Sports Nutrition – An Ounce of Prevention…

Enhance Performance, Minimize Injury Risk With Sports Nutrition

Way before I became I pain physician I was acutely aware of a particular maxim: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Despite its triteness, in this expression I found unbounded wisdom: wearing knee pads while rollerblading averted nasty knee cuts and ripped jeans, while a napkin in my lap discouraged tomato sauce stains. Back in my own days as an athlete – a batting helmet defended my skull from menacing fastballs. These days, this aphorism’s weighs heavily on my shoulders when I am confronted by yet another patient who is an athlete with an injury resulting from poor to complete reckless abandonment of sports nutrition. Many such patients have suffered muscle injuries and/or severe cramping that has resulted from dehydration, electrolyte abnormalities and/or potassium and magnesium deficiencies. This is not just frustrating because these kinds of injuries are extremely avoidable through a proper sports nutrition-inspired diet, but also failure to acquire the full range of protein, carbohydrates, micronutrients and vitamins an athlete requires will severely limit the ability to reach maximum performance. To put it in laypersons terms, without sports nutrition athletes will increase the likelihood of debilitating injury and will also be actively hampering their ability to perform to their full potential. 

Sports Nutrition with Mount Sinai's Adena Neglia

Bizarrely athletes who make such poor decisions with their diets are not necessarily acting out of stupidity or overt negligence – often it is out of mere ignorance (hence this reveal-all blog!). Sure, most of us are anecdotally aware of professional athletes who hire personal chefs and personal nutritionist to maximize performance, but beyond the token whey protein powder what do people who are not named Tom Brady do to sustain their athlete’s bodies to survive and excel in the sport(s) they love? Indeed, it is often the athletes who subscribe to the very worthy clichés like first one at the gym, last one to leave, who stick around after practice to make 100 free throws before hitting the showers who are most prone to throwing sports nutrition to the wind. When I am confronted by such an athlete at my Mount Sinai office in New York City, I wonder to myself: why dedicate yourself to a sport so thoroughly and passionately and set yourself up for either failure or – worse yet – injury and the pain that comes with it? The only conclusion I can draw about why the sports world is rife with athletes who leave their diets to chance is that many have not had the chance or the information to fully appreciate the importance of sports nutrition. If this – dear reader – is you, never fear: among the perks of being associated with the Mount Sinai Health System is that I am surrounded by the best and the brightest the medical community has to offer. Sure, as a doctor and former baseball player I know a fair amount about sports nutrition, but I’ve been lucky enough to have recently hung out with Mount Sinai Dietician Adena Neglia who runs our nutrition program. She’s the expert and she has graciously offered us the full breadth of her vast wisdom. Of course, if you have any questions for her after reading this blog, reach out to her directly – I will provide her social media details below.

 Athletes need Sports Nutrition

Firstly, to avoid any ambiguity, what is sports nutrition? According to  Adena: ‘It is the tailoring of one’s diet to enhance athletic performance, focusing on the appropriate food types, energy amounts, nutrient amounts, and fluids to help the body function and recover properly.’ And is this optional for athletes who take their sport seriously, a case of pick and choose what fits best into an athlete’s routine? Adena says absolutely not – it is essential. ‘Nutrition is critical for recovery from sports. Generally, an athlete will want to consume a post-workout meal or snack within 45 minutes of activity. Carbohydrates are important for replenishing glycogen stores, while protein is essential for muscle growth and recovery.’ She also urges athletes to consume copious fruits and vegetables throughout the day for their micronutrients, as well as vitamins, minerals and supplements to decrease inflammation and improve recovery, immunity and metabolism; e.g. omega 3, turmeric, vitamin A, vitamin C and gelatin. While these are best practice tips, the exact sports nutrition regime that an athlete follows will depend on the sport in which they are involved, their fitness goals, size, gender and more. As she puts it: ‘Everyone’s needs are different.’

