

To ensure adequate glycogen replacement, it’s necessary to ingest proteins and carbohydrates together after the physical training session. This is stated by research published in the journal Nutrients.

In the same way, it’s necessary to replace the amino acids that have been consumed and the electrolytes lost through sweat.

Sports supplementation

Within sports nutrition, a special emphasis must be placed on supplementation. There’s a series of compounds that increase an athlete’s performance when ingested in the appropriate doses.

They’re known as ergogenic aids and can be of various types. In most cases, these nutrients, when introduced into the body at indicated doses, generate a positive effect.

The most famous substance is creatine, a non-protein amino acid that has been shown to increase strength and resistance to fatigue in athletes.

It’s even capable of causing changes in the athlete’s body composition, maximizing muscle gains, and stimulating the loss of adipose tissue. This also reduces the risk of injury, increasing the body’s functionality.

Another typical example is caffeine. In low doses it allows a temporary increase in cognitive performance. However, when doses of 150 mg are administered, it’s possible to reduce the feeling of fatigue, in addition to increasing the oxidation of lipids.

In general, this substance is used in competitions to improve performance, or in training to induce a reduction in the athlete’s fat tissue. Its effects have been proven by the current scientific literature. However, you have to be careful –  at very high doses it can be toxic.

A fundamental aspect of sports nutrition: hydration

When we talk about sports nutrition we often focus on food combinations or supplements. However, we are forgetting about an aspect that’s capable of conditioning short-term performance. This is hydration.

Fluid or electrolyte imbalances don’t only lead to reductions in the athlete’s performance; they can also cause death in the most severe cases.

The correct management of hydration depends on the climate in which the athlete is. In hot places, a large amount of fluid is lost through sweat, which also leads to the excretion of electrolytes and essential minerals for the body.

An example of the latter is sodium, which is vital in the regulation of blood pressure and in the transmission of nerve impulses.

When the concentrations of this mineral are reduced excessively, it can cause a phenomenon known as hyponatremia, which needs immediate medical attention. Not only does it negatively affect performance, but it can be fatal without proper treatment.

In any case, water needs vary quite a bit between different individuals. They also vary according to the conditions the sporting activity takes place under. In enclosed spaces, for example, it’s usually less limiting.

One of the fundamental pillars of sports nutrition is hydration.
If there isn’t enough hydration, the body may not tolerate strength exercises well.

Antioxidants in sports nutrition

The most studied substances in the context of sports nutrition in recent years have been antioxidants. These are able to neutralize the formation of free radicals, which leads to a reduction in markers associated with cell and muscle damage.

At the same time, they’re capable of exerting an anti-inflammatory effect, which could accelerate recovery after exertion.

However, excessive doses of antioxidant substances don’t appear to be beneficial for performance. These elements are capable of interfering with cell signaling, which causes an impediment to sports supercompensation.

From here on, the processes of hypertrophy or muscle strength gain, among others, are blocked. Therefore, antioxidant supplements shouldn’t be administered chronically.

However, on specific occasions they can be beneficial for the athlete, especially when they are subjected to a great workload or stress. Recovery is prioritized over adaptation here, and so it’s important to include an antioxidant supplement in the diet.

Antioxidants can be found naturally in vegetables. We recommend those with bright colors or bitter flavors, which are characterized by their phytonutrient content.

The complexity of preparing a menu in sports nutrition

The development of diets in the context of sports nutrition is more complex than their guidelines for individuals who only want to improve their health.

With athletes, a detailed study must be carried out of their individual characteristics, the morphotype, the hours of work carried out per day, the biochemical markers present in their blood, and their sensations. Many factors must be related in order to create an adequate and optimal solution for the athlete.

It should be noted that each athlete is different, and that each discipline has specific nutritional requirements. A good adaptation to the context can be decisive when it comes to maximizing results.

It should also be noted that not all supplements work for every sport discipline. For example, some are optimal for increasing strength, others act on aerobic metabolism, and still others improve cognitive performance.

Nor should we forget that to complement the effects of the diet, you need to ensure adequate rest.

In this way, all the mechanisms that guarantee the recovery of damaged tissues, hormonal regulation, and the body’s adaptation to exercise can be set in motion. It is advisable to sleep at least 7 hours a day.

Sports nutrition, an exciting discipline

As we’ve seen, sports nutrition is the discipline that most accurately measures nutrient intake. Significant changes in intake could lead to an increase in the subject’s fat mass, which would be counterproductive for performance.

In addition, a worsening body composition could be related to an increase in the incidence of injuries.

It’s essential to be familiar with the energy requirements in order to establish adequate feeding guidelines. These guidelines should satisfy the nutrient needs and allow the body to recover optimally after the work session.

Likewise, the use of sports supplements can be considered, with the aim of offering higher doses of any element that has been shown to be of benefit to the athlete.

In relation to this last point, you must always be very careful with the products you use. You should be able to check the chemical composition in order to check that there aren’t any banned substances.

Failure to do so could lead to positive drug test results that would make the athlete unable to compete for an extended period of time. In addition, you would be putting your health at risk, something that should always be avoided.

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