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Sports and Nutrition: How to Prevent Injury and Improve Performance

Everyone knows a balanced diet is vital to staying healthy, but good nutrition is especially important for student-athletes to fuel their brain and body for optimal performance.

Lora Edwards, senior clinical nutrition specialist at Children’s Mercy, is one of only 3,000 board certified sports dieticians in the United States. She has more than 30 years of experience in youth, collegiate and pro athletics, and has counseled athletes in every sport.

We asked Lora how eating the right foods can help fuel student-athletes for games, prevent injury and help recover from injury faster.

Do athletes in different sports have different nutrition needs?

Lora: Yes, every sport is different and as a sports dietician you really need to know the energy demands of the sport – is the athlete running a lot, is it more of a sprint or long distance, is it a contact sport, does the athlete need to gain strength and mass or need to cut weight?

In soccer for example, athletes run between 5-7 miles during a match. It’s a tough sport in a way because players sprint, but also need endurance. So my job is to calculate the energy demands for that sport and make sure the athlete is fueling properly.

What is proper fueling?

Lora: Athletes need the right balance of carbohydrates and proteins before and after a big game or tournament.

The night before, the athlete should have a good-balanced meal or what we call the athlete’s plate. Half of the plate should be carbohydrate sources such as whole grains, fruits and diary. A quarter of the plate should be lean proteins and the other quarter vegetables.

Then 3-4 hours before the game starts, athletes should eat a lean protein and wholegrain carbohydrates - something that won’t upset the stomach.

Thirty minutes before playing, athletes should consume high glycemic carbohydrates such as fruit, fruit chews or fruit juice – something easily digestible that will give a boost of energy and top off the carbohydrates stores.

After the game, athletes needs a ratio of four carbohydrates to one protein to help with recovery. One doesn’t need to purchase expensive energy or protein drinks, because chocolate milk works just as well and has the correct carbohydrate to protein ratio that’s needed.

When athletes are fueled properly they get better sleep, are in a better mood and perform better. When under-fueled, kids get depressed, they’re stressed out, get over-trained, sleep poorly and performance goes down.

What carbohydrates should athletes be eating?

Lora: Most athletes simply don’t get enough calories. Carbohydrates good for fueling the body include fruit, yogurt, whole grains bread and/or bagel, trail mix (without sugary candy), granola bars, peanut butter and turkey sandwiches.

Should athletes consume sports drinks?

Lora: It really depends. There are several great products on the market that have the correct ratio of electrolytes to carbohydrates, but most of the time (especially for the younger athletes) it’s not necessary. Our rule of thumb is to save sports drinks for the three H’s – when it’s really hot, when practice or a game is over an hour long and the activity is really hard. Otherwise, water is the best option.

How does nutrition play a role in injury prevention?

Lora: Athletes who under-fuel will get fatigued and that’s when the injuries happen. For example, basketball is lot of stop-and-go, running up and down the court and switching directions. Players who are under-fueled or more likely to sprain an ankle. Stress fractures will also happen if an athlete is low in Vitamin D and calcium stores. Athletes need proper vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates and protein to stay healthy to help protect the tendons, ligaments and bones.

How does nutrition play a role in recovery?

Lora: Proper nutrition is also needed to recover and repair the body from injury. When athletes don't get enough carbohydrates, the body uses protein for fuel, which prevents wounds from healing. All those microscopic tears in the muscle don't heal and it will continue to get worse. When a person uses all the calories for energy there’s nothing left to build and restore the body.

How important is meal preparation?

Lora: What I always tell my athletes is nutrition is just as important as practice and skill development - it all goes together. It's just as important to plan and prep nutrition and eat healthy, as it is to practice your sport and get better. That’s why when I meet with someone, I write out a sample plan based on what that person will eat. I'm not going to tell someone to make eggs if they won't eat eggs. It has to be realistic and personalized, if not, it won’t work. An athlete will not get to where they want to be if they don't have healthy nutrition in their body. Nutrition is the one magic bullet to help improve performance.


Learn more about nutrition for injury recovery in athletes.

Learn more about Sports Medicine at Children’s Mercy.