Stay Healthy, Recover Rapidly
By Nancy Clark, MS, RD
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.
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 at www.eatright.org.)
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.
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, research has yet to confirm supplement benefits in athletes. (In comparison, severely malnourished people do gain benefits from supplements--and that's where the rumors start.)
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 supplements.
The one nutritional practice that does enhance immune function is to consume carbohydrates 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. 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.
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 compared 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 are 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 six 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. If you can minimize deficits of water and energy during your first exercise bout, you'll recover more easily for the second bout.
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. 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 six-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 of carbohydrate per pound of body weight every two hours for up to six hours after your exhaustive workout. For a 150 lb. athlete, this means about 100 grams of carbs per two hours or 400 calories--the amount in 24 oz. Of 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 this!
Given that 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.
Copyright: Nancy Clark, MS, RD January 2002
Nancy Clark, MS, RD is a nutrition counselor at Boston-area's SportsMedicine Brookline. She is author of the best selling Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook, Second Edition, available by sending $20 to Sports Nutrition Services, 830 Boylston St., Brookline MA 02467 or via www.nancyclarkrd.com
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