Montana State University

Sports performance can improve with attention to nutrition

January 26, 2004

Ultra athlete and Montana State University ecology professor Scott Creel cross-country skis and runs ultramarathons. (Photo by Jean Arthur)   High-Res Available

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A nutrition tune-up can boost an athlete's performance, says a Montana State University-Bozeman nutritionist.

"Nutrition and exercise work best together," says Patti Steinmuller, a dietitian and instructor in MSU's Department of Health and Human Development. "Using sports nutrition strategies before, during and after exercise help athletes perform at their peak."

Each sport varies in its demands, but for athletes in general, energy and fluids are the two highest nutrition priorities, says Steinmuller. She teaches students how to fuel for performance in a class called "Nutrition for Sports and Exercise" and also works with high school teachers, coaches and athletes.

"Only in the last five to 10 years has research begun to clarify nutrition needs for different sports," Steinmuller says. As a result, sports organizations have begun making nutrition recommendations for athletes. For instance, the International Olympics Committee Consensus Statement on Sports Nutrition in 2003 concluded that "the amount, composition and timing of food intake can profoundly affect sports performance."

She encourages athletes to envision a "fueling cycle" to satisfy their energy, fluid and nutrient needs before, during and after training or competition. Though changing eating patterns is challenging for anyone, Steinmuller says athletes who improve their performance often are motivated to gear their nutrition to their individual needs and sport.

Eating before exercise fills energy and fluid stores, and helps competitors enhance speed, stamina and mental focus. Steinmuller recommends frequent, small meals every three to four hours for athletes training every day, rather than a few large meals.

Paying attention to how long it takes foods to digest can help guide food choices, she says. Carbohydrates digest in one to three hours; protein in three to four hours, fats in four to five hours. So a sandwich with lean meat, a glass of milk, a few baby carrots, apple and a cookie is a reasonable meal for a high school basketball player two to three hours before training. In contrast, a glass of juice or milk and a cereal bar digests quickly enough to be a good choice an hour before basketball practice.

During exercise that lasts an hour or less, athletes typically do not need to eat. However, staying well-hydrated during activity keeps athletes cool, delays tiring and helps maintain stamina and speed. Water is usually the best fluid for team sports, including basketball.

Determining how much fluid to drink is easy. "Weigh before and after exercise," says Steinmuller. "Drink enough water so that you don't lose more than two percent of your body weight during exercise. If the activity is intense and lasts 60 minutes or more, sports drinks can fuel working muscles."

However, she cautions that athletes should read the ingredients on sports or "performance" drinks to avoid those that are packed with short-term stimulants like caffeine. The National College Athletic Association has a restriction on the amount of caffeine that is allowed in a competitor's urine. Beyond that level, caffeine is considered doping.

In general, sports drinks should replace what the body has lost in exercise, so should be carbohydrate-based with some sodium and potassium. Sugar is a carbohydrate and glucose, sucrose or maltodextrin, which are forms of sugar, will be in sports drinks. Soda pop and fruit juice are higher in concentration of sugar than the body can readily digest during exercise.

To rehydrate after exercise, replace each pound of weight loss with 2.5 cups of fluid. "Satisfying thirst is not enough," Steinmuller adds.

Recovery from intense exercise is a new sports nutrition focus. Steinmuller breaks recovery down into the "4 Rs": rehydrate, refuel, rebuild/repair muscle and rest. Immediately after exercise, an athlete has a unique opportunity to speed recovery by refueling, because the enzymes that help replace carbohydrate in muscles are most active then.

If an athlete is not hungry after exercise, a sports drink or fruit juice will start the refueling and rehydrating. Consuming protein along with carbohydrate during early recovery appears to help muscles reload with carbohydrate fuel and may boost hormone levels needed for protein synthesis. An effective recovery snack is milk and a sandwich of lean meat and bread, or a sports drink and an energy bar containing both carbohydrate and protein.

Steinmuller says the "last R" -- rest-- is often overlooked. Protein synthesis occurs during rest, so she suggests that athletes sleep at least seven to eight hours a night to get the most benefit from their training and nutrition. Nutrition recommendations for athletes still actively growing could be different, and in particular younger athletes may need more sleep.

In the past, athletes figured out by trial and error what foods and eating patterns worked for them. Now, it's more efficient to work with a sports dietitian to develop an individualized high-performance diet. To develop such a plan, Steinmuller examines the sport, estimates the athlete's daily energy needs and energy intake and talks with the athlete about food choices and favorite foods. She says she begins with recommendations in the USDA Food Guide Pyramid, then fine tunes them based on the type of exercise, body weight and goals of the athlete.

Armed with their nutrition plan, Steinmuller advises athletes to keep a food log as a companion to their training log. With the food log, food and fluid choices, amounts and timing can be adjusted to meet the athlete's needs.

"Athletes need to know how nutrition can help them train and perform at their peak," she states, "then they need to put that knowledge into action."

The Food and Nutrition Program at MSU-Bozeman offers nutrition courses and a dietetics program. For information, call the Department of Health and Human Development at 406-994-4001 or visit the Web at:

What foods and timing boost performance?
A team sport like high school basketball requires athletes to be quick, agile and powerful. Fast-twitch muscles used for sprinting, jumping and shooting rely on a fuel mixture that emphasizes carbohydrate, an energy-containing nutrient found in breads, cereals, pasta, fruit, vegetables and dairy products. In contrast, an endurance sport like cross country skiing uses more slow-twitch muscles, which rely more evenly on both carbohydrate and fat for fuel. The same is true for sports like distance running and competitive cycling.

Steinmuller advises eating a moderate-sized meal three to four hours before exercise. If eating within two hours of exercise, eat less. Eat a snack about an hour before exercise and fuel with liquids 30 minutes before exercise. Replace lost fuel and fluids if exercise lasts longer than 60 minutes. To rehydrate after exercise, replace each pound of weight loss with 2.5 cups of fluid.

Recovery foods include sandwich with lean meat or poultry, bagel with cheese, soup and crackers, pretzels, fruit, yogurt, sports drinks, fruit juice, energy bar, cereal bar, fruit smoothie, milk shake or sport shake.

Contact: Patti Steinmuller (406) 994-4653