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Nutrition for Peak Performance

By Jeanne Stevenson, RD, CSSD, CDE – Detroit Tigers

When hours upon hours are spent dedicated to practicing the intricacies of baseball, sometimes nutrition is placed on the back burner, viewed as a secondary item of importance. However, choosing the right foods at the right time and paying attention to hydration are the keys of peak performance.

It starts with the three major nutrients: carbohydrates, proteins and fats. They each have an important role in supporting physical activity. Popular diets suggest that eating a diet low in carbohydrate is the way to go, however, carbohydrate is the fuel your engine runs on. It can be stored in the muscles and liver and studies have shown that eating a diet high in carbohydrates allows athletes to maintain longer work loads. Carbohydrates are an important fuel source during activities that require bursts of energy of high intensity and short duration (like stealing a base). Foods that are high in carbohydrates include: pasta, rice, potatoes, bread, quinoa, cereal fruits, juices, yogurt and milk. Choose foods that are high in carbohydrates with each meal. Protein is not the best source of fuel during exercise, but it is the nutrient that helps muscles grow and helps repair tissue. Protein can be found in all meats, chicken, turkey and fish. It is also found in non-meat foods such as milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, cheese, eggs, peanut butter and tofu. Aim for a serving of protein that is about the size of your palm with meals. Fat can be used as fuel along with carbohydrates in less intense exercise. It also helps transport some key nutrients in the body. It is found in nuts, seeds, avocado, oils and salad dressing.

The timing of when to eat can also have an impact on performance. Going too long without eating and missing meals can result in low energy levels. It is important to fuel throughout the day so that you are getting the key nutrients you need to maintain good health and energy levels.

Plan to snack before and after your workouts. A good pre-workout snack is high in carbohydrates and digests very quickly. Remember carbohydrates help to fuel your activity. Examples include, fruit juice, yogurt and sports beverages. A good post-workout snack contains both carbohydrates (to replenish carbohydrates stores that were used up during the workout) and proteins (to enhance recovery). Examples include, a sandwich plus a glass of fat free milk or low-fat chocolate milk. The first 30 minutes after a strenuous work out is the key time for recovery and the optimal time for this snack. Follow up in the next couple of hours with a meal containing lean protein such as chicken, turkey, fish or lean beef plus plenty of carbohydrates such as fruits, vegetables, grains, rice, potatoes or pasta.

A nutrition plan for peak performance would not be complete without talking about hydration. Athletes lose water through sweat and breathing, and when the fluid is not being replaced, dehydration can occur. Hot and humid weather conditions can contribute to the risk of dehydration. Not only can dehydration lead to a decrease in performance, but it can cause serious heat illness. Athletes that wait until they are thirsty can already be dehydrated. 

To help maintain good hydration, plan to drink:

  • 16 ounces of fluids 2 hours before exercise
  • 8 ounces of fluids 15 minutes before exercise
  • 4-8 ounces every 15 minutes during exercise
  • Afterward, at least 20 ounces of fluid for every pound lost during exercise

There are several ways an athlete can monitor their hydration:

  • Weigh before and after exercise and drink at least 20 ounces of fluid for each pound lost
  • Check the color of urine. A darker color urine like the color of apple juice means it is more concentrated and can indicate dehydration. A lighter color of urine that would look like lemonade can indicate a hydrated athlete.

What fluids are best for hydration? Water is good especially for physical activity lasting less than 1 hour. A sports beverage can be beneficial when physical activity is lasting more than 1 hour because it can provide fuel that can help athletes work longer.

Putting your plan in place for peak performance includes:

  • Eating plenty of carbohydrates throughout the day
  • Choosing lean sources of protein with meals to promote muscle growth
  • Including a small amount of fats with meals
  • Fuel up before your workout
  • Recover afterward with a snack including both protein and carbohydrates
  • Practice good hydration by drinking plenty of fluids before, during and after activity
  • Plan snacks to help keep you fueled throughout the day like fruit, granola bars, pretzels, yogurt or string cheese 

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Jeanne Stevenson, RD, CSSD, CDE, is the sports nutritionist for the Detroit Tigers. She is also CSSD-Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics, Certified Diabetes Educator and Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. She is Senior Educator at Novo Nordisk A/S in Birmingham, MI and Adjunct Nutrition Instructor at Oakland University in Auburn Hills, MI.

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