Baylor College of Medicine

Calorie needs of athletes vary with intensity of training

Dana Benson


Houston, TX -

Although proper diet and nutrition is important for everyone, athletes who are involved in competitive sports and endurance training have different needs than others, according to a sports medicine expert at Baylor College of Medicine.

"If you're actively working out, training at a high volume or preparing for a competition, you really need to take in enough calories and nutrients to support the level of activity that you're doing," said Dr. Theodore Shybut, assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at BCM.

"For an average person, the daily caloric intake might be 1,800 to 2,000 calories. An athlete who is a competitive heavyweight rower or training for long distance running races, for example, may need to eat two or three times that amount of calories daily."

For those athletes who are injured and are taking a break from training, Shybut says to bring the caloric intake down appropriately.

A high carbohydrate diet has shown to be important for performance in endurance events lasting more than 90 minutes, particularly two to three days before the event. Examples of complex carbohydrates that should be consumed include whole-grain bread, pasta, cereal and brown rice.

However, Shybut advises that these athletes not skimp on other nutrients during their day-to-day training.

"You want to be sure you're getting enough protein, which is important for rebuilding tissue from the breakdown that occurs during exercise," Shybut said. "So-called ‘healthy fats' such as Omega-3 fatty acids are also part of a balanced diet."

He also emphasizes the importance of proper fluid intake since performance will suffer if the body is dehydrated. Sports drinks containing electrolytes can replenish some carbohydrates and are good for performance in high intensity endurance sports, he said.

"If you are training at high volume and high intensity, you shouldn't skip these sports drinks because you're worried about extra calories. When you're competing at that level of intensity, you need the caloric support," he said.

One of the common mistakes Shybut identifies, especially in junior high and high school athletes, is skipping meals. Eating regular meals is an important part of a training routine, he said.

Another mistake that Shybut commonly sees is athletes not eating enough fruits and vegetables because they are focusing on consuming carbohydrates and protein. Research has shown that antioxidants in fruits and vegetables can be helpful in the recovery of day-to-day training.

Although caffeine can increase performance in endurance events, Shybut recommends that it be used carefully. If an athlete has never consumed caffeine during training, Shybut advises that they not try it out on game day for the first time.

Shybut suggests that if the sporting event or competition is late in the day, eat a meal high in carbohydrates about three hours prior to the event. Don't consume foods that are hard to digest, such as those high in fat or protein, right before competition.

"Your body will have to work to digest the food as opposed to pumping blood to working muscles," he said.

Breakfast is a common meal that is skipped, but Shybut emphasizes that if the event is not right after breakfast, it's a good meal to get some protein in the body. Breakfast is also important for the brain, which uses glucose as well. A sharp brain is important in the arena of sports competition, Shybut said.

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