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Origins and history of sport nutrition

This is an excerpt from Fundamentals of Sport and Exercise Nutrition by Marie Dunford.

At the 1904 Olympics held in St. Louis, Thomas Hicks won the gold medal in the marathon. The race was run in temperatures near 32 °C (89.6 °F), and there were only two places along the route for water. At the 30-kilometer mark (18.6 miles), he asked for water but received a wet sponge to suck on and the white of an egg. A few kilometers later, nearing collapse, he received two eggs, a sip of brandy, and a small dose of strychnine (erroneously thought to be a stimulant and later used as a rat poison). Over the final 2 kilometers that included two hills, he was given two more eggs and two more shots of brandy, purportedly one for each hill. He finished the race but was unable to receive his trophy because he was in medical distress. So much for the prevailing advice on sport nutrition at the time!

Sport nutrition, which can also be called exercise nutrition, is the application of nutrition principles for the purpose of improving training, recovery, and performance. Exercise nutrition is a logical name for this discipline because it also reflects the close relationship between the academic fields of exercise physiology and nutrition. However, the field is much more commonly called sport nutrition. Sports are competitive physical activities, although the term is being expanded to include other competitions (interestingly, poker tournaments are now being covered in the sports section of some newspapers). Although exercise nutrition is perhaps a better term, sport nutrition is likely to remain the most widely used term and is used throughout this book.

Origins and History of Sport Nutrition

Athletes have always been advised about what to eat, but the academic field now known as sport nutrition began in the exercise physiology laboratories. Historians consider the first studies of sport nutrition to be those of carbohydrate and fat metabolism conducted in Sweden in the late 1930s. In the late 1960s Scandinavian scientists began to study muscle glycogen storage, use, and resynthesis associated with prolonged exercise. Technology was also developed to help those scientists measure human tissue responses to exercise. In 1965 something else was born in the laboratory. At the University of Florida a team of researchers led by Dr. Robert Cade developed a scientifically formulated beverage for the school's football team. It bears his name and that of the school's mascot—Gatorade.

In the 1970s exercise physiologists worldwide, but particularly in the United States, began to develop exercise physiology laboratories at universities and to study trained athletes. Distance runners and cyclists were most frequently studied because these athletes were in danger of depleting their glycogen stores and these sports could be simulated easily in the laboratory with the use of treadmills and stationary bikes. Research facilities at military and astronaut training centers also were developed because these individuals need to be in top physical condition. Much of the initial published research focused on the use of carbohydrate.

Some research on protein was conducted, but studying protein was much more difficult than studying carbohydrate because protein is found in so many different places in the body. Bodybuilders were particularly interested in knowing more about how to obtain the maximum amount of protein and the highest rate of protein synthesis in skeletal muscles, but there was little research to answer their questions. Some scientists questioned whether bodybuilding was a sport; many considered it more of a sideshow compared to other athletic competitions. For these and other reasons, bodybuilders began to learn about nutrition via personal experimentation and trial and error. Although there is more research on protein today, many of the fundamental questions about the amount and timing of protein intake remain because of the difficulty of studying these subjects. The optimal amount of protein intake for athletes continues to be a controversial subject.

As is the case with much laboratory research, knowledge leads to application. This resulted in more collaboration between exercise physiologists and nutritionists, particularly beginning in the 1980s. For example, exercise physiologists were discovering that endurance athletes, such as marathon runners and long-distance cyclists, benefited from consuming approximately 8 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight daily. But what food and beverages did athletes need to eat to obtain this much carbohydrate? Would such a high-carbohydrate diet meet the body's other nutritional needs to maintain good health? The expertise of nutritionists was needed for translating scientific information into practical applications.

The 1980s marked the emergence of the field known as sport nutrition. Considering its importance in supporting excellent athletic performance, sport nutrition as a specialized discipline developed relatively late. Initially, much of the focus was on endurance athletes, which paralleled the exercise physiology research that was being conducted. In fact, athletes were typically characterized as either endurance or strength athletes. Endurance athletes often focused primarily on carbohydrate intake; strength athletes focused primarily on protein intake.

During this time tremendous advances were being made in the training of athletes. By the 1990s resistance training was becoming a part of nearly all training and conditioning programs, including those for endurance athletes. Many predominantly strength athletes were beginning to incorporate more aerobic activities into their training. Strength athletes more carefully considered their carbohydrate intake, and endurance athletes were more thoughtful about their protein intake. Athletes also began to train harder and for longer periods than in the past. Nutrition was widely recognized as a way to support training and speed recovery. It became clear that the intensity and duration of training were major influences on athletes' nutritional needs.

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