Every season we see athletes spending more time in the gym or on the field pushing to improve their skills. But we hear less about their efforts to fuel up their bodies before and after those tough workouts – even though diet makes a difference in athletic performance and muscle health. Perhaps, the most overlooked hinderance to success and contributor to injuries is a lack of proper nutrition.
As a former football coach, I know first-hand that finding time to consume enough calories is hard for athletes – and setting aside time to plan out nutritious meals is even harder. Nevertheless, the research is clear: failing to meet the body’s energy needs results in insufficient recovery, poor physical performance and muscle fatigue that can contribute to injury. While injuries in sports will never be completely avoidable, it’s possible to lower injury risk with proper nutrition and recovery. The equation for optimal recovery is simple.
Whole-Food Meals + (Supplementation x Timing) = Optimal Recovery
Whole-food meals – like breakfast, lunch or dinner – are the balanced meals that provide the bulk of daily calories, macronutrients, micronutrients and fiber. Each meal should include approximately 50-60% complex carbohydrates, such as unprocessed grains, fruit and vegetables; 20-30% fat; and 15-20% protein.
Supplementation x timing is how athletes provide their bodies with the resources they need at the precise time they’re needed to ensure maximum performance and adequate recovery. This includes snacks and beverages in between training sessions or games that supplement the nutrition from whole-food meals.
There are two categories of supplements in an athlete’s daily training regimen: “sports drinks” and “recovery drinks.” Sports drinks contain electrolytes; water; and easily digested simple carbs to top off blood sugar, which minimizes the amount of muscle proteins that the body must consume for energy. Drink this type of supplement 90 minutes before and during exercise that lasts longer than 60 minutes.
Recovery drinks contain simple carbs, proteins and electrolytes. Beverages with a 3:1 or 4:1 carb-to-protein ratio are optimal for shutting off the system that’s responsible for breaking down muscle during intense exercise. A great option with this carb-to-protein ratio is chocolate milk, not only replenishing energy stores and promoting muscle growth but also rehydrating with 90% water and natural electrolytes. Get the most out of recovery beverages by drinking them within the Nutrient Timing window, which is approximately 30-45 minutes after exercise.
Applying these guidelines throughout the day to help keep muscles fueled and primed for performance is extremely important. An athlete with morning weightlifting, a midday athletic period and afternoon practice is engaging in 3-6 hours of vigorous physical activity with only a few hours to recuperate. The body can burn through half of its carb stores in under an hour, which means that the next training session will demand more than the athlete’s body can give. Without appropriate supplementation, the athlete either pushes too hard, driving the body into an overtraining state, or the athlete can't push hard enough, and the body begins detraining. Overtraining can lead to fatigue, illness, and injury, and detraining leads to weakness which can contribute to injury. Both issues are ultimately outcomes of under-recovering.
At the end of the day, sports injuries are part of the game, but proper nutrition is key to decreasing the risks. Learn more about gaining a competitive edge with chocolate milk and sports nutrition and read my research with high school athletes recovering with chocolate milk.