As Olympic fever gripped the nation over the last few weeks, we bore witness to some of the greatest athletic feats in history.
It’s hard to watch the resolve of Michael Phelps and the African distance runners, or the explosive ferocity of Usain Bolt, without wondering how they got so good. There’s no question that genetics play a critical role.
Many of these sporting icons are products of their ancestral environment, their physiology sculpted by evolution over many generations to make them ideally suited to their indigenous surroundings.
They’ve also selected events best suited to their God-given physical attributes and have trained extremely hard to ensure they capitalise on these natural advantages.
However, it’s also clear that physical conditioning, and therefore performance, is critically influenced by what these athletes eat and drink.
After all, an individual with outstanding genetic potential will still fail to achieve excellence if they don’t supply the correct nutrients to build and run their body.
To illustrate the point, I met with Colin Jackson, one of the greatest sprint hurdlers in history, when I was in London for the Games. Jackson’s father Ossie migrated from Jamaica to Britain in search of work in the early 1960s, allowing his children to thrive in an environment of nutritional abundance over the following decades.
In so doing, the major pieces of the athletic puzzle were inadvertently being drawn together — great genes, good-quality food and excellent training facilities and coaching.
His story isn’t unique — Linford Christie and Donovan Bailey, both Olympic 100m champions over the last 20 years can also trace their roots to Jamaica, although it was most likely their migration to the nutritional bounty of Britain and Canada respectively that unlocked their athletic potential.
Indeed, it’s only in the last 20 years that native Jamaicans have begun to assume their rightful place in the world of sprinting, as globalisation has enhanced their indigenous diet.
Explosive power athletes like sprinters require more protein than other people to build and repair their muscles. So if the average person requires 70 grams per day, a sprinter might need 100-120 grams per day.
While that might be a tall order on a traditional Jamaican diet based on the a plant known as cassava, it’s an easy target for athletes in industrialised countries.
By eating more of a typical “western diet” in response to their greater energy demands, athletes in developed countries will probably reach that protein requirement without difficulty, meaning the protein shakes so often invoked by these athletes and their coaches are completely unnecessary.
In fact, most sprinters and power athletes can usually get adequate protein by complementing their regular diet with a pint of low-fat milk alongside a normal meal immediately after training.
The endurance athlete has requirements that differ from a sprinter. Here, carbohydrate is king, with only a very moderate increase in protein requirements.
The latter will be met by default, meaning that large amounts of starchy foods like potatoes, rice and pasta to pack in the carbs are the order of the day.
The best way for these athletes to ‘refuel’ their muscles after training is by taking unsweetened fruit juice, not sports drinks, immediately afterwards, followed by a normal meal (i.e. meat, potatoes and veggies) within the hour.
Again, there’s additional benefit from taking milk after more intense sessions.
So if you’re an athlete looking for those extra seconds or centimetres, or a parent of a potential future Olympian, stick to the simple guidelines above.
It mightn’t mean Olympic gold, but it may unlock your potential to get you higher, faster or stronger than before.
¦ Dr Daniel McCartney, Lecturer in Human Nutrition & Dietetics at DIT
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