Guest Post: The History of Sports Nutrition

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We have come a long way in terms of boosting our workout performance by fine-tuning all the habits that surround that single one, and in particular, by refining our menus to suit our goals. Athletes have always done their absolute best to find that perfect ratio when it comes to food intake in order to maximize their potential in any given sport.

Knowing just how much of a major role diet plays in an athlete’s performance, science has done a tremendous job over the years giving us data on how to improve. Aside from fad diets meant to please the crowds, those focused on long-term health and fitness know that eating plays a vital role in the process – and that has always been the case.

The Viking beginnings

Technically speaking, medical professionals of their time, mostly physiologists, have done their best to explain and explore the connections of eating and performance as well as recovery. How successful they were is, however, an entirely different story. A simple example is that of the famous Thomas Hicks, the Olympic gold medalist who won the marathon in 1904. His “nutrition plan” to keep him going consisted primarily of brandy, eggs, a dab of water, and (brace yourselves) – strychnine. Unknown as a severe poison at the time, it was used as a muscle stimulant to help athletes push through arduous events. Not without consequences, as you would naturally assume.

However, the very first serious attempts to understand the human physiology in relation to exercise and nutrition were noted among Swedish scientists in the 1930s. They were the first ones to begin to unravel the mystery of muscle glycogen stores, as well as carb and fat metabolism. Not too long after realizing just how crucial these sugary stores are for athletic performance, the very first sports beverages entered the market, by the name of Gatorade Thirst Quencher.

The golden era in every sense

Ever since the first research took form in the shape of published work, the face of sports nutrition has changed dramatically to benefit the athlete. The discovery of how vital carbs were in energy production, recovery and repair helped bring the roots nutrition science that we know and love to this very day. Bengt Saltin, one of those eminent Swedish professors, began publishing papers in the early seventies that served as the early education sources for athletes. About the same time across the pond, David Costill offered the very same research roots in the West.

Such research has not only enabled athletes increase performance by boosting their diet, especially the now famous bodybuilders of the time, but it also set the stage of military and astronaut training and nutrition guidance. Soon enough, in addition to refining carbohydrate intake to optimize energy levels, every athlete had their go-to energy drink often based on caffeine mixed with other potent stimulants to enhance their performance. Unlike the heart-endangering potions of yore, the research-based sips of the modern era pack a punch, but without the dire consequences – all thanks to the golden era, not merely in bodybuilding, but especially in exercise and nutrition research.

Protein: the late bloomer of the research game

You’ve likely noticed a pattern by now: nutrition studies of our golden past as well as earlies ones were strongly focused on carbs. Why? The simple explanation is that they were far easier to study and test in controlled environments, such as with professional athletes on treadmills and cyclists. Only later did we start to investigate the intricate relationship between protein and muscle building, and the ratios of its consumption remained mostly experience-based until much later.

Quantity came first

Nowadays, when you discuss nutrition with any exercise enthusiast, let alone a professional athlete with a team of dietitians to back them up, most are aware of the importance of macronutrient quality in their diet. We now responsibly claim and know that not all protein sources are created equal, and replacing rice with some lettuce will not produce the same effect.

That, however, was not the case, when in the 1980s research started dealing with macronutrient ratios for any given athlete depending on their energy expenditure and physiological needs. Names such as Michael Colgan started reshaping the nutrition industry into a more refined, sport-specific science, without, however, taking too much notice of the quality of macros in question. Of course, by that time, the presence of sports drinks filled with electrolytes and sugars of varying kinds was very prominent, all in the service of better performance and faster recovery. Calorie counting, on the other hand, had already become an art form of its own by the time the golden era was in full bloom.

The turn of the century

It wasn’t until our very own 21st century that the science of nutrition began to focus on experimenting and testing the effects of real foods on athletic performance, as opposed to the many supplements that reigned supreme thus far. A 2009 study at the University of Exeter serves as one of those landmark examples that helped athletes truly refine their eating regimes down to every snack and every source of our precious macronutrients. The idea of sports nutrition has finally started to take its true shape.

Where do we go now?

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While this is merely an overview of a few historic milestones that we’ve experienced to get where we are today, we still have a long way to go to understand our intricate physiology and its impact on athletic performance. We are headed towards a very exiting era, one when we aim to unite the knowledge of immunology, agriculture, sports science, and various other branches of research in order to provide a more holistic take on athletic performance and health.

Finally, we have reached that point when cardiovascular health, not just performance, paired with gastrointestinal health, bone strength, and prevention of chronic diseases among so many other factors play into the equation of modern sports nutrition.

About the Author:

I’m a fitness and health blogger at Ripped.me, and a great fan of the gym and a healthy diet. I follow all the trends in fitness, gym and healthy life, and l love to share my knowledge in this field through useful and informative articles.

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