24 January 2008

For tired athletes, Part 1

Certain dietary changes can assist athletes suffering from chronic fatigue. One gives little thought to those also suffering from chronic exhaustion.

Certain dietary changes can assist athletes suffering from chronic fatigue. One always thinks of athletes as bursting with energy and vigour and gives little thought to those also suffering from chronic exhaustion.

A number of dietary aspects can assist athletes in overcoming chronic fatigue.

What causes chronic fatigue?
Researchers are not certain why some athletes develop chronic fatigue, while others avoid this debilitating condition. However, there seem to be a number of factors that can contribute to this state, either singly or in combination:

  • Over-training: The most obvious cause is thought to be over-training. Athletes, who push themselves relentlessly or exercise without proper schedules or supervision, tend to overdo things and then suffer the consequences. The answer is of course to pace yourself and to allow your body to recover from bouts of strenuous exercise before you commence the next round of exertion.
  • Infections: Infections caused by viruses and bacteria can cause long-lasting fatigue in anyone and athletes are no exception. In fact, athletes may be even more susceptible to prolonged exhaustion after a viral infection because they are making such heavy demands on their body. Infections of the upper respiratory tract are particularly implicated and all athletes should make quite sure that they have fully recovered from an infection before they restart their intensive training schedules.
  • Dehydration: Dehydration is another factor that can have long-lasting deleterious effects on performance and cause chronic fatigue. Always make sure that you are well hydrated before, during and after exercise.
  • Eating disorders: Eating disorders are common among athletes; particularly those who need to keep their weight down to be able to compete successfully. Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia occur relatively frequently in female athletes who dread gaining weight more than they fear eating disorders. Anyone who suffers from an eating disorder automatically has an unbalanced dietary intake and is exposed to the danger of developing chronic fatigue. If you are an athlete suffering from an eating disorder, get help immediately by consulting a clinical psychologist, medical doctor and dietician.
  • Anxiety and depression: Psychological factors such as anxiety and/or depression can also result in chronic fatigue. Athletes who worry about their performance or suffer from depression are more inclined to suffer from prolonged exhaustion than sportsmen and women who have a positive, relaxed and optimistic outlook on life. Get professional help from a clinical psychologist if you feel that you are plagued by anxiety and/or depression.

Stock up on energy
The most important dietary solution to chronic fatigue in athletes is to ensure that you are getting enough energy to meet your needs.

Two factors that play a crucial role in chronic fatigue are:

  • Eating too little food to supply the amount of energy you need as an athlete to sustain your training programme, and
  • The extra energy you require for events and low body weight.

It has been estimated that top athletes require from 8 400 to 25 000 kJ (depending on type of sport, age, sex and intensity of training). The fact that athletes need to carbo-load and most carbohydrate foods have a lower energy density than fatty foods, makes it even more difficult for athletes to ingest enough energy to meet their needs.

The best solution is to make quite sure that you are getting enough energy and if this is not the case, to use carbo-boosters in liquid or solid form (energy bars, etc).

Carbohydrate is essential
When an athlete exercises strenuously day after day, his/her muscle glycogen stores become totally depleted and such athletes are inclined to develop chronic fatigue.

If you train hard you need to take in 5-10 gram of carbohydrate per kg of body weight per day. As mentioned above, you may need to use liquid or solid carbo-boosters to ensure that you are getting sufficient carbohydrate. Take your carbs before, during and after exercise.

Research has shown that athletes who drink a carbohydrate-rich solution during exercise are much less prone to developing respiratory infections and chronic fatigue.

A variety of studies conducted in the USA reported that when top athletes used a 6% solution of carbohydrate (consisting of 60% glucose, 40% fructose, i.e. 36 g glucose and 24 g fructose per litre), during training, their post-exercise increases in stress-related hormone (cortisol) which has a negative effect on immune function, were significantly lower than in athletes who did not use carbohydrate supplementation during or after exercise.

So make sure that you top up your carbohydrates during training and afterwards to replenish your energy levels and muscle glycogen stores.

Next week we will have a look at some other dietary factors that can help to prevent chronic fatigue in athletes. - Dr I V van Heerden, D.Sc.


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