Staying up to date on the latest recommendations in sports nutrition is no easy task. But it is easier thanks to a special one-day symposium now held annually in October to kick off the American Dietetic Association conference.
To ensure they are prepared for competition, most athletes focus on sport-specific training, resistance training, and cardiovascular work. But one aspect of preparation that athletes often forget is "training" their immune system. Athletes who are unable to compete because of illness are obviously not maximizing their contribution to the team.
Studies have shown that athletes who exercise excessively may have weakened or impaired immune systems because of the additional stress they encounter. In fact, one study by Nieman and his colleagues demonstrated that nearly 25 percent of runners reported an infection of the upper respiratory tract in the immediate two-week period following an ultramarathon (100-mile run).
Of course a 100-mile run is an extreme case, but another study published in the late 1980's demonstrated that even after a marathon (26.2 miles), there was approximately six times the number of upper respiratory tract infections among the athletes than there were in the control group of non-athletes.
In addition, college students don't always get enough sleep and live in close quarters that expose them to a high concentration of germs. Therefore, finding ways to strengthen the immune system is important for your athletes. But can one enhance his or her immune system through nutrition?
To fight off getting sick, many athletes turn to antioxidant supplements along with taking other vitamins and minerals. In a study published in 2002, researchers measured the effect of supplementing with vitamin C. The researchers provided either vitamin C or a placebo to the athletes in a 20-mile race. The authors found no significant changes in immune function in the body.
Similarly, vitamin E is another common antioxidant supplement used to boost immunity. In a recent study, athletes were provided either vitamin E or a placebo during an Ironman triathlon. Again, the athletes supplemented with vitamin E had no significant immunity benefits after the race.
Next, Nieman reviewed several published studies that measured the effects of carbohydrate on immune changes during heavy exertion, with some promising results. In these studies, athletes supplemented with a sport drink containing carbohydrate, which was found to positively enhance their immune systems. In addition, the authors found that during activity with rest intervals, immune markers were not negatively impacted to the same degree as they were during long, continuous activities.
Nieman suggests supplementing with carbohydrate drinks or gels during rest intervals in training or competing. He also recommends introducing rest intervals if exercise duration exceeds 90 minutes. However, more research is necessary on the effects of other dietary supplements, such as protein, glutamine, other antioxidants, and other nutrient mixtures.
Wrestling is probably the most widespread weight class sport, but there are of course others where athletes need to fall within a certain range on the scale. Helping these athletes can be one of the toughest challenges coaches and sports nutritionists face.
In this case study, Freel described a college wrestler who competed at 141 pounds but constantly struggled to make weight. After he gained 30 pounds during the off-season, his coaches decided to move him up a weight class. However, his new weight of 170 pounds was still a far cry from the 149 pounds needed to make the new class.
Because the tradition in wrestling is to lose weight by starving oneself and sweating out extra pounds, Freel felt it was important to clarify that these practices are dangerous and do not ultimately improve performance. Even though new rules in the sport are helping curtail rapid weight loss practices, there is still much education that needs to be done.
When counseling the wrestler, Freel emphasized how rapid weight loss and dehydration will negatively affect performance-that without the proper fuel and a hydrated body, he will not have the energy to perform at his best. She also explained that losing weight slowly will pay off in the long run, since the weight is more likely to stay off, and that fasting or starving can actually slow metabolism.
In addition, Freel talked to the coaches and athlete about focusing on body composition rather than body weight. She explained that a leaner athlete is better than a skinny athlete with lower lean body mass. Although it flies in the face of tradition, it would be much better for wrestlers to move up a class than to lose enormous amounts of weight to make unrealistic goals.
Freel also provided a specific list of suggestions:
- Do not starve yourself.
- Eat small snacks throughout the day.
- Eat nutrient-dense foods that are high in fiber, which help satiate and prevent overeating. Good examples are fruits, vegetables, and oatmeal.
- Stay hydrated by drinking AT LEAST 16 ounces of fluid for each pound of weight lost during practice.
- Eat carbohydrates, which is the main source of fuel for explosive and powerful sports such as wrestling.
- Do not allow your weight to fluctuate more than five pounds from your class in or out of season.
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