Sports Nutrition & Exercise Science: Vital Connection

We are in the midst of the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games, where top athletes from around the world compete for a gold medal. Though the gold token is cherished, these athletes are competing for the title, notoriety, and recognition as the best. Many of these athletes have dedicated their lives to training for the Olympics. The individuals seen standing on the podium have spent countless hours and several years training for that very moment.

Though they are the only ones wearing the gold medal on television, an entire team of talented individuals were involved. We rarely see the professionals who helped that athlete get to this point, yet they played a critical role. The strength coaches, trainers, and sports nutritionists also spent years working with that individual to help them reach their performance potential. Studying exercise science can provide individuals with the knowledge and experience needed to develop an Olympic athlete.

Exercise science is the field of study behind physical activity, health, and movement. It looks at how the body works, how it is fueled, and how to achieve optimal performance. Exercise science majors study the science of how we move and can apply this knowledge in various settings. For example, some graduates may choose to work in a physical therapy setting, others in a fitness facility, and some focus on sports nutrition.

The United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) has an entire team of professionals devoted to nutrition. In addition, there are sports dietitians dedicated to each sport, with a deep understanding of the sport’s metabolic requirements. They then use this understanding and tailor it to the athletes’ individual needs.  This includes their fueling, energy, recovery, and hydration requirements. Sports nutritionists then work with other members of USOPC, such as those specializing in sports psychology, physiology, kinesiology, and strength and conditioning.

Sports nutrition is an evolving field of study that addresses the nutritional needs of athletes and active adults. It is often referred to as the “foundation for athletic success.” Food is energy, and without the necessary nutrients and fluids, the human body cannot perform its best.

The cyclists in Tour de France burn roughly 12,000 calories per day. This means one of their nutritional requirements is consuming a very high number of calories. If they do not, it can negatively affect their performance. This is known as Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S) and occurs when the body does not have enough energy to support its physical load and can cause adverse health and performance consequences for the athlete.

Sports nutrition looks closely at an individual’s specific energy demands. The energy of two athletes can look very different depending on their body and the demands they are putting it through. For example, an athlete participating in an ultramarathon will have vastly different nutritional needs than an individual in a bench press competition. Therefore, the individual goals and intended athletic outcome should be considered to determine one’s nutritional needs. For example, the macronutrients consumed by a bodybuilder looking to gain muscle mass will differ from a wrestler or swimmer.

Sports nutrition also addresses an athlete’s environment. For example, high altitudes, extreme temperatures, or food allergies can impact nutritional needs. Athletes will need to work with a professional to understand how these factors could impact their performance and ways to compensate. A specialist in sports nutrition can also help an individual reach their body composition goals. For example, bodybuilders and actors will often utilize the knowledge of an exercise science major for tailored diet plans to reach their body composition goals.

In 2017, 2082 articles on sports nutrition addressed dietary supplements and nutritional strategies to enhance performance and recovery, augment skeletal muscle hypertrophy and increase ergogenic value. Sports nutrition continues to evolve, with increasing attention placed on metabolism and the relationship between the two.

Metabolism is a process that converts the calories in food and drinks into energy. Our body requires energy to function at the most basic level. It needs the energy to grow and repair cells, circulate blood, adjust hormone levels, and breathe. Individuals’ energetic needs will differ from their fellow athletes, co-workers, and friends because of their BMR.

Individual energy expenditure when lying still is known as the basal metabolic rate (BMR) and is essentially the minimum number of calories needed. Athletes burn a much higher number of calories and have been found to have a significantly higher BMR based on body mass. For example, a study of elite female athletes found that athletic females had a 13 to 16% higher BMR than sedentary controls. This is due to their body composition, including greater muscle mass and higher fat oxidation.

Carbohydrates and fat are the two fuel sources for muscle metabolism.   Research on metabolism and sports nutrition has found that the body has limited storage capacity for carbohydrates in the body and a greater capacity to store fat. However, getting the body to utilize fat as an energy source takes time and training. By increasing the skeletal muscles’ capacity for energy, an athlete can improve endurance and the mobilization of fatty acid following intense exercise.

The advanced knowledge required to calculate the metabolic need of an athlete and the nutrition needed to meet it is achieved with a degree in exercise science. Like those studying at Berry College, an exercise science school in Georgia, exercise science majors receive an education in nutrition and how it relates to exercise physiology and kinesiology. Professional athletes like those completing in the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games as well as those running their local half marathon can seek the guidance of these individuals to help them achieve peak performance, prevent injury and reduce recovery time.

The International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism focuses on research on the relationship between metabolism and sports nutrition. Though the relationship can seem straightforward as caloric intake must meet caloric output, researchers continuously look at ways to enhance performance through nutrient interactions. Modern research is looking at how the body responds when certain ingredients are co-ingested and how performance could be further enhanced as a result.

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