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SPECIAL FITNESS ISSUE / FASTER, STRONGER, SMARTER

Put some muscle behind meals

For serious athletes, nutrition is an important part of training. The right mix of carbs and protein can help boost performance.

January 09, 2006|Melissa Healy | Time Staff Writer

SINCE the days when ancient Olympians ate honey and dried figs, food has been an important part of the elite athlete's regimen. These days, the link between diet and athletics is a major industry, spawning hype, hucksterism and an explosion of drinks, bars and shakes. But so too has come research -- and some solid advice on how best to fuel athletic performance.

Elite athletes have teams of nutritionists to help them. But amateur athletes who run, bike and swim for the joy of it must sift through conflicting tips on carbs and protein, power bars and drinks, and supplements, supplements, supplements.

Turn up your iPod when the guy who hands out gym towels starts to hand out advice. Flee from those websites touting "natural" performance-enhancing compounds. The new science of sports nutrition has just a few points to take to the track.

The truth is, eating for optimal athletic performance is pretty close to the government's dietary guidelines for non-athletes. If you're a weekend peddler, or jog a mile or two every day, the tips at www.MyPyramid.gov (fruits, vegetables, healthy fats) is all you need to know, nutritionists say. (Make sure to drink lots of water.)

The rules are different for athletes seeking to climb to another level, who want to boost endurance, muscle, agility or explosive power. They can reap benefits with three dietary manipulations: slightly shifting the mix of carbohydrates, protein and fat; carefully timing their eating; and considering a few well-researched supplements.

"I try to convey to our athletes that nutrition has to be thought of as part of their training ... that can help make them optimal in their sport," says Felice Kurtzman, a registered dietitian at UCLA's School of Medicine.

Apportioning calories between carbs, proteins and fat depends on where one's sport sits on the continuum between strength and endurance. Nutritionists still quibble over proportions, but they agree on one thing: Some athletes -- especially in strength sports such as weight lifting -- simply eat too many carbs. If you're not engaging in hours of sustained activity such as running, these may end up on your torso as fat.

* Carbohydrates. These are the readiest source of glycogen, the main muscle fuel for athletes working above a moderate level of intensity. When glycogen is depleted, fat or protein gets burned instead; fatigue, tired limbs and poor performance are the result.

Nearly a dozen studies have showed that high levels of carbs, taken before and after workouts, increased the time and intensity with which athletes could push themselves to the max. For this reason, sports nutritionists recommend lots of carbohydrates -- as much as 60% of daily calories -- for endurance sports such as long-distance biking, running and swimming; slightly less (50% to 55%) for in-between sports such as skiing, tennis and sprinting; and the least (40% to 50%) for sports depending on strength, such as weight lifting.

Although healthy whole grains are encouraged, studies show that refined carbs may actually replenish glycogen in the muscles more quickly. Also, the sheer volume of carbs that athletes can require means that some must usually come from energy drinks, white pasta, cereals and rice, says Melvin H. Williams, founder of the Human Performance Lab at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.

* Protein. For years, protein was eclipsed by carbs -- and athletic performance may have suffered. Protein is important because our muscles (which are constantly being refashioned) are made of it. Some protein is also burned as fuel. Athletes need protein to build muscle and to repair damage from physical exertion. Protein may also help replenish the muscle's glycogen after exercise.

Though debate still roils, nutritionists recommend that protein make up 20% to 35% of an athlete's calories, with strength-focused athletes at the upper end of that range, and endurance athletes near the bottom.

* Fat. This is needed by the human body to provide fatty acids that it can't produce on its own. But as athletic fuel, fat is relatively inefficient, and even athletes who are careful about their diets often get too much.

Sports nutritionists agree that 15% to 30% of daily calories from fat is plenty. Endurance athletes (who consume more of their calories as carbs) should be at the bottom of that range.

* Timing. For serious athletes, getting enough calories, especially protein, can be challenging. Small, frequent meals (each with protein) are best, says Jose Antonio of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. Sports drinks, bars and shakes can help -- and aid with getting the right macronutrient mix.

Nutritionists are pretty easy on what athletes should eat before a game, match or a race: Eat one to three hours before the event, and make it easily digestible; no megadoses of fat or fiber. Simple carbs (a bagel with jelly) and protein (skim milk or turkey) will nicely fuel muscles.

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