Tips from Nancy Clark
Getting to the Next Level: Stay Healthy, Recover
Once upon a time, when fewer people participated in sports, anyone
could be a champion. Athletes just had to "show up" and
the odds would be in their favor. Today, with more and more people
involved in competitions, a reasonably good athlete who wants to
excel needs a competitive edge. Unlike ancient times when the Greek
athletes drank wine and ate mushrooms, today's athletes can get
more sophisticated knowledge about the foods and fluids that truly
enhance performance. With the help of a personal sports nutritionist,
athletes with high aspirations are getting to the next level. The
following information, discussed at a conference sponsored by SCAN
(the American Dietetic Association's practice group of sports nutritionists)
may give you tips that help you "get to the next level."
(To find your personal sports nutritionist, use ADA's referral network
Staying healthy is a critical job for competitive athletes. You
can't compete at your best if you have a cold, fever or other ailment.
But all too often, we hear stories about athletes who train hard
only to get sick before their event and become unable to compete.
Many ailing athletes wonder if vitamin or mineral supplements (like
zinc, iron, copper, selenium, Vitamins A, B-6, C and E) could protect
against infections that hinder their performance.
According to Dr. David Nieman, exercise immunologist from Appalachian
State University in North Carolina, many nutritional supplements
have been touted to enhance the immune system and fight infections.
Yet, research has yet to confirm their benefits in athletes. (In
comparison, severely malnourished people do gain benefits from supplements--and
that's where the rumors start.) Also questionable are glutamine
supplements. Glutamine, an amino acid that enhances immunity, has
been touted to be the athletes' aid to stronger recovery and immune
function. According to Dr. Nieman, blood levels of glutamine drop
with exercise, but even marathon-type exercise does not sufficiently
deplete the body's large stores of glutamine enough to diminish
immune function and create a need for athletes to take glutamine
The one nutritional practice that does enhance immune function
is to consume carbohydrate during hard exercise that lasts longer
than 90 to 120 minutes. Carbohydrates break down into glucose, and
glucose is the major fuel for immune cells. Low blood glucose also
triggers the release of stress hormones that suppress immune function.
Hence, a drop in blood sugar during prolonged, intensive exercise
can reduce immune function. If viruses and bacteria gain a "foothold"
during this open window of reduced immunity following hard exercise
(3-72 hours), you'll be more likely to get sick. The solution: Prevent
low blood sugar. Research with runners who consumed carbs (in the
form of sports drink) during 2.5 hours of hard exercise indicates
they had less inflammatory response to the exercise test compared
to runners who consumed no carbs, just water.
A second immune booster is exercise itself. For example, exercise
boosts the level of natural killer cells that suppress certain types
of cancer. But while some exercise is good, too much exercise (overtraining)
has a negative effect. For example, runners who run more than 60
miles per week have double the risk of getting sick compard to those
who run less. Add too much stress and too little sleep, and the
likelihood of illness increases more. The week after the LA Marathon,
the finishers had a six-times higher risk of getting sick compared
to those who did not finish the marathon.
Because exercise is a potent way to boost the immune system and
is a powerful health protector, exercise is particularly important
for elderly people. According to Dr. Nieman, 50% of sedentary elderly
people reported getting sick as compared to 21% of elderly walkers
and 8% of highly fit elderly exercisers. If you concerned about
your parents getting colds, coughs and other infections, remind
them daily activity is far more effective than any vitamin pill
or medication. Keep active!
Rapid recovery is a second important job for athletes who need to
quickly recover from one bout of exercise to be prepared for another
bout scheduled within 6 hours (i.e., athletes who do double workouts,
or compete in back-to-back games at tournaments.) These folks need
to have the right foods and fluids readily available post-exercise.
John Ivy, exercise physiologist at University of Texas in Austin
emphasizes prevention as the best strategy to enhance recovery.
That is, if you can minimize deficits of water and energy during
your first exercise bout, you'll recover more easily for the second
If you are at risk of becoming dehydrated, the best way to maintain
adequate hydration during intense exercise is with a sports drink
or other sodium-containing fluid. Sodium (a part of salt) helps
maintain the "drive to drink" and stimulates thirst. (Note:
Gatorade no longer claims to be a "thirst quencher." Gatorade
stimulates thirst!) Thirst encourages greater fluid consumption,
which enhances fluid replacement and reduces the risk of dehydration
during exhaustive exercise.
Rapid recovery also requires carbohydrates, and possibly protein.
Some studies suggest a carb/protein mixture stimulates quicker glycogen
replacement within a 6-hour period (but this balances out by the
next day.) Other studies suggest simply eating adequate carbohydrates
is the key. If you need to prepare for another hard exercise bout
that day (such as happens in tournament situations), target 0.7
gms carb per pound of body weight every 2 hours for up to six hours
after your exhaustive workout. For a 150 lb. athlete, this means
about 100 grams carbs/2 hours or 400 calories--the amount in 24
oz. grape juice, 1 liter soft drink, or a big bagel. If you have
exercised so hard you've depleted your muscles, your body will welcome
Given your body needs protein on a daily basis, to consume some
post-exercise protein along with the carbs certainly won't hurt
and may even enhance your recovery. Enjoy yogurt with fruit, milk
with cereal, peanut butter with bagel, or red beans with rice. Just
be sure carbs are the foundation, and protein is the accompaniment
to the meal or snack. Disregard the current fad of limiting bagels,
pasta and starches. You'll crash.
Nancy Clark, MS, RD is Director of Nutrition Services
at SportsMedicine Associates in Brookline MA. She is author of Nancy
Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook, Second Edition ($23) and her
new Food Guide for Marathoners: Tips for Everyday Champions ($20).
Both are available via www.nancyclarkrd.com
or by sending a check to Sports Nutrition Materials, 830 Boylston
St #205, Brookline MA 02467.
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