Feature by Chelsea Howard
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pennsylvania, October 16. AS swimmers, we are constantly working to build a "machine" that will propel us through the water better than ever. We lift abnormal amounts of weights to make it stronger. We go up and down the pool staring at a black line to train it. But most importantly, we sit down for meals throughout the day to fuel our machine.
It's easy to convince ourselves that we train so much that we've earned a cookie or that we can eat as much ice cream as we want without feeling guilty. But what are we really doing to our body?
Instead of fueling it with the best products out there and using junk food to refuel, we are setting ourselves back. After all the hard work we've put in, we won't reap all the benefits of the training unless we properly put back what we've lost to help aid our recovery.
According to the American Dietetic Association, "Eating right allows your body to adapt to training, helps you recover after exercise and attain peak performance."
Seems obvious enough, but eating well isn't always easy to accomplish. Eating too much will result in weight gain, while eating too little results in loss of muscle and fatigue. It's also crucial as competitive swimmers to eat protein with carbohydrates, which helps repair muscles and replace the energy used in practice.
"Studies show that carbohydrates combined with a little protein creates a better muscle refueling and building response, and it reduces cortisol, a hormone that breaks down muscle," Nancy Clark, a member of the American Dietetic Association's sports nutritionists, said.
On my club team, we were always encouraged to eat a meal immediately after practice that had a ratio of carbohydrates to protein as 4:1. It's best to have this ratio in a full balanced meal to get additional vitamins to help aid the ratio needed within the time frame that benefits us most. But what makes this formula so significant?
In an article published by STACK Magazine, Clark said, "Athletes should take in a 4:1 ratio of carbs to high quality protein within an hour after training. If you take in just carbs, it will refuel the muscle, but not repair them. Protein will repair them but not refuel them."
Let's not forget the differences in carbs though. Just like anything, there are good carbs you can't get enough of and bad ones you should avoid.
"Good carbohydrates are found in foods that have not been processed, but are eaten pretty much in their natural states (fruits, leafy green vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds). Bad carbohydrates are the refined, highly processed carbohydrates from which most of the nutrients and fiber have been removed," according to an article written by Amber Keefer that was published on livestrong.com.
Understanding the benefits of protein and carbs in a well-balanced meal is crucial for recovery, but it's arguably more important to understand the timing of each meal.
Going back to our machine analogy, we're not going to get up for practice and have peak performance if we have no fuel. Our machine won't function like we know it can. After we expend all of our energy in a workout, we can't wait a few hours to refuel – there's a time frame we must follow so we don't take energy from other sources of our body.
"After a tough game or practice, the body is stripped of the nutrients it needs to build muscles: glycogen and fluids. The quicker the athlete is able to provide the needed nutritional energy to the body, the quicker the body can start restoring itself. An athlete's body can only be fully ready for the next workout or game if it is glycogen and fluid stores are completely replenished," Leslie Bonci, Director of the Sports Medicine Nutrition Program at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Health System, said.
Another key factor that often gets overlooked is hydration. "The longer and more intensely you exercise, the more important it is to replace lost fluids. For an elite athlete, a loss of two percent of body weight in fluid has been linked to a drop in blood volume. This makes the heart work harder in order to move blood through the bloodstream. Dehydration may also lead to fatigue, poor performance, decreased coordination and muscle cramping," according to an article written by Elizabeth Quinn titled, Proper Hydration for Athletes.
So next time you gather around the family table, remember you're fueling more than just your body – you're fueling a machine that becomes a weapon in competition. Fueling it the right way can make all the difference in your performance and the timing of your recovery.
How well do you want to perform?