You are what you eat

Eating what you want is considered the reward for hard training. Far from the truth, this is the time when the athlete needs to dig into his diet with the precision of an Olympic medallist.

Usain Bolt... strenuous training and eating healthy from a very young age makes the Jamaican a champion that he is.   -  Getty Images

Are injuries a result of bad nutrition or improper biomechanics?

The human body is made up of 206 bones. Billions of cells come together to make up complex structures that include the nervous, musculoskeletal, digestive, lymphatic and a host of other systems that interact with each other. A wonderful piece of machinery that can easily be damaged.

Take one cell. If an athlete were to win a gold medal at the Olympics, or beat Usain Bolt’s record of the fastest man alive with just one cell, what would you do to that cell? Would you give it an ordinary or extraordinary treatment?

As a sports nutrition scientist, I would say that enhancing performance lies in making one cell fuel-right. Give this cell the right hydration, the right nutrients, the right rest and the cell will begin to operate at the highest level of efficiency. Now, explode one cell upwards to every cell in the human body. To be at the top of your game every cell in your body needs to hum!

Elite champions eat, train and rest with military precision

Take Usain Bolt for example. In his autobiography Born to Run, he describes his training sets down to the meters and times versus the number of repetition he does. His shoes are custom made to fit his feet like a glove. His nutrition, as he mentions, from a young age started with a host of fruits and vegetables because he came from a poor family and could not afford any junk or outside food. So circumstances dealt a hand that forced him to eat healthy from a very young age. His reign as a champion is nearing an end. Injury decides it’s time for him to hang up his boots.

So, where do I link the story between nutrition, the human body and injury?

Let us start from the beginning when we were young. The body produces an amazing number of hormones and enzymes as we grow. These molecules help us to heal and grow new cells everyday. Once an athlete passes the teenage years, these hormones, especially the growth hormone, begin to dwindle. Recovery will slow down due to the slowing of the body’s self-healing mechanism. So, it’s no wonder we win so many junior titles, but as these same athletes grow older, so many of them disappear during their journey at the senior level.

International athletes somehow seem to have the staying power. There are reasons for this. Firstly, a good genetic pool that governs how quickly cells can recover from intense training, and secondly, a meticulously planned recovery diet.

In India, athletes are receiving this dietary guidance well into their twenties, if not later. By this time, the dietary choices are set. Food selection behaviour towards eating for performance is unheard of. And even if implementation of diet by officials is seen, compliance is met with stiff resistance by athletes as the belief of good nutrition in 6-8 meals a day never existed.

For an athlete, food is a solace, especially after the grind of a hardcore training. Eating what you want is considered the reward for hard training. Far from the truth, this is the time when the athlete needs to dig into his diet with the precision of an Olympic medallist. For example, the equipment the athletes use, the number of reps done in training, the distances, the timings, the clothes, the shoes, the physio release sessions are all crystal clear with a plan. Only the diet is somehow left to chance and the taste buds of the athletes. If an athlete decides to wing his meal plan, frame his own dietary choice of protein, carbohydrates and fats, and also decides which food and when is the best time to eat, he is then setting himself up for injury. Neither a coach nor a trainer is equipped to handle the intricacies of a diet, calorie-loading and methodology of supplementation for quick recoveries. So, in the battle of eating scientifically, coaches, support staff and sporting bodies wing the plan.

Salome Nyirarukundo of Rwanda pulls up with an injury during the women’s 10,000m final at the IAAF World Championships in London recently. Staying injury-free is the biggest challenge that an athlete faces.   -  Getty Images

My case in point is that, in the history of India’s quest in the Olympics, no nutritionist has been appointed to accompany any athlete or team in training. We need to eat to train. We need to eat to recover. We need to eat to stay injury-free. This recovery, I have to point out, is two fold. Daily recovery from day-to-day training and recovery from injury that puts an athlete on the bench.

So, an athlete will get injured if:

1. He does not hydrate well. 60% of the cells in the body need water to ensure delivery of raw materials (protein, carbs and fat). A dehydrated muscle, ligament or cartilage can snap because of low content of water.

2. He does not eat protein in sufficient quantity based on his body weight and the time of training to help in day-to-day recovery from microscopic trauma of muscle tissue. You may feel this as soreness on a regular basis.

3. He does not eat sufficient fats which have an anti-inflammatory action that helps in quicker healing. Research has shown that diets with higher Omega-3 help athletes recover faster.

4. He eats the wrong food. Junk food, allergic food, sugary substances, alcohol and a host of consumables that wreak havoc on the digestive system, which ultimately fails over time. Later, the systems do not respond even with healthy food when the athletes are injured.

5. He self-diagnoses and takes any type of supplement thinking a magic pill will give him that boost.

6. He has a host of genetic, biomechanical or medical issues that can damage him.

Secrets that athletes use to remain injury-free

Working with Olympic medallists and cricketers, there is one request coming from all my clients. How can I remain injury-free? The answer lies in making simple changes to the athlete’s life and following them with fanatical discipline.

1. Get a sports gene test done to ascertain your power, endurance, flexibility, injury, inflammation, gluten & lactose genes.

2. Eat a diet that is organic. In India, foods are badly contaminated with pesticides and insecticides. These will overburden the liver in the detoxification programme. Your liver instead of only helping recovery from training will also have to bear the overload of chemicals from food. Give your body every chance to heal everyday from training with chemical-free and preservative-free food.

3. Don’t take protein shakes with artificial sweeteners in them. Consult a sports nutritionist for the best fuels for your body. Natural protein is best from food. If you need the added protein get advice.

4. Consume a diet very high in vibrant colours. Green, yellow, orange, red, violet are the colours of foods that have very high anti-oxidant levels. My personal recommendations are beetroot and carrots.

5. For more than three hours of training use at least 1-2 litres of an isotonic/5:1 (sodium to potassium)/ 6-8% carbohydrate (preferably glucose/maltodextrin)-based sports drink.

6. Keep a personal water bottle, so you know that 3 litres or more are had per day. Reduces chances of injury.

7. If non-veg have fish at least three times a week. If veg, use a flaxseed supplement.

8. Avoid all sugary and caffeine-based foods/drinks.

9. Sleep for a minimum 9 hours a day as an athlete.

India’s best and brightest athletes train with me on their sports diet plan. It would be unfair on my part to list their injuries and the diet therapies in public domain. If there is one takeaway from all my injured clients, it is ‘I have to eat for every cell in my body to recover, pre-training, during training and post training. I need to buy organic and go as natural as possible. And then come back and train again’.

The writer is an award-winning celebrity sports nutrition coach & Chief Nutritionist at Qua Nutrition Signature Clinics. He can be reached at [email protected]