Sound nutritional habits are important for all athletes, but there are key differences between the dietary needs of endurance and explosive athletes. Knowing these differences, as well as the similarities, will help you implement a nutrition strategy that is right for you and your game.
A common mistake is to focus only on pre-competition meals while ignoring what you eat on training days. Following a consistent, healthy diet every day will improve your overall performance by enhancing training, speeding recovery and decreasing illness.
Whether you’re an endurance or explosive athlete, hydration is extremely important. Water is the largest single component of your body, comprising about 75 percent of skeletal muscle. If you wait until your mouth is dry to drink something, you’re already dehydrated. An easy way to check your hydration status is to monitor the color and volume of your urine. A well hydrated athlete urinates a significant amount of almost clear, maybe lemonade- colored, pee every two to four hours. A dehydrated athlete urinates darker, apple juice-looking pee, less often. Drinking the proper amount of fluid before, during and after exercise can protect your hydration level.
Finally, carbohydrates should be the main calorie source for all athletes, because they provide the energy needed for optimal performance. The best sources include fruits, whole grain breads, high-fiber cereals, pasta, brown or wild rice and starchy vegetables such as corn, peas and potatoes.
Most endurance athletes know they require a high-carb diet—about 3.2 to 4.5 grams of carbs per pound of body weight per day. However, although they have a higher risk of iron deficiency, too many endurance athletes overlook the importance of iron. Iron’s major role is to carry oxygen to the cells that make energy, so you won’t perform optimally if you don’t have enough. The body best absorbs animal sources of iron—e.g., beef, chicken, turkey, pork and fish—but healthy plant sources are also available, including beans, fortified cereals and peanut butter. To increase iron absorption, eat foods high in vitamin C such as citrus fruits, peppers, tomatoes, melons and berries. Avoid teas and carbonated beverages, which inhibit iron absorption.
Explosive athletes need to increase muscle mass, which means they need 0.6 to 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. A common mistake, however, is to eat too much protein without paying attention to when you’re eating it. Try combining a protein source with carbs before and immediately after resistance exercise. A great option is an eight- to 12 ounce glass of skim chocolate milk 30 to 45 minutes before and after exercise.
Randy Bird, MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS, is the sports nutritionist for Kansas University Athletics and a Board Certified Specialist in sports dietetics. He’s also a member of the American Academy of Sports Dietitians and Nutritionists, the American Dietetic Association and the American College of Sports Medicine