March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
What does it take to fuel the strength, speed, endurance and grace of Olympic athletes? It takes years of training and hard work, and sports dietitians are part of many Olympic hopefuls' team — helping to propel athletes to achieve the Olympic motto: Citius, Altius, Fortius (Faster, Higher, Stronger).
For athletes, nutrition is one leg of the three-legged stool that supports their performance. Genetic endowment coupled with sport-specific training and coaching cannot stand on their own without proper food and fluid intake.
Registered dietitian nutritionists are finding creative ways to feed athletes to help them get the most out of their training. Shawn Hueglin, PhD, RD, CSSD, senior United States Olympic Committee sports dietitian, provides nutrition coaching for team sports. Many of her athletes focus on achieving and maintaining lean body mass to have the endurance, agility and skill they need. "I find that blanket nutrition recommendations are not always helpful, as different athletes on the same team have different nutritional needs," Hueglin says. "The field hockey goalie is different from a midfielder who might run several miles during a match, so altering dietary intake based on physiological demands of the position is important."
Athletes and their nutrition needs can differ significantly from that of the general public. Who could forget Michael Phelps' 8,000- to 10,000-calorie-per-day diet while training for the 2008 Olympics? The International Olympic Committee's 2010 Consensus Statement on Sports Nutrition recommends athletes eat enough carbohydrate-rich foods to maximize muscle glycogen stores before training and competition and replenish the stores after hard exercise. The timing of protein intake can promote muscle protein synthesis.
Page Love, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, who has worked as a nutrition consultant to United States Tennis Association, has helped prepare future Olympians to take the court. Love helps athletes make healthful food choices and develop sound on-court hydration plans. Heat illness is one of the most common sports medical issues and it is completely preventable. "Matches can be quite long — three to four hours with five sets — so they need more than fluids. I encourage them to eat high-carbohydrate energy bars, gels and bananas, in addition to high-carbohydrate sport drinks with packets of electrolytes to help them replace on-court losses," she says.
Athletes seek every edge they can get, and proper nutrition with the help of a registered dietitian nutritionist can help them find it.