A sports nutrition program developed at The University of Arizona in Tucson has changed the training regimens of a number of America's elite women athletes, and may eventually reshape strategies for nourishment during competition. Seven of the top eight spots on the United States women's heptathlon team were filled by women who have been working with Linda K. Houtkooper, associate specialist in nutrition sciences.
Houtkooper has developed this new training program over several years with many of the women heptathletes. The most important key to an athlete's success, said Houtkooper, is replacing fluids lost during practice and competition. She adds that this is especially critical in the hot and sultry environs of Atlanta during July.
"They have been able to realize through the training program that by doing fluid replacement, they will actually do better in their performance," said Houtkooper. "It's not intuitive for them to keep drinking. Athletes can drink enough fluids to satisfy their thirst, but will still be dehydrated. We are really working with them on having a plan for drinking small amounts of fluid, every hour, throughout each day of the competition."
Houtkooper said Jackie Joyner Kersee fell victim to dehydration during the June trials in Atlanta, a rare error in athletes at that level.
The other key, Houtkooper says, is eating enough of the right kinds of foods and eating them on a schedule coordinated with their competitions. Lighter is not necessarily better, which flies in the face of some training orthodoxies. Some athletes feel that if food is cleared out of their systems, they will be lighter and perform better.
Not so, said Houtkooper. During high-intensity exercises, most athletes feel uncomfortable with anything in their stomachs. Blood is diverted away from the digestive system and to the muscles. But food is fuel, and a series of tiny meals eaten regularly to within an hour or two of competition is preferable to one or two large meals the night before. A cup of yogurt or a few crackers an hour before an event is likely to have cleared the stomach and gone to the small intestines ready to be absorbed.
Houtkooper said most of the women and their coaches were skeptical at first. They look at it as more work, and something else to think about, she said. But like other athletes involved in intense competition, they are looking for an edge. And some of the women feel Houtkooper has given them one.
Houtkooper said non-athletes also can benefit from her research. "What we recommend to athletes are the same kinds of things we recommend for the general population to eat.
"The difference is that if you are less active, you should eat smaller amounts of the same types of foods: fresh fruits and vegetables, breads, grains, pasta, cereal, small amounts of low-fat milk and meat, and some foods that make life interesting."