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Lessons from elite sport

As experts in managing themselves, elite athletes can teach us a lot about eating and exercise routines as we ‘distance’ ourselves. Optimal performance is no accident; it results from managing the interplay of training and eating.

Lessons from elite sport

Nessan Costello and Dr Louise Sutton, Carnegie School of Sport Registered Sport and Exercise Nutritionists

There is deliberate and sport-specific training. There is time-phased planning of diet that maximises the adaptations initiated by physical training. All of that is then fine-tuned to bring out individual potential. At the same time, and to optimise engagement with all these positive influences, there is the delicate management of everything that will decrease risks for injury and illness. As such, we can all become a bit more elite’ in how well we stay in shape.

Training load – little & often

The right training load will optimise training adaptations. It also minimises the risk of injury and illness. Likewise, carefully managing our training loads at home will help our psychophysical health, while also optimising how well we fight infections. In COVID-19 times, it is helpful to recognise that regular, moderate exercise enhances immunity and lowers overall risks of infection. Similarly, hard, continuous and long-duration exercise increases that risk, especially for the upper respiratory tract, and for up to 72 hours post-exercise. For optimal immunity, little and often is favourable.

Carbohydrate intake – fuel the work required

Elite athletes have personalised diet plans. It involves planning - day-by-day and meal-by-meal - to manage energy and carbohydrate intakes. This underlying idea of “fuel for the work required” is directly applicable to life in lockdown. At home, daily life typically requires less physical activity than in ‘normal’ times. Importantly, carbohydrate reduces the stress hormone response to exercise. In effect, this limits the immunity-impairment that accompanies more intensive exercise. Carbohydrate remains a vital component of a well-balanced diet during social distancing. To do this, base meals on wholegrain and fibre-rich sources. Cut down on sugary sources.

Promoting recovery – plants, nuts and fish

Following maximal exercise, elite athletes often undertake an intensive, short-term diet-based recovery programme. Beyond the energy, macronutrient and fluid intakes that are vital to the recovery process, so too are intakes of micro-nutrients found in fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices, and others in oily fish, nuts and seeds. It makes sense to replicate the practices of elite athletes with regular and varied plant consumption and at least two servings of oily fish per week.

About the Authors

Louise Sutton

Head of Sport and Exercise Nutrition, Louise has a diverse applied work profile alongside her academic role. With a background in clinical dietetics she has a particular interest in the practical application of sport dietetics in elite and extreme environments.

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