Judith Haudum

Nutrition in para-sports

In recent years, interest in para-sports has increased worldwide. In addition to interest, the level has also increased significantly. Athletes work more professionally, the material has been further optimised in many sports, the density in the individual sports has also increased, and as a result, the requirements and ultimately performance have also increased. More competition often leads to new best times in para-sports. A look at the Paralympics shows this very clearly.

Nutrition as an important component

Manfred Putz's nutritional support for his race across the Alps to Nice

With professionalisation in para-sports, nutrition is now also playing a different role. Many athletes are increasingly dedicating themselves to the topic, but the field has also gained in importance among supervisors and in sports science. Whether it's nutrition, training or biomechanics — not so many years ago, the scientific data were still very modest. My own Sports science work in wheelchair tennis from 2005-2006 was one of the few in the field, and now more have followed and studied parasports. Good work has also been published in nutrition, with Liz Broad in particular as one of the sports nutrition experts. She has worked with American paralympic athletes for many years and is one of the experts in para-sports.

What makes the diet in para-sports so special? Para-sports is a very broad term that includes many different athletes with different requirements and individual needs.

Depending on the disability and limitation, this also leads to different nutritional challenges for athletes.

While blind athletes hardly have to make any changes, a spinal injury with a high degree of paralysis also causes numerous changes in the body. From the digestive organs to bone health or decubitus to the regulation of body temperature (impaired sweat production), there are many important aspects of sports nutrition that must be paid particular attention to when caring for it. The body of para-athletes has a high nutritional requirement, but at the same time, the calorie consumption of some is significantly lower. For daily nutrition, this means that quality (nutrient density) is becoming even more important. With the meals that athletes eat, all the necessary nutrients must be absorbed so that there is no deficiency in the body. The intake of fiber is also important. Due to the sitting position, digestion is often a problem, especially in a wheelchair. It is sluggish, but a fiber-rich diet promotes digestion. At the same time, it also keeps the intestines healthy. In addition, some athletes repeatedly suffer from open pressure points and wounds due to sitting and exercising in a racing wheelchair. In addition to more stress on the immune system, wounds also mean more or more frequent infections, which is why foods with anti-inflammatory effects are also cheap and should be part of the daily diet. Unsaturated fats, such as those in vegetable oils, fish, walnuts or linseeds, are therefore preferred over hydrogenated and saturated fats.

Due to the reduced calorie requirement for some, so-called empty calories should also be minimized. In addition to energy, empty calories provide hardly any nutrients or only nutrients that have no beneficial effect on the organism or health (i.e. hydrogenated or saturated fats, simple sugars). Highly processed products usually provide such empty calories.

There are no differences in sports nutrition recommendations

The energy supply during sport and regeneration is used to maximize/optimize performance and to accelerate recovery. Data has shown so far that the generally applicable sports nutrition recommendations can also be used in parasports. Since some athletes also have smaller glycogen stores due to their disability, carbohydrate intake becomes even more important, especially during exercise, as the stores empty more quickly. Hydration is important because, when sweat production is reduced, it also plays an important role in regulating hydration. After exercise, protein and carbohydrates should also be absorbed in para-sports to support recovery processes and adaptation. In general, the role of carbohydrates becomes more important as training volume and intensity increase. Supplements is a very special topic. Many para-athletes have to take medication and that can have side effects or interactions with oither ergogenic aids. It's of utmost importance to reach out to experts before using any supplement to make sure there's no risks or interaction.

Today Ohne Grenzen - das Behindertensportmagazin on ORF Sport+ has addressed some important questions about nutrition in para-sports. Have a look! (Broadcast available online until February 23; link below via button)

Further reading:

Para:sport 12. Nutrition in parasport with Judith Haudum medonline.at

Broad, L. (2019) Sports nutrition for paralympic athletes. CRC Press.

Flueck JL. Nutritional Considerations for Para-Cycling Athletes: A Narrative Review. Sports 2021, 9(11) 154; https://doi.org/10.3390/sports9110154

Haudum J et al. (2006) Comparative kinematic analysis of similarities and differences in serve and groundstrokes between wheelchair and standing tennis players (ISBS, ECSS, diploma thesis).

Without Borders - The Disabled Sports Magazine episode 41, February 15, 2024
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