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  • Travel Nutrition for the Paralympic Athlete: Preparing for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio

    by Guest Blogger | Sep 01, 2016

    By Kelly Pritchett and Jacque Scaramella

    In anticipation of the upcoming Paralympics, we’re running this special blog on the importance of nutrition for traveling Paralympians.

    From September 8 through September 18, the ACSM Sports Performance Blog will be featuring a special content series in conjunction with the Paralympics and in celebration of the achievements of these elite athletes. Be sure to follow the blog as well as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (acsm1954) and share using #ScienceofSport.

    As we gear up for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, special considerations need to be assessed and planned ahead of time to ensure the smoothest transition into the competition environment to limit additional stress.  Traveling for competition often disrupts normal patterns and routines, several of which are amplified for Paralympic athletes.  To understand the possible travel issues for Paralympic athletes, it is important to understand the range of impairments, including spinal cord injuries, amputees, cerebral palsy and acquired brain injuries, visual and hearing impaired, les autres, and intellectual impairments.

    The following are issues that may arise for Paralympic athletes while traveling to Rio:

    • Total travel time is quite lengthy and wheelchair athletes can expect longer travel times, as they are often the first to board the plane and the last to exit.  They need to plan for extra time, especially between connections.
    • Air travel can be dehydrating.  Additionally, it is often challenging for Paralympic athletes to use bathroom facilities during travel.  Many athletes purposely limit their fluid consumption in order to minimize the need to use the bathroom on flights.  This often leads to significant dehydration.  To prevent dehydration during travel, athletes should bring a water bottle and aim to increase the frequency of ingestion while decreasing the volume of fluid over time.  This strategy along with the use of electrolytes will help improve fluid retention while decreasing the need to urinate.
    • In-flight food availability may not meet special needs or be adequate to support an athlete’s nutritional needs.  Athletes pack appropriate snacks to help supplement travel meals.

    There is also an increased risk of illness and infection during travel due to increased exposure to bacteria and viruses.  Paralympic athletes, in particular, have a higher incidence of urinary, skin and gastrointestinal (GI) infection and illness.  High levels of training and stress going into a major competition, such as the Paralympic Games, take a toll on an athlete’s immune system and increase their susceptibility of acquiring upper respiratory tract infections and the common cold.   

    Strategies to help prevent acquiring an illness or infection include frequently washing your hands, carrying hand sanitizer, drinking safe sources of water and avoiding the sharing of beverages or food with others.  Taking probiotics two weeks prior to travel and throughout the duration may help increase immunity and may help prevent and fight infection and illness.

    Food safety precautions to help decrease the risk of illness include:

    • Washing your hands before eating
    • Drinking bottled water and avoiding ice in developing countries
    • Skipping fresh fruits and vegetables that are rinsed with local water sources (while in developing countries)
    • Choosing fruits and vegetables you can peel
    • Avoiding food from local street vendors

    When traveling for competition, athletes should try to stick with similar foods and avoid large variations in their food choices.  Packing familiar foods on trips is a great way to try and maintain some routine while traveling.  These might include nut butters, nuts or seeds, cereals, protein powders and portable sports bars.

    Eating in unfamiliar dining areas may be quite overwhelming at first, especially ones as large as at the Games.  Coaches and staff are recommended to give their athletes extra time surrounding meals to allow for extra time to navigate the dining options.  The location of living quarters in relation to dining should be minimized to limit fatigue, especially for amputees, and wheelchair athletes.  Tables in the dining hall may also need to be lowered to accommodate wheelchair athletes. Additionally, timing of meals and training or competition should allow for an athlete to achieve personal bowel management routines.  Athletes with intellectual impairments should be accompanied by support staff to assist with meal choices at buffets, food safety awareness and personal hygiene around meal times. 

    High temperatures and humidity may pose concerns and lead to decreased performance for some athletes competing outdoors in the heat, or those competing for extended periods of time.  In particular, athletes with spinal cord injuries are often at highest risk due to the decreased number of active sweat glands below the level of a spinal cord lesion, leading to compromised thermoregulation, or the ability to dissipate heat and keep core temperature down.  Cooling and hydration strategies should be trialed to maximize thermoregulation and hydration.  Cooling vests and ice cold towels around the wrists or neck are some strategies to help with thermoregulation.  Ensure the athlete understands their hydration needs in hotter environments, including extra fluid consumption, salting foods and electrolyte use. 

    Before an Olympic or Paralympic Games, the sports dietitians supporting these athletes prepare the athletes by helping them develop plans surrounding training and competition times to support adequate fueling and recovery.  Additionally, they communicate how to prepare for environmental differences, the location of their accommodations in the village in relation to their training and competition venues, as well as dining hall logistics (food availability, meal times, catering style and location). It is important to remember that each athlete’s nutrition needs are unique and performance nutrition plans should be developed well ahead of a the Games to ensure comfort while competing and enhanced performance. 

    Kelly Pritchett, PhD, RDN, CSSD is assistant professor of nutrition and exercise science at Central Washington University.

    Jacque Scaramella, MS, RD, CSSD is a sport dietetic consultant for the United States Olympic Committee.

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