A registered dietitian, All At Sea’s Carol M. Bareuther gives racers food for thought.
Winning a regatta isn’t just about vessel weight, how clean the bottom is; the choice and type of sails or even the skills of the crew. Today, like in all other sports, performance nutrition for sailors – what you eat and drink before, during and after the race – can have a major impact on results. No one magical food offers all the key nutrients needed for peak performance. Similarly, sports drinks, energy bars, protein powders and vitamin supplements won’t guarantee a win. The ideal diet for pepping-up an on-the-water performance consists of a variety of fresh wholesome foods, with plenty of fluids taken throughout the day. Individual meals should weigh heavy on the carbohydrates, light on the fats, with protein sandwiched in between. This simple, yet salient prescription can help boost a tactician’s concentration, build-up the brute muscular strength of a grinder, better the foredeck crew’s skillful agility and even bolster a single-hander’s solo power. This holds true for weekend regatta sailors as well as those training for the Olympics.
Piles of Pasta or Pounds of Prime Rib?
The real fuel foods for racing sailors are complex carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates, like whole-grain breads and cereals, rice, pasta and starchy vegetables (corn, peas, potatoes), will provide sailors with far more stamina than high-priced protein bars. Simple carbohydrates, such as fruits and juices, can both help and hinder performance. Sailors downing a large bottle of juice or donut breakfast right before a race in hopes of achieving a burst of energy from a sugar high may actually experience the weakness and confusion indicative of a low-blood sugar reaction one to two hours into the event. The better breakfast bet is one that contains a mix of energy-giving carbohydrates and blood sugar-sustaining protein. Toast and eggs, a bagel and peanut butter, even a turkey sandwich are performance-enhancing breakfast choices. However, simple carbohydrates (juice or handful of dried fruit) can boost blood sugar and energy reserves if consumed one-and-a-half to two hours after the beginning a race since this is when normal muscle glycogen stores are usually depleted.
Sailors competing in grueling day long or several day round-the-clock races need more protein than the Recommended Daily Allowance. This extra protein, however, can easily be eaten in the average diet. For example, a 150lb male racer eating a high-carbohydrate 3000 calorie diet can adequately fulfill his needs by eating the amount of protein contained in: 7oz of lean meat, poultry or fish, plus 2 cups low-fat milk and 3oz of cheese. Even vegetarian athletes can satisfactorily obtain this protein requirement by eating a variety of soy foods (veggie-burgers, tofu, soy beverages), dried peas and beans, nuts, grains and vegetables. Sailors should skip the protein powders. These man-made creations are expensive. Plus, their protein content may not be digested as well as natural food proteins and extra protein can put stress on kidneys when it comes to excreting unused protein metabolites such as urea.
Fats – Friends or Foes?
Active sailors sometimes think that because they burn so many calories, that platefuls of fried chicken or triple-sized fast-food burgers packaged with grease-slick fries make a fine bill of fare. Not so. As exercise intensity and duration increases, the body is less able to use fat as a fuel source and relies almost exclusively on carbohydrates. Also, high-fat foods are heart unhealthy. Fat-filled arteries are the last thing a sailor needs when aerobic capacity is perking at its max and land is barely visible on the horizon.
Dietary fats should only supply 20 to 30 percent of total calories. This amount is equal to 80 grams fat in a 3,000 calorie diet. (For comparison: one single-sized fast food hamburger contains 43 grams of fat!) Therefore, sailors should pass up fried foods, eat fatty red meat infrequently, limit dishes cooked with lots of butter, margarine and oils and steer clear of overly processed foods (think chips and other salty snacks) and buttery bakery goods.
Fluids – A Sailor’s Best Friend
Fluid is the number one nutrient needed by any athlete, especially sailors racing long hours on hot, humid days. An insufficient fluid intake can decrease strength, power, endurance and aerobic capacity in as little as 30 minutes. Thirst is not always a reliable indicator of the body’s fluid needs and can actually be a sign of dehydration. The best way for sailors to keep well hydrated is to consciously drink fluids before, during and after a race.
Plain water is the beverage of choice. However, diluted fruit juice (1 part juice mixed with 1.5 parts water) can perk muscular performance when drunk 1 1/2 to 2 hours into an event. In addition to providing simple sugars, fruit juice also supplies the vital mineral, potassium. And, while it is true that sailors can lose a fair amount of sodium through perspiration, this loss can easily be replaced by ordinary foods in the diet. Sports drinks, like Gatorade and Powerade, offer sugar, but few other nutrients. Caffeine and alcohol contained in beverages like coffee and beer can hasten dehydration and are best consumed after racing with a variety of other foods and fluids.
Fluid intake while racing. A good rule of thumb is to drink:
• 2 cups of fluid 2 hours before an event
• 1 cup of fluid a 1/2-hour before leaving land
• 1/2 to 1 cup of fluids every 15 to 20 minutes while sailing and 1 cup of fluid immediately after arriving onshore.
Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based marine writer and registered dietitian