It’s a dilemma that almost every athlete faces: How do you stay healthy and strong throughout the physical grind of an athletic season, so you can peak come playoff or post-season time?
Staying focused on a balanced diet is key to holding onto strength and muscle as a season stretches on, according to Dr. Robby Bershow, who practices sports medicine at Fairview Sports and Orthopedic Care in the Minneapolis area.
Keeping the right balance is not always easy, however, acknowledges Bershow, who notes that nutritional requirements can be higher earlier in the season, when muscle is still being built up. By the same token, he says young athletes must understand that once they’ve comfortably settled into their mid-season stride, they need to ease off their caloric intake.
“If they decrease their activity and continue to eat the same as when they were having higher energy requirements at the start of the season, then they’re just converting more of that energy to fat than to muscle over time,” Bershow explains. “Once you’ve achieved that state, you don’t need to load on the same amount.”
Bershow adds that some parents and younger athletes also mistakenly believe that protein must be continually packed on. “I think with any of the sports, especially ones where bulk is required, focusing on maintaining an appropriate balance between what your energy requirements are and what you’re putting into your body is really important.”
It’s not that athletes should shy away from needed energy, though, says Dr. Michelle Gorman McNerney, a sports medicine specialist at the TRIA Orthopaedic Center in Bloomington. “A lot of times you have to gauge how many minutes you’re working out,” Gorman says. She suggests a pre-workout snack such as a granola bar with both protein and carbohydrates of about 300 to 500 calories, depending on the type and length of the workout.
“Young people don’t always have a good feel if they’re calorie deficient so they do have to pay attention to how they’re changing their workouts,” Gorman explains. To help build their awareness, she recommends young athletes use online calorie counters, some of which will take into account different types of exercise.
Another tip: Gorman says that young athletes should listen to their body. They should use clues like feeling fatigued or decreased performance to let them know they need more energy. “Longer recovery times between workouts may also be a clue that more calories are necessary,” she notes.
Here are three more tips to maintaining strength throughout the sports season.
Balanced diet is preferable to supplements
Bershow says when athletes are eating well, there’s no need to supplement their diets with pills or extra vitamins or minerals.
“The body does a significantly better job than we can do on our own of deciding where it needs to send the energy, whether it needs to convert it into muscle, whether it needs to convert it into quick energy for sprints, whether it needs to convert it into fats,” he said. “And so when we try to outsmart it, we tend to do worse rather than better.”
Post-season play adds to the challenge
If a season gets extended, it can be harder to maintain focus. “Certainly the longer that a season goes on, the longer your focus has to remain intact,” Bershow notes. And that, he points out, can be difficult when complicated by school life. “Young athletes are busy, and it’s not always easy to get in the meals that they need and to balance all of their different activities,” he adds. “It’s harder to maintain those healthy habits over a longer period of time.”
Avoid training peaks and valleys
Bershow says athletes should remain active throughout the year. “You don’t want to switch between doing a ton and then nothing at all,” he says. “Try to always find a way to be active. Maintaining strength is truly a use-it-or-lose-it kind of mechanism.”
Staying with it requires both a positive attitude and realistic expectations. “We can’t do two-a-day [practices] 365 days a year,” he notes.