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Take advantage of refueling opportunities

This is an excerpt from Diets Designed for Athletes by Maryann Karinch

In an explosive-action sport, you may be tempted to refuel with a product that delivers an energy spike, something that jacks up the adrenaline. Sack that quarterback! Nail that deadlift! Your inclination might be to use products in liquid or capsule form that feature ma huang and guarana seed extracts, for example, both of which are powerful herbal stimulants. Go down this path cautiously: Make sure you use them in training first or you might face performance problems during the competition. Don’t use them at all if the NCAA sanctions your competition or if your goal is Olympic lifting. The IOC considers ma huang an illegal substance.

First, consider the health risks exacerbated by competition. In a sport that requires a one-repetition maximum or the rough equivalent (for example, an allout push to down the ball carrier), you are driving your heart as hard as it will go. In the heat of competition, you might extend yourself well beyond anything you’ve done in practice. Add to that the extra adrenaline you’re pumping because this is “the real thing” rather than practice, and your body may not be able to handle the same amount or type of stimulant you use in training.

For some of the same reasons, you could actually lose a competitive edge by using the product, or by using too much of it. You need to feel powerful for a single moment in time, not hyperactive, like the human equivalent of a beehive that’s been poked with a broomstick. There’s a mental aspect to this, too, that is very important. I know from personal experience in power lifting that a big part of success in the lift is the ability to focus the mind—to visualize the weight moving and direct mental power to the muscles. If you are jittery from your sports drink or capsule, that feeling could ruin your concentration.

Because you will have to deliver explosive bursts of energy—you will be working in the anaerobic zone during part of your competition—think about what you can do before the day of the event to help you. As indicated in earlier chapters, some top athletes use creatine supplementation (or perhaps creatine loading) in the weeks before the competition. They believe that, at the moment they need an explosion of energy, the added creatine helps them pull through.

Drink water during your breaks, regardless of the ambient temperature, but stay away from anything that could bloat you, like a carbonated beverage. If you get hungry or feel your energy fading, eat light. Try a sports gel with your water. The 100 calories will cut your hunger a little and give you an energy boost. During a competition, even if you are only competing for short periods throughout the day, you are better off hungry than having your body expend the effort it takes to digest a meal.

Swimmer Dara Torres took a somewhat unusual approach to fueling before her events in the Sydney Olympics, where she won gold in the 4 X 100 meter freestyle and individual medley relays and individual bronzes in the 100 meter butterfly, 100 meter freestyle, and 50 meter freestyle. Equipped with a newly developed formula from GU called Hard Rock, which contains more amino acids than the standard GU, she relied on an energy-gel loading program:

I’d take one packet an hour and a half before I’d swim in a race, one packet 45 minutes before, and one packet 10 to 15 minutes before. I’d also take one immediately after for recovery.

Seek out gels without simple sugars if you want to try a program like this. Also keep in mind that Bill Vaughan at GU actually developed the Hard Rock product with elite athletes in mind; it differs in several ways from commercially available GU.

There are also tips that you don’t want to try. Some athletes—football players, in particular—have superstitiously turned to pickle juice as a substitute for water or an electrolyte replacement drink. Pickle juice became a “secret weapon” after the Philadelphia Eagles admitted swigging it during a game in October 2000, when they brought down the Dallas Cowboys. Each two-ounce shot, roughly the size they drank, contains about 700 milligrams of sodium, which is about the same amount that 1.5 liters of Gatorade provides. If you’re a well-hydrated player approaching 300 pounds, then maybe you could try the pickle juice—after you talk to your coach. If you don’t meet that description, stay with water. Too much sodium in your system can cause problems. An excess of sodium will upset your electrolyte balance by drawing water and potassium out of your cells. Another effect, which you may have experienced after eating salty food, is that too much sodium will cause water to collect in and around your body tissues, and you’ll feel sluggish.

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