The comeback: Athletes preparing for 2021

Now is the time to fight back, to get your body back in shape, to train on schedule and to eat with a plan.

In 2020, more than 100 of my athletes re-evaluated their limited training and arranged for their sports nutrition to follow suit. Many have actually come out stronger and fitter. Cricketers Shreyas Iyer (right) and Rishabh Pant (centre) did it.   -  Sportzpics / BCCI

As I write this, it’s a little over 240 days to the 2021 Olympics, which are scheduled to begin on July 23. Many athletes who have qualified for the Games have to go through the mental agony of preparing their bodies once again in a new cycle, while those who are yet to make the cut are worried about their bodies being battered and out of shape due to the coronavirus pandemic lockdown of 2020.

There has been a lot of gloom and doom, and now is the time to fight back, to get your body back in shape, to train on schedule and to eat with a plan.

Whatever your sport, eating with a plan forces the body to improve. Not only do the fat cells in your body not misbehave, but the skeletal and muscular systems also get a chance to reboot at a higher efficiency.

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In 2020, more than 100 of my athletes re-evaluated their limited training and arranged for their sports nutrition to follow suit. Many have actually come out stronger and fitter. Cricketers Virat Kohli, Mayank Agarwal, Shikhar Dhawan, Shreyas Iyer, Rishabh Pant and Shardul Thakur did it. It’s a pity cricket is not included in the Olympics. My observations on the Indian Premier League (IPL) pre-season is that it took the players fours months to get their bodies in shape.

To all the Olympic probables who are aiming to qualify between February and June: You need to start focusing on eating right immediately! Here is my strategy to get you back up and running.

  • Lock away your TV and smartphones. Get a simple phone with no Internet access. Why? Because you need 10 hours of sleep a day to recover from the gruelling training.
  • Get on the best training programme.
  • Recruit the best physical fitness trainers for your sport.
  • Onboard a great rehab physiotherapist on the team.
  • Keep a sports masseuse on standby.
  • Get two nutritionists on board – one who is the primary strategy expert on the diet blueprint, and the other who coaches you and with whom you chat every day about all your meals.
  • A mind coach or sports psychologist is a must! The demons of failure and injury in this short period can set you back for another four years. Mental toughness is crucial to winning.

As a sports nutritionist, I am always looking to get the right food in the right quantity into the athletes’ body at the right time.

Get a blood test done to analyse your vitamin and mineral profile. Also check if your liver and kidney are functioning well as that is necessary because of the higher food loads needed after five to eight hours of training a day.

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Do a nutrition gene test along with a fitness gene test to understand the advantages and shortfalls of your human body. Genes can be compared to software — they control all the elements of absorption, digestion and the behaviour of the nutrition molecules in your body. This insight goes a long way in winning and sustaining an injury-free body.

Do a DEXA (dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry) scan to determine your body mass composition. Muscle, water, bone and fat mass can be deciphered with extreme accuracy. This allows you to map and monitor how your diet and nutrition changes your body for better or worse.

Work on your hydration to improve your total body-water quality. Focus on glucose and salts that are added to the water to improve hydration and recovery. With six hours of training per day, the body requires water as a housekeeping agent — it cleans and rejuvenates the body.

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Knowing your calorie output allows you to plan your strategy for calorie input. Modern-day fitness trackers worn on the wrist measure heart rate, calories, blood pressure and oxygen saturation. Beyond this, the technology in wearable devices allows scientific monitoring of sleep cycles, heart-rate variability, recovery and strain predictions. This allows further rest and diet strategies to be executed.

Protein in the diet is key to recovery. Using protein supplements under expert advice will ensure optimal delivery for recovery and keeping the body injury-free. However, protein is ineffective without carbohydrates. Many athletes also shun fat. However, good fat is key to building hormones and reducing inflammation.

Vitamins and minerals are available in every food we eat. Nutritional deficiencies indicated by blood and gene tests allow for strategic diet planning, be it for multivitamins or standalone mineral or vitamin doses. Remember, taking extra can be harmful and does not enhance performance. Deficiency, however, induces a deterioration in an athlete’s performance. A good example is iron, low levels of which can result in anaemia. This does not allow an athlete to peak to gold medal-winning VO2 max levels (the maximum rate of oxygen consumption measured during incremental exercise).

How to return to training in the post Covid-19 world  

Cravings, uncontrolled taste buds and unplanned eating are poor excuses. Kohli was very disciplined in his eating habits for the 2020 IPL season played in the United Arab Emirates. His interactions with his support team and the hotel kitchen were very personal. This shows that he values the food he consumes and he is personally responsible in arranging it for peak performance. As with his bat, Kohli believes his food enables him to be a better athlete. Lose that focus, and the downward slide of poor performance begins.

The last major celebration of the year is over. All the sweets and high-calorie foods need to disappear and be replaced with a newfound discipline. If you are 13 or 30 years of age, the time to claw back 2020 and build an epic 2021 starts now. Write down your goals, get your nutrition planned and make a change in your life.

The author is chief nutritionist at Qua Nutrition Clinics. To get an Olympic nutrition plan in place, email him at ryan@quanutrition.com.