Every athlete has a season and an off-season. The on-season is a hectic schedule of training and competitions. During the off-season, athletes take a break, maybe a short vacation of 7-15 days, and during this period they go off training, eat with abandon, switch off their minds, and shut down everything else that frames them into a specific mode to become an elite performer. For the first time in our lives, we are facing an enforced lockdown due to the coronavirus. With the postponement of the Olympics and the sporting calendars of all sports, there is a huge upheaval in the schedule of training of many athletes. This lockdown requires a new mindset change in the athletes.
Every athlete has to understand that when they stop training, the body regresses to that of a normal human being. With the loss of training and scheduled diets, the performance and strength of the athlete will decline. They will move into a metabolic downgrade of lesser calorie expenditure, loss of muscle mass, fat gain as well as mitochondrial reduction in their cells.
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The coronavirus has put an unprecedented lockdown on all athletes globally. Many athletes are rejoicing at this lockdown as for the first time in years they are getting a break. Even elite athletes do not see such extended breaks unless they are injured. To do nothing but just relax, train a little bit and just take a chill pill and watch some Netflix.
Over the last 10-15 days, I have been counselling online all the athletes on private nutrition sessions. I have discovered that many athletes have put together their workout regimes under their strength-and-conditioning coaches. These workouts invariably are in the confinement of their homes with limited exposure to world-class equipment. Hence, these workouts are very basic and the calorie expenditures are not at the insanely high levels of their routine intense athletic on-season regimes. Workouts normally range from one-two hours in the morning and one-two hours hours in the evening.
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The exercise data from their smartwatches are indicating that athletes have lowered their energy expenditure to as low as one-fifth of their peak competition training phase. However, this lowered energy expenditure has not changed athletes’ appetites. Many athletes are complaining to me about how they are feeling hungrier at home.
They are surrounded by their loved ones, especially their mothers and wives who are now pampering them with dishes because they are no longer training and therefore do not need to follow a sports diet. So, many athletes are giving in to their snacking choices during the day despite being in a lockdown where there are limits on the availability of food. However, the availability of junk food such as chips, biscuits, chocolates and other unhealthy snacks are unlimited in this period of anxiety and stress. Athletes are unaware that nibbling on such junk food over a period days contributes to increased fat reserves in their bodies due to lower calorie expenditure from the inability to train aggressively.
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Another phenomenon that I found out during my nutrition counselling is the delayed sleep pattern. Athletes are now sleeping much later as they do not have to get up at the crack of dawn to get to their training sessions at 5am or 6am. With the advent of better technology, athletes are hooked on to their satellite and Internet TV services such as Netflix. Athletes proudly confess their ability to binge watch three-four movies in a day as they have nothing else to do. This advent of sleeping very late has begun to affect the fat reserves in my athletes. I am sure that when the athletes make a comeback and I measure their body fat percentage at my clinic, I will see an increment of anywhere between 1 percent and 5 percent body fat percentage gain in this period. In fact, athletes who have a weighing scale at home are already reporting a 2-5 percent increment in body weight.
This is very alarming for me as a sports nutritionist because the athletes are:
- Not exercising enough,
- Eating the wrong foods or overeating or over snacking, and
- Going to sleep very late.
All of the above result in the release of the hormone cortisol. This hormone controls the storage of fat in the human body and will be the biggest dilemma on an athlete’s return after the lockdown.
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The solutions are simple:
- Start walking 10km a day. Walk to the local grocery store and back. Walk when taking on a phone call. Watch a Netflix documentary while doing slow skipping.
- Eat less. Use a small bowl to measure your carbohydrate intake (rice, roti, potato, pasta, Maggi).
- Try to eat more vegetarian food and salads. I love cucumber and carrot sticks with chaat .
- Use less cooking oil and fat.
- Avoid all junk food. If you do eat some, eat only a small bowl or two tablespoons at the most.
- Exercise at the highest intensity without slacking off.
- Monitor your exercise data using a Fitbit, Garmin devices, mobile phones or smartwatches. Fix a 1,200-calorie burn every day. Any less and you will come back slower and fatter.
- Enrol online with a sports nutritionist for a lockdown or off-season sports diet plan.
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There are many positives in this lockdown. Athletes are resting. They are bonding with their loved ones. They are helping out at home with chores. A few elite athletes have gone forward and taken the decision to enrol in online courses in online learning platforms Coursera and Udemy to better their skills sets. Some of the courses taken include skills sets in developing communication, public speaking, Internet marketing, nutrition, exercise trainer certifications as well as life skills of business as many sportspersons have ambitions of becoming entrepreneurs after retirement.
This situation will pass. When you win, it isn’t always a winning streak. You fall down. You lose your top spot. But if you focus and be positive, you will prevail. This is just a passing time in our lives. It will pass and there will be golden days again. Let us prepare to soar when we are back at work. The work of winning!
The author is chief sports nutritionist at QUA Nutrition Clinics. Write to him at email@example.com.