How athletes maintain physical fitness during a pandemic
By Dr. Dana Ryan
Sports is unquestionably one of the most missed forms of entertainment since stay-at-home measures were put in place due to the pandemic. While games have been postponed indefinitely, fans are tuning to replays of memorable matches -- and like the rest of us, athletes are eager to get back to normal.
Working with professional and elite athletes around the world, I’ve heard a lot of the same concerns since sports have been canceled or postponed -- many are struggling to maintain their fitness and nutrition regimen and feel anxious knowing that once the mandates are lifted; they’ll be expected to return at the top of their game. Like many of us who are trying to navigate fitness and health during these uncertain times, there are some things we can all do—no matter what level athlete you are—to maintain our physical fitness and motivation.
If you’re moving your body and getting that work out in, you’re an athlete who can also benefit from some of these topics. Here are some of the things my team and I have shared with Herbalife Nutrition sponsored athletes to help them maintain their physical and mental strength during the pandemic.
Keep your normal routine, prioritizing your mealtimes
Whether you’re an elite athlete or fitness is a major part of your life, the best way to ensure you don’t fall off track is to maintain your routine. This means waking up at the same time every morning, eating breakfast as you normally would, getting your training in, and allowing enough time for recovery.
Our athletes know that their training doesn’t begin with the first weight they pick up, but rather with their pre-workout routine—nourishment. Putting the right nutrition in your body throughout the day is important to maintain muscle mass and energy to keep up with your goals. It doesn’t matter if you’re working out on the field or in the living room, good quality sports nutrition is going to be essential to stay in top shape.
We are creatures of habit and rely on structure and routine, so limitations such as staying at home, makes planning your day much more important.
Pay attention to protein
Our athletes never separate nutrition from their workout. Protein is essential to build and maintain muscle mass. Protein also provides the building blocks that help us build anti-bodies to fight off infections, benefitting our immune systems.
With our athletes, particularly our American football players, we focus on dairy-based protein, personalizing their nutrition plans depending on their work loads. While you may not need as much protein as a 250-pound football player, dairy-based protein is a good option for athletes because of its two main components: whey and casein. Whey acts really quickly to help with immediate recovery, while casein is slower acting--helping you recover over a longer period of time. Dairy-based protein is also considered a “complete” protein. This means it has all of the essential amino acids that the body can’t make only through food.
We are seeing trends of more athletes moving towards plant-based diets, and while it’s not that surprising, given the many benefits studies have found on health and body function, it can be more challenging to make sure you’re getting all of the amino acids. One option for supplementing a plant-based diet is consuming soy, one of the very few plant-based proteins that’s going to give you those essential amino acids. Otherwise, you’ll need to pair the right combination of plant-based food in your meals to get the ultimate benefit like rice and beans, for example.
How much protein should I take?
What we know is that 20g-40g of high-quality protein after your workout is the sweet spot for muscle building and recovery. The amount of protein you eat should also be based on your fitness goals. Extra protein is good to bulk up or put on weight, and for that purpose specifically, I’ve recommend having a protein shake before bedtime to some of our athletes. However, one of the biggest myths I’ve seen is that “all you need is protein” after a workout, as many are concerned about carbohydrates causing weight gain. If you’re trying to lose or maintain weight, particularly since we’re not moving around as much, eliminating carbs and eating more protein can be helpful—but not around your workout. Your body still needs those carbs for energy. Protein and carbs are the best combination to build muscle as you recover; they work hand-in-hand. Consuming them after a workout in a 1:1 ratio will give the best balance for optimal recovery.
Step up your hydration
Most of the time when we’re sitting at home we don’t drink as much water as we normally would. Being dehydrated can negatively impact your performance as an athlete. And what most people don’t realize is that by the time you feel thirsty, you’re already a little bit dehydrated, which is why it’s important to stay on top of your fluid intake. It doesn’t actually take much to impact your performance.
Snacking is something that also seems to be affecting all of us as we’re stuck at home. Staying hydrated may also be able to help with this as well. If you find yourself feeling hungry more frequently, drink a glass of water before you eat again. Properly hydrating is a really easy habit that can have a huge impact on keeping your body in top-shape and ready-to-go once we’re back to “normal.”
Train outside, when possible
While it can be challenging with lockdown restrictions or not having an outdoor space at home, it’s important to try and get outside in the middle of the day when the sun is optimal. The reason is to ensure you’re getting enough vitamin D. Between 10 a.m.-2 p.m., the sun is at its peak to convert rays into vitamin D. Studies have shown that vitamin D affects sports performance inflammation, recovery and plays a huge role in supporting immunity, especially for respiratory viruses.
Studies have shown that adequate levels of Vitamin D are important for mood, which is also important to be aware of as we’re inside all day.
Stay mentally connected
Whether we’re working with athletes in the U.S., Ecuador, Thailand or India, we’re used to being around our teammates to keep us motivated. So how do we stay strong through this pandemic? We’ve heard how important it is to invest in a self-care routine so you can give back to other people, and this couldn’t be truer for athletes whose careers and futures are on pause, or any of us who are going through hard times or want to make a positive impact on others.
It’s important to stay connected to your family and friends and remember who you’re staying at home for. Social media can be a huge tool. Online challenges and competitions are also a great reminder that we are in this together, even if we’re stuck at home right now.
To de-stress, many of our athletes are taking a break from the news to focus on positive content to help them cope with uncertainty. Additionally, turning to meditation to calm the nerves is also a great way to get better sleep and continue their routine the following day.
At the end of each quarantined day, whether you’re an elite athlete or an occasional athlete working out from your living room or your yard, the same rule applies-- maintaining your health and physical fitness comes down to the power of combining exercise with good quality nutrition.
Dr. Dana Ryan is the Director, Sport Performance and Education, at Herbalife Nutrition. Ryan has worked with members of the LA Galaxy, Flamengo, Barcelona FC and Liga in Ecuador, football players training for the NFL Combine, and other athletes in support of their nutrition programs. She is a passionate athlete and was the coxswain for the University of Washington Division 1 crew team as an undergraduate, and then went on to coach high school rowing in San Diego and Arizona for eight years.
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