Our body is an extremely complex and dynamic machine that requires adequate resources to run. Unavailability of these resources often slows the machine’s functioning, requiring treatment at the garage or more specifically the Physician’s clinic. An athlete requires advanced body functioning to manage the increased demands of different types of trainings, competitions, travel, etc.
We are in haste at improving health or performance through the use of medications and supplements but very few of us are interested in improving our daily dietary food habits. Hippocrates always promoted the saying, “Let food be thy medicine” and we rather took its meaning too literally with the availability of many essentials of food now in a pill!
The article aims to highlight the importance of food, its essential nutrients and functions specific to performance.
What are Nutrients?
Nutrients are chemical substances present in food that are used by the body for growth and health. Most foods contain almost all nutrients but in varied proportions which is why certain foods are rich in certain nutrients, for example: protein rich, carbohydrate rich, calcium rich foods.
What are Macro & Micro Nutrients?
Carbohydrates, Proteins & Fats form the major bulk of our diet and are predominantly used for energy production. These are hence often called the macro-nutrients. Minerals & Vitamins are not majorly involved in energy production but they play an important role in regulation of metabolic activity in the body. The 6th essential nutrient; water, also forms the bulk of our diets and has unique functions.
These are divided into fat and water soluble vitamins. Vitamins A, D, E and K are fat soluble whereas all B Vitamins and Vitamin C are water soluble in nature. Swimming twice a day for 6 days a week can create a stressful environment inside the body and certain vitamins are important to combat this stress and help the body recover. Most fat soluble vitamins are involved in bone growth and maintenance. Some of the B Vitamins assist macronutrients to efficiently release energy and a few others are involved in red blood cell production.
Once upon a time, all of us yawned in the chemistry class while studying the periodic table. Today out of those118 elements that we learnt, 25 have been stated as essential to life. Calcium, Phosphorous, Iron, Zinc, Sodium, Potassium are critical minerals for swimmers. Minerals are involved in activating and regulating metabolic processes. As calcium and phosphorous are important for bone growth, sodium and potassium are important during long hours of swimming.
Vitamins & minerals are usually present in a wide variety of foods, especially fruits, vegetables, dairy, etc.
Fats provide maximum energy with a gram of fat supplying 9 calories, twice that of carbohydrates. Fats are the single largest energy pool. Most of us have abundant stores of fat. The contribution of fat especially in open water or long distance swimming is notable with fat becoming the predominant source of fuel especially over 4-5 hours. As the glycogen reserves start becoming depleted, fats step in to meet the energy demands. Vegetable oils, ghee, butter, dairy, nuts and oilseeds contribute to fat sources.
Proteins do not have a major contribution in energy production however they do provide energy when daily or pre training carbohydrate intake is low. It has been observed that swimmers with depleted glycogen stores at the beginning of a 2 hour practice session derive a greater percentage of energy needs from amino acids (building blocks of proteins), having said that, amino acids are unavoidably used as a fuel source for practice sessions beyond 1.5-2 hours especially during a shift of reliance from carbohydrates to fats. The major protein sources are eggs, meat, dairy, pulses and legumes.
They are the predominant energy source in Indian diets. Carbohydrate metabolism during exercise is complex and requires hormonal stimulation. Carbohydrates in the form of glycogen are stored in the muscle and liver which are readily available as primary energy sources during a 2 hour swimming practice or a minute long 100m sprint. When practice is stretched beyond 2 hours, blood glucose becomes an equally important source of fuel. During 200m sprints, the glycogen is often broken down to lactic acid contributing to muscle fatigue. This is why you feel absolutely exhausted after a 200m Fly event at a meet than a 4-5 Km workout session. The major carbohydrate sources are grains, legumes, pulses, fruits, vegetables and sugar dense products.
This particular nutrient has the greatest effect on performance of athletes. No other nutrient is lost in excessive quantities during exercise than water. Although the prevalence of dehydration in swimmers is low compared to that of marathoners, the heat generated during prolonged moderate to high intensity bouts of swimming needs to be dissipated. Most of this is managed by the cooling effect of water they swim in, but much needs to be balanced with adequate hydration. More than 1% fluid loss can lead to symptoms such as headache, fatigue, light headedness, etc.
In order for these nutrients to work at their peaks, not only is it important to consume a varied healthy diet but equally essential is it to consume adequate of these nutrients pre, during and post swimming practice sessions. Today, the supplement market has expanded widely and a few of them do show great effects on performance, however these should be incorporated only when the diet proves inadequate or there are increased demands for specific nutrients.
Author: Mihira A R Khopkar
B.Sc. Dietetics, M.Sc. Sports Nutrition
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SwimIndia does not guarantee results of any sort, before making any changes to your diet plans, please consult an expert.