Nutrition: what can make or break an athlete’s performance

Hailey Fine and Sophia McCandlish

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Constant exercise comes with a constant need to eat, but many don’t realize the effect that certain foods and eating habits have on their bodies. In order for athletes to perform at their best, it’s crucial that their bodies are nourished with foods that provide strength and energy. 

“[Good nutrition] is everything. It really is,” P.E. and Wellness teacher Kathleen Weber explained. “Think of food as fuel. My dietitian said I should be eating every 3 hours. That doesn’t mean a full meal, that could be trail mix, a banana or an apple. Vegetables are honestly the best thing that any person can get throughout their day because they are complex carbs, giving you tons of vitamins and minerals.”

According to USDA, a balanced meal is composed of fruits, vegetables, proteins, carbohydrates, fats and dairy. While fruits and vegetables are what come to mind when thinking of healthy foods, complex carbs and lean proteins are regarded as some of the healthiest foods in terms of nutritional value. A study done by University of Wisconsin Madison Health explains that carbohydrates, proteins and healthy fats are key for planning a nutritious meal. Though many view carbohydrates as just pasta and bread, UW Madison Health claims in some cases, fruit and leafy greens provide the needed carbohydrates. 

“My dietitian said that an athlete’s [diet] should include anywhere between 50-65% of carbohydrates, simple and complex, because athletes are needing energy immediately,” Weber said. 

Athletes are constantly looking to find ways to elevate their play, and it all begins with the foods they consume. 

“Nutrition is 80% of your preparation,” Weber said. “You have control over 80% of your preparation. The best simple carbs are a banana, granola bar, apples and peanut butter, toast, trail mix and nuts.Try things, but don’t try it for the first time on the day of a game or a meet.””

Football

Game day is a huge focus for every athlete— this is when dietary rituals begin. Not only must they be mentally prepared, but in peak physical condition. This goes to show how good nutrition becomes key for the best possible performance on game days. 

“All of your cells need their best nutrients all of the time, so everything you do is impacted by what you eat which can be hard to measure,” registered dietitian and expert in medical nutrition therapy Evette Hackman said. “Most athletes I’ve known have a ritual of how they can perform best in terms of what they drink and eat.” 

A ritual is not only comforting, but is proven to be effective. The most important part of these nutritional routines starts in the morning.

“I believe that breakfast is the most important meal to start off my day at school. It could be as simple as a granola bar or a bowl of cereal,” senior running back and Miami of Ohio football commit Quadre Nicholson said.

Along with a filling breakfast, it’s important to stay hydrated and nourished throughout the day. According to NCAA, athletes should drink around 24 ounces before exertion, four ounces every 15-20 minutes during exertion, and 16-20 ounces after. 

“On game day, I have the same routine: I usually eat tons of fruits and a salad for lunch, but I also make sure I’m hydrating myself throughout the whole day with water and Gatorade,” Nicholson said. “That helps me to not cramp up during the game.” 

Power drinks such as Gatorade and Powerade are popular drinks for athletes before and throughout the game. Although they can be abused easily (drinking too many power drinks can be an unhealthy habit), they’re used in order to obtain sugars that can provide a short burst of energy. 

“The reason those sports drinks are so popular is because [the companies] cut the sugar down to around half of normal drinks, and the advantage of that is that it leaves your stomach quickly which is what you want,” Hackman explained.

Wrestling

Wrestling is a sport centered around weight classes, therefore, good nutrition and correct dieting is crucial. Before each meet, wrestlers have to weigh themselves to determine their eligibility in their previously declared weight class. If they are over said weight, they are prohibited from wrestling in that meet. This leaves some wrestlers in a frenzy days before a weigh-in to lose substantial amounts of weight. In a study conducted by Children’s Hospital Colorado, some wrestlers lose weight in unsafe ways such as working out in a wetsuit, only drinking water all day, using laxatives or just not eating at all.

“[When you don’t eat for a long period of time] your muscle starts to break down because you need nutrients to live…muscle has protein, amino acids and other nutrients,”  Hackman explained. 

Malnourishment impacts athletes in all sports, especially wrestlers. With the constant hard work wrestlers put in their sport, the right foods make some athletes have an edge over others.

“You see a lot of guys from other schools that eat unhealthy during the week causing them to make unhealthy weight cuts at the end of the week. These weight cuts lead them to not be able to wrestle in a six minute match without gassing out,” senior wrestler Max Morton said. 

Morton, for the most part, doesn’t struggle with eating well. His diet includes all whole, non-processed foods and complex carbs. His lean protein varies from chicken to egg whites to fish. He eats fruits and greens to keep his fiber and micronutrients high. 

“Obviously, being a teenager, it’s hard seeing all of my friends and classmates eating a lot of unhealthy food that I can’t eat,” Morton explained. “It’s always tempting when I see someone else eating a food I like in class, but I know that I’m doing what’s best for my body by eating as healthy as possible.” 

Cross-country

Running is a sport that requires exceptional attention to nutrition. Race times are the name of the game, so the slightest discrepancy is the difference in race placement. Because upper body strength isn’t a main focus for runners, making sure legs and core are well-nourished and strong is the secret to success. 

“Running on a day when you haven’t eaten enough or at all sucks a lot,” senior cross country and track runner Gabby Horton said. “You feel really weak and lightheaded, and you’re not able to push yourself because you feel like you’re going to pass out.”

Runners need as many essential nutrients as any other athlete, but lighter foods are ideal for right before practices or races. The last thing a runner, or any athlete for that matter, needs is a big meal moving around if their stomach right before an important event. 

It has been shown that athletes perform at their best if they have smaller snacks and meals more frequently throughout the day instead of three, larger meals a day. At an all day event like a cross country or track meet, Nancy Clark, a board certified specialist in sports dietetics, explains that runners tend to perform better when they have smaller meals every one to two hours in her Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook study.

“[Healthy snacks to bring to school would be] cheese, nuts or a peanut butter sandwich,” Hackman said. “Nuts are a good source of protein and iron, especially peanut butter and almonds/almond butter, and cheese is a good source of protein and calcium.”

Clark’s study also explains how skipping meals can short runners of their daily nutrition requirements. 

“If I were to skip [breakfast], I probably wouldn’t perform my best. Just in general, especially during the week, not skipping meals is very important in order to perform at my best,” Horton said.

Athletes need breakfast, along with effective nutrition throughout the day to perform at their peak. Without proper attention to what goes into an athlete’s body, dire consequences may be suffered on the court, mat or field.