For Athletes, Meal Timing is key to Good Performance by Susan Bowerman

By susanb, November 24, 2011

When I was a child, I loved to spend summer days swimming in the pool. And I used to get really annoyed at my mom, who always insisted that I wait an hour after lunch before diving back in – so I wouldn’t “get a belly ache”. At the time, I thought she was being unreasonable, but it turns out her advice was scientifically sound. When you’re doing strenuous exercise, paying attention to what you eat – and when – can have a big impact on your performance.

Athletes are usually on a constant quest to craft the perfect diet to give them the winning edge. And while many athletes go through a bit of trial-and-error with their diet until they come up with a plan that works for them, there are a few key points that all athletes should keep in mind when trying to match their meals and snacks to their activity.

•Carbohydrates are primarily what the body relies on for energy. But the body needs a fairly steady source from the diet, since there’s only so much carbohydrate the body can store – in the form of glycogen – in the muscles and the liver.
•It’s important to ‘top off the tank’ with some carbohydrate before an athletic event. But in choosing what to eat, the athlete needs to consider how much time they have to digest before activity starts.
•Foods high in fiber and fat delay digestion time; it’s best to save them for after the event.
•Light or liquid meals digest more quickly than solid ones. For athletes who have only an hour or less to digest before an event, a smoothie or a carton of yogurt would be easy on the stomach.
•If there’s an hour or two before the event, then a lighter, solid meal – some cottage cheese and toast, a bowl of low fiber cereal – would work. If there’s 3 hours or more until the event, then a regular meal will do.
•During continuous activity that lasts longer than an hour, athletes need to keep the carbohydrate coming in. Specially designed sports drinks are ideal for this purpose, since they provide fluid and salts as well as the right amount of carbohydrate to keep muscles well-fueled; some also provide small amounts of protein which help with muscle recovery.
•Post-exercise the ready to take up plenty of carbohydrate to replenish the stores in the liver and muscles. Ideally, athletes should try to eat within 30 minutes or so after the event is over. Fruits, veggies, whole grains, beans and dairy products are all terrific recovery foods. Now is the time to load back up on the higher fiber carbs since digestion time is no longer a concern.
•Whey and casein – proteins derived from dairy products – are also needed after exercise to help promote muscle recovery. A sandwich on a whole grain bread with a glass of milk, some yogurt with a piece of fruit, or a protein smoothie made with milk and fruit are all post-exercise meals that would fill the bill.

Written by Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD. Susan is a paid consultant for Herbalife.

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