In our society today, individuals are generally responsible for their own health, thus food intake among other things is now a carefully monitored and well thought out process. Likewise, the fascination over sports today is bigger than it has ever been. Sports athletes not only have to cater to their health and well-being but also strive to improve their game performance. The competitive nature of sports tends to push athletes to the extremes regarding their bodies. Athletes are tasked to carefully regulate and balance their meals to first avoid burn out due to the intense physicality of the games and second to stay on top of their games while maximizing their bodies capabilities.
The link between food and sports is as important as any other field such as food and pathology or food and infant physiology. Sport nutrition or exercise nutrition is termed as “the application of nutrition principles for the purpose of improving training, recovery, and performance.” I contend that despite rigorous practice and dedication, without proper nutrition, an athlete will be unable to maintain high levels of performance while playing.
Although the academic field of sports nutrition officially began close to three decades ago, the practice of monitoring athletes’ food intake dates to as early as the history of competitive sports itself. Athletes have always been under the watchful eyes of either their coaches, parents, or colleagues on what to and what to not eat. Such information/advice however does not stem from the individuals themselves, but from medical research results. Sports nutrition is said to have begun in scientific labs. In her introduction chapter to her book the Fundamentals of Sports and Nutrition, Marie Dunford anecdotes the story of 1904 Olympic marathon gold medalist Thomas Hicks. Who ran the marathon in extreme heat weather conditions, along the entire course of the marathon, there were only two water stations which did not serve as sufficient considering the intensity of the race. Hicks therefore re-fueled during the race by eating eggs and sipping on brandy. Despite his win, He was in terrible condition and in need of medical attention. Because of the rising desire for competitive advantage through careful food intake, scientists (some, even sportsmen and fans themselves) were tasked to uncover the biological benefits in foods to aid sports.
The Thomas Hicks occurrence had far reaching effects on the sports and medical community in the early 20th Century. Consequently, demanding efforts were directed to laboratory to avoid such happenings in sports again. Dunford notes that in the 1930’s, Swedish scientists embarked on carbohydrate and fat metabolism research. This study gave way to the study of glucose and glycogen. During these early periods, the initial priority of such research was to increase athletes’ energy and to understand how muscles stores energy in form of glycogen. Claudia Ridel describes that in 1924, the first studies to unveil the role of carbohydrates were conducted and showed that there was an “association between low blood glucose and the symptoms of fatigue and confusion.”
Ridel furthers that glycogen storage was found to be a limiting factor to performance. Henceforth, carbohydrates were directly associated to energy.
On the other hand, several studies were done to discover the role of proteins to improve athlete performance. In the 1940’s, proteins were found to increase muscle size. The more muscle an athlete had, the more glycogen they would be able to store hence offering that competitive advantage not only in form of energy but also endurance. Following this discovery, the demand for protein in the sports industry skyrocketed. This led to the birth of the protein supplement industry i.e. protein shakes and bars which has today grown into a million-dollar industry. Further, vitamin research was also underway in the same period. Vitamin studies at the time were aimed at combating diseases. Sport nutrients researchers however stressed on the importance of macro-nutrients which could be sourced from vitamins too. Multivitamin research especially gave emphasis to amino acids and their effects on the muscles.
Creatine was later discovered to convert adenosine diphosphate therefore re-energizing muscle tissues. This discovery served as a revolutionary milestone in sports nutrition. A combination of protein, amino-acids and creatine was described to be the ideal to not only increase muscle size but also ensure optimize its capabilities.
The field of sports nutrition is evolving, and I have explored some of the key historical perspectives in the discipline. So much has changed since the early and Mid-20th Century regarding the development of this field. Majority of discoveries made were well received and adequately utilized among sports communities. Some of the findings however were altered for the wrong purpose and gave rise to the increased use of steroids and performance enhancing substances. The rise of technology has also had tremendous impacts on the development of sports nutrition, developments that I will explore in the next post.
- Dunford, Marie. Fundamentals of Sport and Exercise Nutrition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2010.
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