Sports Nutrition with Mount Sinai's Adena Neglia

 Sports Nutrition Helps PRevent Injury

Without supplying your body with the nutrients, proteins, carbs, fats, vitamins and minerals it requires to let it function to its maximum in training, practice and in competition, Adena says, not only will your performance suffer, but as you become more and more breathless, develop cramps and your muscles become fatigued you are actually making yourself far more prone to injury. She says: ‘Sports nutrition is extremely important in the prevention of injury. If the body is not getting the nutrients it needs to recover, it will have a harder time doing so. Over time, if an athlete isn’t getting the right combination of nutrients, performance will suffer and you’ll have a greater risk of being injured.’ Adena continues that without consuming enough calories the body’s ability to repair tissue after workouts will become compromised and recovery will slow. The result? The risk of injury will dramatically increase. Adena says to athletes directly: ‘Do not underestimate your needs. You require more energy, carbohydrates and protein than the average person.’  She recommends making sure that athletes get as many colors on their plates as possible to ensure they are getting the abundance of performance- and recovery-aiding nutrients required. Adena cautions against touching processed foods: ‘They will make it hard to get all the nutrients that are important for joint health, immunity, muscle recovery and tissue repair’. Calcium and vitamin D are also essential in an athlete’s diet as if bone health is compromised, it can lead to bone stress injuries, she says.

 Sports Nutrition’s Magical Healing

 Not only is sports nutrition a ‘must-embrace’ to help prevent injury, it is all the more important when one has already sustained an injury and/or has undergone surgery. In my field of medicine when an athlete has an injury or is in post-surgery recovery we follow strict return to play criteria. Unlike normal people who can take time with rest and physical therapy, athletes have to get back out on the field, on the court, in the pool (or wherever) as soon possible and such rapid convalescence doesn’t grow on trees… or does it in the form of nutrient rich fruits and vegetables? Sports nutrition is among the driving forces that cruise an athlete to a full recovery for which reason it is essential to consume a copious and balanced blend of anti-inflammatory foods and adequate protein. According to Adena, athletes generally have higher energy requirements post-surgery, which will taper off throughout recovery. She says, ‘throughout recovery, athletes likely will not need the same amount of energy and carbohydrates as they did when they were very active.’ This is where supplements become a valuable asset – Adena recommends a personalized blend of Omega 3s (not to be used prior to surgery!) and turmeric to decrease inflammation, vitamin A to support early inflammation and assist in collagen and vitamin C and gelatin for collagen synthesis.

Sports Nutrition with Mount Sinai’s Adena Neglia

 Sports Nutrition for Vegans

Given the rise to prominence of meat-free and plant-based lifestyles, I had to ask Adena her views on whether athletes who choose to be vegetarian or vegan are doing themselves a disservice. ‘You can follow a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle as an athlete,’ says Adena, ‘but it will be important to monitor protein intake. Plant-based protein isn’t as bioavailable as animal-based protein, so you’ll want to increase overall protein consumption to make sure you are absorbing enough to meet your needs.’ She strongly recommends taking supplements to ensure that you are replacing the nutrients that these diets may lack. ‘The types and brands can be discussed with a dietitian,’ she says. In my personal experience as a physician, a B12 supplement is recommended particularly to vegans to stave off certain painful neuropathies associated with a deficiency of this vitamin. 

Sports Nutrition Dos and don’ts 

Graciously, Adena offered some final bits of sports nutrition wisdom before returning to her patients, beginning with this absolutely essential advice: ‘Do not try a new way of eating or new type of food on the day of an event or competition. Always experiment in the off –season or early on in the season to see how it affects how you feel and perform.’ This isn’t a joke: as sports nutrition will directly affect your performance, regardless of how many hours you dedicate to practice, throwing unusual variables into your diet before a big game can have very negative consequences. I also asked her if there were any food items that are generally considered the epitome of healthy that she would recommend athletes avoid? She indicated that consuming anything high in fat or fiber pre-workout, practice or competition like large amounts of raw veggies, nut butter or avocado, would be not be wise as they can impede gastric motility and cause gastrointestinal discomfort and stress. Furthermore, fat – yes, even good fat like that contained within the hallowed avocado – can slow down the digestion of protein and the subsequent delivery to your muscles if consumed in excess.

Sports Nutrition with Adena Neglia

The goal of this article was to shed light on the extreme importance of sports nutrition – to performance, recovery, injury prevention, injury and post-surgery recovery and far more – for all the well meaning athletes out there who have so far failed to suitably prioritize their diets in the correct fashion. Adena herself told me that sports nutrition is not necessarily that different from normal nutrition, meaning even if you are not an athlete but more somebody who goes to the gym, runs or casually participates in sports, sports nutrition is arguably just as important for you. Ultimately eating well, and healthfully, is among the most obvious and essential ways to be happy, healthy and injury- and pain-free. Of course, eating a sports nutrition-inspired diet is not a guarantee of sporting success or remaining injury or pain free, but it is a great place to start and, as the expression goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If you have any questions, please reach out to me on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. If you’d like to speak to Adena directly, click here for her Instagram account and here for Twitter. For her website, see below!