Brrrr! Winter is blowing in, and it’s time to hit the slopes. Elite level competitive alpine skiers are now well into competition season while club level skiers are getting ready to transition from their late fall on-snow training to competition.
Unlike in other sports, nutrition often takes a back seat for alpine ski racers. But poor food habits can affect your skiing in unexpected ways and can have an indirect effect on reaching your goals.
Read on for the top 4 nutrition tips to give your ski racing the edge this winter
1. Eat Carbs to Keep You Sharp
Carbohydrates are a mainstay of energy to fuel your body for exercise. This is old news to most of you I’m sure but is worth repeating. In general, choose a diet loaded with low sugar, low fat, high fibre carbohydrate alternatives like whole grain bread, cereals, and grains to fuel your daily needs.
A 2005 study published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism found that skiers consuming a carbohydrate-protein beverage during training completed more runs in the final hour of skiing. More runs completed translates into more training time! This means potential benefits in the future as the extra training accumulates.
Another study looked at the potential of carbohydrates to benefit ski race performance. A 2012 study, published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, found that carbohydrate-protein gel supplementation was effective at improving slalom performance when the gel was given before the first run. In those who had the gel, they were able to complete more training runs and had fewer did not finish (DNF) runs.
Good carb sources are:
- whole grains (bread, cereal, rice, quinoa, homemade energy bars)
- dairy (milk, yogurt drinks, yogurt)
- fruit (bananas, oranges, dried fruit)
- homemade sports drinks
2. Gear Up for Climate and Altitude
Skiers typically underestimate the effects of climate and altitude on nutritional needs. Consider hydration, iron, energy and carbohydrates with these factors.
Cold temperature can increase fluid needs because cold air contains less water than warm air and you lose more water when you breathe in the cold. Also, cold reduces thirst perception and increases your need to urinate. Altitude also increases fluid requirements as a function of increased respiration, or breathing, that is experienced at higher elevations.
Even with higher needs, racers often avoid drinking much during a ski day. Bathrooms are often not readily accessible, and extra clothing makes their use more cumbersome. These factors combined make it essential to make hydration a priority when skiing. I recommend that racers be cognizant of including fluid at all meals. Water is best – but including something like soup or another warm liquid or a beverage with flavour helps to encourage fluid consumption.
This nutrient is of particular concern when going to altitude. At elevation, there is an increased need for iron in the body because of the haematological adaptations that occur in a lower oxygen environment. As a result, iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in winter sport.
Be sure to eat enough when you are at elevation. Weight loss occurs at a rate of 3% in 8 days at 4300 m. Changes in fluid balance, a reduced appetite, and an increased metabolism all cause weight loss. In fact, altitude has been found to increase energy use by 200 to 300 calories a day.
Exercising in the cold makes you use more glycogen than in a temperate climate. Glycogen is how you store carbohydrates in your muscle. If you are bundled up during a regular ski training day battling the elements may not be an issue. A cold environment becomes a more significant concern when you are waiting at the top of the hill in sub-zero temperatures in a downhill suit. A 2010 study, published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, found that eating carbohydrates during cold exposure improves how your body uses glucose and preserves your glycogen stores. Only time will tell if safeguarding your glycogen will help with ski performance on race day.
Good Carb Sources for Performance Are:
- hydration (water, sports drinks, milk, soup)
- iron (meat, eggs, organ meats, beans and legumes, dark green leafy vegetables, fortified cereal)
3. Protect Your Head
Due to the nature of the sport, injury is common in alpine ski racing. An astounding one-third of alpine ski racers are injured each World Cup season, and one-sixth suffer a severe injury. These rates of injury are not surprising when you consider speeds attained. In downhill, for example, elite skiers reach speeds ranging from 95 to 105 km/h with maximal speeds exceeding 140 km/h.
Knee injuries and fractures are the most common injuries, but traumatic brain injuries cause the most fatalities. Concussions are a type of traumatic brain injury. Use of nutritional strategies to minimize injury risk as well as in the treatment of injuries such as concussions is an evolving field.
The risk for falls in alpine skiers may increase in a situation of low carbohydrate availability. As such, optimizing carbohydrate intake during skiing is helpful for minimizing injury risk.
Omega-3 fats are under study for their ability to limit head injury severity when eaten regularly before an injury occurs. Presently, several football teams use omega-3’s, but further research is needed to see if omega-3 use would be similarly helpful for alpine skiers.
For more information about nutritional strategies to limit the effects of concussion check out this blog post.
Sources of omega-3 fats are:
- hemp seeds
- flax seeds
- omega-3 eggs
4. Get a “D”
Most elite alpine racers have sufficient vitamin D stores during the summer months. By late winter, however, a recent study found almost 20% of athletes to be deficient. Such a reduction in stores demonstrates that good vitamin D status in the summer does not guarantee adequate status in the winter.
Why is vitamin D so important? Inadequate vitamin D status is associated with an impaired immune function, reduced skeletal muscle function and poor bone health. For skiers, good vitamin D status has specific benefits. A 2013 study found that an increased 25(OH)D concentration was correlated with improved sprint and vertical jump performance. These skills are important for skiers in the dryland training aspect of their training.
Good Sources of Vitamin D are:
- Fortified dairy and plant beverages
- egg yolks
- organ meats
- cod liver oil
Nutritional planning is integral to achieve your optimal athletic performance. Gazelle Nutrition Lab delivers one on one or group nutritional counselling and consulting to both recreational and high-performance athletes. Also, the Food For Thought Blog is a free resource for healthy recipes and health tips. Have questions? We’d love to hear from you! Get in touch!
Blondin D.P., F. Péronnet, and F. Haman. (2010). Effects of ingesting [13C]glucose early or late into cold exposure on substrate utilization. Journal of Applied Physiology, 109(3):654-662. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00440.2010
Butterfield, G.E. (1996). Maintenance of body weight at altitude: In search of 500 kcal/day. In B.M. Marriott & S.J. Carlson (Eds.) Nutritional Needs in Cold and in High-Altitude Environments (pp. 357-378). Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Meyer, N.L., & Parker-Simmons, S. (2009). Winter Sports. In L.M. Burke (Ed.), Practical Sports Nutrition (pp. 335-358). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Close, G.L., Russell, J., Cobley, J.N., Owens, D.J., Fraser, W.D., & Morton, J.P. (2013). Assessment of vitamin D concentration in non-supplemented professional athletes and healthy adults during the winter months in the UK: implications for skeletal muscle function. Journal of Sports Sciences, 31(4):344-353. doi:10.1080/0/2640414.2012.733822.
Seifert, J.G., Kipp, R.W., Amann, M., & Gazal, O. (2005). Muscle damage, fluid ingestion, and energy supplementation during recreational Alpine skiing. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 15:528-536.
Seifert, J.G., Kipp, R.W., & Bacharach, D.W. (2012). The effects of a carbohydrate-protein gel supplement on alpine ski performance. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, 11:537-541.