Feb 19, 2024
Best nutritional practices for building power in athletes
Kaci Cheavtharn, MS, RD, LD, Gatorade Sports Nutrition Immersion Program Fellow

Athletes usually have a common goal when reaching out to a performance dietitian: to improve their nutrition to succeed in their sport. 

Most sports require power in some shape or form whether that’s exploding across the finish line, sacking a quarterback, or driving to make a game-winning layup. Many athletes expect this power to come naturally, but what they may not realize is that the basics matter, especially when it comes to nutrition.

Adequate Energy Intake

nutritionalBefore getting into the specifics of nutrition, athletes first need to evaluate if they are consuming enough calories to support their active lifestyle. If they are not consuming enough calories, it can result in low energy availability (LEA). LEA is a fancy way of saying the athlete is expending more calories than they are eating. LEA is an indicator of relative energy deficiency in sport (REDs). REDs is a syndrome that is characterized by long-term LEA and may lead to other detrimental health outcomes such as impaired bone health, impaired reproductive function, impaired cardiovascular function, sleep disturbances, or other physical concerns. In terms of performance, athletes with REDs may experience a decrease in power, recovery, endurance, motivation, and skill. Specific to power, decreases have been observed in research assessing throwing and jumping explosiveness, time trial velocity, and anaerobic sprint performance. As a fundamental tenet to try and avoid such negative outcomes, an athlete looking to optimize power must first ensure they are eating enough calories.

Macronutrients

  • Carbohydrates — an essential fuel source for all athletes in all sports. The research demonstrates that carbohydrates are beneficial before, during, and after training for optimal athletic performance and recovery. Daily carbohydrate needs depend on an athlete’s body mass and physical activity levels. The amount of carbohydrates required increases as training intensity increases. Carbohydrates have a bad reputation therefore it’s important to educate athletes on the benefits and purpose of carbs in their sport.
  • Proteins — important for muscular adaptation and growth. While different intake patterns can meet daily protein needs, the consumption of protein every 3-4 hours is understood to be an effective way to optimize intake. These daily protein needs vary across each sport, but range from 1.0-2.0 g/kg of body weight. 
  • Fats — needed to support many functions in the body such as hormone production, brain health, and organ protection. Fat also helps the absorption of the vitamins A, D, E, and K,  which are essential for the functions previously mentioned. Consumption of fat should fall around 30% of an athlete’s daily caloric needs. Proper education on fat type (unsaturated vs saturated) may help athletes choose foods that better meet their needs.

Hydration

Maintaining hydration status is vital for optimal performance. It is recommended that athletes go into training hydrated as athletic performance can be impaired when 2% of body weight is lost through sweat. Dehydration can cause symptoms like fatigue, poor concentration, decreased muscle coordination, weakness, and light-headedness. Athletes should focus on going into training hydrated, consuming fluid during training to stay hydrated, and replacing fluids and electrolytes lost post-training. Electrolytes include sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, chloride, and bicarbonate with sodium being the major electrolyte lost in sweat. These ions help the body maintain its fluid balance and conduct nerve signals.

Supplements

Supplements are not meant to replace the purpose of food in fueling athletes; however, they can help support an athlete if the supplement fits the athlete’s goals and has been reviewed by a performance dietitian. If an athlete decides to consume supplements, they should purchase a third-party tested product to ensure that what is on the supplement label is accurate and abides with their sport governing body’s drug testing rules.

  • Whey Protein — one of the most popular supplements among the general and athletic population. It can be used for convenience to reach one’s protein goal or ingested to promote an increase in muscle mass when coupled with a resistance training program.
  • Creatine — commonly consumed and an extensively researched supplement for improving athletic performance. Supplemental creatine can increase muscle creatine stores which in turn can increase high-intensity exercise capacity, and support beneficial adaptations in muscle mass. The dosage for loading creatine is 20 grams per day for 5-7 days while the dosage for maintenance is 3-5 grams per day. Alternatively, athletes can start by taking the maintenance dose from the onset. With consistent supplementation, creatine intake has been reported to improve maximal power by 5-15%. 
  • Caffeine — shown to benefit athletic performance. To see the benefits of caffeine, the recommended dosage is 3-6 g/kg consumed 60 minutes before exercise. Research has shown caffeine can decrease pain and perception of fatigue, decrease perceived exertion, and improve body coordination. However, consuming caffeine in high amounts also poses risks such as gastrointestinal problems, shaking, negatively impacted sleep, and potentially a positive drug test.
  • Nitric Oxide (NO3-) — a molecule found to be valuable to athletes due to its ability to increase blood flow to muscles and, in turn, increase time to exhaustion. NO3- are produced from consuming high-nitrate-containing foods that get converted to nitrites, then to the NO3-. Nitrate-containing foods include beets, arugula, spinach, kale, and rhubarb. As a concentrated source, beet juice is the most commonly used NO3- exercise supplement. The recommended dosage is 310-510 mg/kg of nitric oxide consumed 2-3 hours before exercise. 

As indicated by the variety of nutritional information and tips provided within this article, there is no nutritional ‘quick-fix’ for building power in athletes. Instead, athletes should strive to use a strong sports nutrition foundation to grow in their sport as well as overall health. While the information provided herein is a good start, if an athlete has the goal to build power, they should still consider reaching out to a sports dietitian to ensure that they can build on these basic tips to optimize and meet their own personalized needs.




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