To boost athletic performance, it is very important to understand what good recovery means! Recovery is multifactorial and can be different for different people, but this page covers two important areas: diet and sleep
Studies have shown that many athletes do not get enough energy, i.e. food. An acronym used to denote energy shortage in athletes is “RED-S” (Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport). RED-S is characterised by impaired physical function caused by a lack of energy. This energy shortage can increase the risk of injuries, osteoporosis and stress fractures, worsen immune system function and impair athletics training as well as competition performance.
You should strive to become, and remain, a healthy athlete. You should eat what you, the individual, needs (and enjoys) based on who you are and your personal needs, and not based on what others around you do, or do not, eat. If your goal is to perform better in athletics and you do not consume enough in the way of energy (food), do not rest enough, exercise too much and sleep too little, then your body will break down and your performance will be impaired. This can result in the most important goal of all, being a healthy athlete, becoming simply wishful thinking.
Diet – How should we eat when we exercise?
The purpose of eating is to produce energy, energy for living life. If a fairly large part of your life is athletics then you require even more energy to fuel both training and life in general.
An athletic youth normally has an increased need for energy and nutrition in comparison to young people who are not as physically active. To meet this need, it is important to eat sufficiently and have a balanced, well-varied diet. Meal planning is also particularly important to ensure performance and recovery for both training and competition.
Planning your diet around training or competition is crucial to getting the most out of these activities. The relationship between exercise and energy intake is important and therefore how you eat, what you eat and what time you eat is critical to performance. Because of this, it is important to plan your diet and exercise and to understand the effects this planning has.
Below are some examples of good dietary intake, appropriate timings for eating and the positive effects this can have (Berg, K, 2013).
A larger meal can be eaten one to four hours prior to exercise, depending on the duration of the activity. It is also possible to consume a small meal just prior to exercise. The aim of eating prior to exercise is to optimise the carbohydrate supply within the muscles and liver so that supplies are sufficient for the upcoming activity. Protein intake prior to exercise improves the effect of the subsequent exercise and reduces the risk of muscle damage. Fluid intake before exercise gives improved hydration. A small meal just before exercise can ensure you feel comfortably full and can create a feeling that you are well prepared.
Examples of appropriate food for before activity:
- A sandwich with butter & filling such as cheese / ham / turkey / cottage cheese / mackerel in tomato sauce / egg & 1 glass of milk
- Yogurt & bran/corn flakes with extra nuts / seeds
- Smoothie of yogurt & milk + berries & 2 slices of bread/ one sandwich with butter and toppings/fillings
- 2-3 egg Omelette, or scrambled eggs, with bread (2 slices) & butter
- Pasta salad with vegetables
An activity’s duration and intensity will influence what, if any, intake is required during the activity itself. If the activity lasts for more than an hour then extra intake may be necessary to replenish carbohydrates in order to maintain blood sugar levels and supply the muscles. This extra carbohydrate intake contributes energy to the ongoing exercise but also has a positive effect on the immune system, both during and after activity. An intake of carbohydrates in combination with protein is important for reducing muscle damage and increasing adaptation after exercise. This applies to both strength and endurance training.
An initial recovery meal can contain primarily simple carbohydrates, as it is these that break down easily in the stomach and intestines and raise blood sugar levels quickly. Protein should also be included as this inhibits break down of the body and initiates recovery. This meal ensures the carbohydrate supply is replenished and muscle damage is repaired and built up. Muscle breakdown decreases. The immune system’s function is enhanced and salt and liquid losses are replaced. After the initial recovery meal, a normal meal containing carbohydrates, proteins and fats can be eaten to aid carbohydrate replenishment and muscle recovery.
Examples of good recovery meals;
- 400ml milk & raisins
- Yogurt drink & a banana
- 2 sandwiches with ham & 1 glass of milk
- Smoothie made up of yogurt / milk / berries / fruit
- 200ml yogurt topped with dried fruits & berries
- 300ml juice & 400ml milk
- Yogurt with cornflakes & raisins
Examples of a daily menu with suggestions for meals and timings. (pdf)
Further reading on eating disorders – see the section on disease/illness.
Weight loss or inadequate weight gain?
Many athletes consume insufficient energy (calories). Frequently, the calories athletes consume via food and drink are sufficient to meet the calorific ‘costs’ of exercise, but this calorific intake does not reach the necessary levels to adequately support other important bodily functions. A common misconception that negatively affects health and sporting performance is that losing weight, or not gaining weight, is central to athletic success. If nutritional intake is insufficient, the endocrine (hormone) system in the body is affected. This in turn has negative effects on a wide range of bodily systems and tissues such as the stomach and intestines, the muscles, heart and blood vessels and the skeleton (which can become fragile at an early age and become more prone to stress fractures).
Weight management (gaining or losing weight) may be necessary for some athletes within some disciplines, but this should only be considered after the athlete has reached a physiologically and mentally mature age (around 18 years). As the negative consequences of weight mismanagement can be serious it is advisable to consult a health professional with knowledge in this area prior to pursuing a weight management program.
Sleep – why do we need sleep?
When we sleep, the body’s temperature, pulse, stress hormones and blood pressure go down. On top of this, the muscles relax and the immune system is activated, which means that the body heals and recovers. When we sleep the body also produces important hormones that make us feel better during the day.
How much sleep we need depends on how long we have been awake and how long, and how well, we have slept during the preceding nights. Sleep requirements can vary from 6 & 1/2 to up to 9 or 10 hours a night. Young people under the age of 13 need around 10-11 hours sleep per night, whilst teenagers need between 9-10 hours sleep. A good night’s sleep means that we fall asleep relatively quickly and wake rarely, or not at all. Sleep deprivation can greatly reduce quality of life and often has negative consequences for sports performance.
Temporary sleep deprivation does not affect gross motor functions such as muscle strength and endurance. However, it can impair so-called psycho-motor functions such as mood, reaction time and concentration. The longer the sleep deficit lasts, the greater the effect. Many athletes find that their performance deteriorates dramatically due to acute sleep deprivation. This may be due to the fact that sports performance relies on both good decision-making and physical ability, and that results are influenced by mood and motivation.
Certified Dietician, MSc.Sports teacher, behavioral scientist.