Science - September 23, 2015

Good diet essential for top sporting performance

Rob Ramaker

Our bodies require an optimum diet for optimum sporting performances. On Thursday 24 September, Science Café Wageningen will look at what that means.

Photo: During a long race sportsmen and women need to supplement their carbohydrates for optimal performance / Ville Misaki

‘Sportsmen and women don’t actually eat pasta non-stop,’ says Jan Blokhuijsen, a speed skater in the Stressless team and winner of the silver medal in the five kilometres at the Sochi Winter Olympics. He refutes the cliché with a photo from a recent training camp in Utah. His plate contains oven-baked salmon with sweet potatoes and beetroot, stir-fried vegetables and quinoa. When he isn’t at training camp, Blokhuijsen makes sure that he has a varied diet, preferably with organic food.

For an optimum performance you have to ensure that the reserve tanks are full.
Luc van Loon

A healthy, balanced diet is indeed the basis for (top-level) athletes, says Luc van Loon, professor of Exercise Physiology at Maastricht University. ‘But for an optimum performance you have to ensure that the reserve tanks are full.’ Athletes make sure that their muscles contain the maximum amount of carbohydrates by going on a special diet in the week before an important event. They also eat a light carbohydrate meal three hours before a match or race so that glycogen stores in the liver are at the maximum. Even with this preparation, the body’s carbohydrates still become depleted after 45 minutes. You therefore need to top them up during a long race with sport drinks, says Van Loon.

Athletes also need to watch their diet in order to get maximum benefit from training. ‘For optimal recovery,’ says Van Loon, ‘you need to eat protein immediately after training.’ Your body needs this to develop larger, stronger or faster muscles.

Even if you go all out with your diet, you still need to train like mad.
Jan Blokhuijsen

Blokhuijsen thinks a good diet is important for other reasons too. He feels mentally stronger, for example, if he consumes enough beneficial fats and oils. He therefore tries to eat enough nuts. The speed skater also takes supplements that he gets from one of his sponsors and he tries to eat food that his body tolerates well. Although a good diet is essential in getting the best possible performance, Blokhuijsen warns that it should not be seen as a cure-all. ‘Even if you go all out with your diet, you still need to train like mad,’ he says. 

Science Café, 19.45 on Thursday the 24th of September in Café Loburg, Wageningen.