With nutritionists by their side, Indian athletes seek maximum output in Olympics

"You perform optimally when you feed your body optimally," says the chief nutritionist appointed by Indian Olympic Association
Nutritionist Aradhana Sharma
Nutritionist Aradhana Sharma

CHENNAI: Back in 1826, way before the Summer Olympics or Games of the I Olympiad started in 1896, a French author named Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote a book called "Physiologie du Gout, ou Medetations de Gastronomie Transcendante." The phrase 'you are what you eat' came from the book renowned as one of the founding texts of gastronomy.

Almost 128 years and 32 Olympics later, the ideas about food and nutrition might have changed but the core remains the same. With Indian athletes preparing for the Paris Games, nutrition has again taken center stage.
"You perform optimally when you feed your body optimally.

We generally say, 'We are what we eat'. With athletes, they have to maintain discipline around their diet," Aradhana Sharma, Indian Olympic Association appointed chief nutritionist told this daily. "The diet for sports is very different. So we need to make sure they get the right amount of micro and macro nutrients.

A lot depends on what they are eating, what time they are eating and how much they are eating. These three things are important for any athlete to perform optimally. So that's where sports nutritionists' expertise comes in because we can provide (guidance) according to their training plans, age, height, weight, body weight and body composition."

The current contingent of athletes gearing up for the games, scheduled to begin on July 26, the nutrient plan has been made taking into consideration what schedule a specific athlete is supposed to follow till their event.  Along with the diet, hydration and sleep patterns are also taken into consideration. Its not one size fits all plan, but planning on the level that takes into consideration the needs of every player. Take for example, weight-specific sports, where athletes need different set of nutrients compared to that of other sports.

"If you take sports like wrestling, judo, boxing or weightlifting. It depends a lot on what weight they are carrying right now and when is their tournament. Generally, we have a tendency to cut the weight before the tournament, they try to get their weight set long before the tournament. But at the last moment also because it's a stress for them to maintain. So we don't want them to be stressed at the last moment. So we do monitor their diet and also check that they don't end up gaining extra weight before the tournament."

"When it comes to the heavyweight category, the challenge we face giving them so many calories to maintain high body weight and lean body mass. So in that, we have to modify their diet. One thing is portion size and other is calorie intake because that also depends on how much they are training. It's not only about the weight but actually how many hours they are training also matters. So accordingly we plan their diet," Sharma explained.

While diet still counts as one of the most vital ingredients deciding the performance of any athlete, it is not the only factor that determines optimal performance. Sharma identifies efforts put in rest and recovery play a crucial role. "For athletes, depending on their age and discipline, we do look into many other aspects. The time for recovery is equally important. It is not like we can give them just the best diet available in the world. If they are not able to recover well, or if they are not getting adequate sleep, it all can affect the athletes.

These things go hand in hand because certain nutrients can help you sleep better. If you are not sleeping well, you may not be wanting to eat food properly or if you're not eating on time, your sleep can get affected. Just a thing as simple as caffeine intake, we have to monitor," a nutritionist with an experience of 24 years added.

However, the most delicate balance of everything that comes under the umbrella of nutrition needs to be achieved while looking after female athletes and their hormonal cycles. "For female athletes, some of them don't feel much. Some of the athletes, start feeling bloated, some feel very irritable and some cannot sleep well. Some stop drinking water, which can be counterproductive for their performance.

So we have to educate them. And most importantly, we do guide our athletes to keep a log of their menstrual cycle. Athletes also look for comfort food. We do need to take in account that if a female athlete is not feeling very good, we put that in their diet plan so that, it can go along with their training."

"There are a few female athletes who have a tendency to be on the anemic side. We do need to look into iron and folic acid and protein intake, especially around the time of their menstrual period. These are a few things we need to look into so they are comfortable and periods are not going to distract them from their performance," Sharma mentioned.
In 37 days, the games will start in Paris. With hope to count all of the hard work that has gone behind the scenes.  

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