Eating for Athletes
Atkins, Vegan, Mediterranean, Paleo, etc. There are numerous diets out there on the internet. Do they work? Yes…no… it all depends if the individual can adhere to the instructions of the diet. What is the best diet for an athlete to be on for optimal athletic performance? Well, let’s first define certain terms.
Most people define the word “diet” as “to select or limit the food one eats to improve one’s physical condition or to lose weight”. This is the most common definition for “diet”, but in terms of sports performance “diet” should be defined as, “food and drink considered in terms of its qualities, composition, ratios, and its effects on performance”. This is a much better definition for “diet” because we are not “cleansing”, “detoxing”, “juicing”, etc. to look good. Athletes should eat quality foods in the correct amounts in order to fuel and repair the body for training and competition. SO, athletes do not go on a “diet”, they form optimal eating habits in order to maximize their athletic performance during training sessions and on game day. What is performance? It is the execution and accomplishment of work, acts, feats, etc. So as coaches, we do our best to educate our athletes on eating high quality foods, at the right compositions, in order to execute high quality work in the quantity their respective sport demands.
Disclaimer: we are Clarke Athletics are not Registered Dieticians. We cannot prescribe any meal plan with exact measurements of macro/micronutrients . As strength coaches we can only make recommendations to our athletes based off research and what we’ve seen work for previous and current clientele. The following meal setup is a recommendation for those looking to optimize their diet for sport performance.
THE FOUR MAJOR NUTRIENTS FOR ATHLETIC PERFORMANCE
A nutrient is a nourishing substance that humans obtain from food which is essential for life, growth, maintenance, and repair. There are numerous nutrients we obtain from food but we will only talk about the big four (macronutrients): Carbohydrates, Proteins, Fats, and Water.
Carbohydrates, aka carbs, are one of the three macronutrients that is a source of energy, with proteins and fats being the other two. Carbs are an important source of energy for high intensity exercise, heavy training sessions, competitions, and are also necessary in order to replenish and maintain the body’s glycogen stores (stored energy) for future bouts of physical exertion. Not consuming an appropriate amount of carbohydrates can leave an athlete feeling like they’ve “hit the wall”, fatigued, or lethargic.
There are three main categories of carbohydrates.
These types of carbs include vegetables, fruits, and legumes (all types of beans). These carbs are nutrient dense, meaning they are ‘calorie-dilute’, and are digested slowly due to the high fiber content. Because of this, these carbs leave one feeling full and are great to eat if decreasing body fat is a goal for the athlete. These carbs can be eaten at any meal, any time, and in large quantities (if wanted).
Quinoa, rice, sprouted grain breads, potatoes, yams, acorn squash, oats, sprouted grain pasta, cereals, and similar foods are very dense sources of carbs. They are a bit lower in nutrients than the fiber-rich carb foods, but are more calorie-dense. These types of starchy carbs are best consumed after exercise to help replenish the glycogen stores. During this time, your muscles act like a big sponge and will soak up the carbs efficiently.
Refined Sugary Carbs:
The majority of carbs that fall into this category are very calorie-dense and nutrient-dilute and aren’t very useful for maintaining health. It is important to eat these sparingly in order to ensure high athletic performance. One positive about this category of carb is that sugary carbs are great at giving a quick energy boost and accelerate recovery and energy stores quickly. Examples are Gatorade, high sugar candies, donuts, etc.
Fiber-rich carbs are great to eat anywhere, anytime, in large amounts. Starchy Carbs are best to eat mainly after strenuous exercise bouts. Refined Sugary Carbs are best limited in consumption, but are great for an energy boost before exercise or speedy recovery after exercise.
Fat is the most calorie dense nutrient we consume. It is a source of energy that is primarily used during low-level activity such as doing homework or sleeping and long-endurance low-intensity exercise bouts. Consuming the correct fats at acceptable quantities is important for maintaining health and the recovery process due to the many roles fats play within the body such as: cellular repair, mental functioning, vitamin transportation, cardiovascular protection, and hormone production. There are two main forms of fat: saturated and unsaturated. In terms of athletic performance, we’ll categorize fats as Performance Fats and Lazy Fats. Performance fats include Omega-3, Omega-6, and certain unsaturated fats. Food sources for these types of fats include, but are not limited to, fish, fish oil, flaxseed oil, nuts (pecans, almonds, walnuts), lean meats, eggs, and avocados. Lazy fats are typically found in processed foods so if athletic performance is important to you then its best to stay away from foods that are boxed, canned, bagged, or served through a drive-thru, since these foods are likely to be highly processed. Highly processed foods are calorie-dense and nutrient-dilute.
Too many athletes eat too much Lazy Fats and not enough Performance Fats. For performance and health benefits you must ensure that you’re eating enough Performance Fats and minimize consuming Lazy Fats to support metabolism, immunity, and other bodily function pertinent for athletic performance.
Protein is the building block of the body. When consumed, protein is used to repair and build muscle and other structures such as red blood cells, hair, and producing certain hormones. Since protein is so important in the recovery process of the body’s structures, it is not an efficient energy source; the body would rather use protein to rebuild damages done by exercise/competitions and not as a primary energy source for survival. With that said, if an athlete is not consuming enough Fiber rich and Starchy Carbs and Performance Fats, the body will breakdown protein and use it as a source of fuel for survival.
Not all proteins are created equal; some sources of protein are better than other sources. If your main source of protein comes from an animal, “the less legs the better”. Four-legged animals will typically produce protein with a high fat content (beef). 2-legged animals produce leaner protein (chicken). Great sources of protein include, but are not limited to, fish (salmon, tuna), chicken/turkey breast, eggs and egg whites, lean red meat, low fat dairy products (yogurt, cottage cheese, etc.).
Protein is not an optimal energy source to fuel bouts of work, but is essential for the recovery and rebuilding process afterwards. Protein consumption is a must for every meal.
Water: The three macronutrients mentioned above are very important to fuel and rebuild the body for optimal performance on the field, but these can’t hold a candle to how important the consumption of water is. Dehydration is one of the worst things that can happen to an athlete and his performance. Without proper hydration it become increasing harder and harder to perform at ones maximum abilities because dehydration increased body temperature, causes heat cramps and nausea, and increases heart rate. All these side effect thus decrease cardiovascular endurance, strength-endurance, and power-endurance capacity. It is important to realize that athletes lose water in other ways than just sweating such as respiration. We breathe all day, every day, meaning we lose water all day, every day. This is why it’s important to hydrate throughout the day and not just before and during competition.
Ok, you now know of the four macronutrients that are pertinent to athletic performance. What you do not know yet is how much should you be eating of each macronutrient for optimal performance. The answer is it depends. All athletes should consume these macronutrients, but the ratios depend on the demand of the sport, body composition goals, eating time availability, etc. The following are general guidelines of the amounts athletes should consume and how to set up daily meal plans.
Four Simple Rules of eating for Performance
- #1: Eat every 3-4 hours.
- This ensures the athlete will be fueled before physical exertion and will replenish and recover properly.
- #2: Consume a lean protein source at every feeding (meals and snacks).
- When an athlete is not training or competing, she’s recovering, and as mentioned above, protein is the building block of the body
- #3: Eat Fiber Rich Carbs regularly
- Fruits and vegetables are Fiber Rich Carbs…eating them regularly will help keep craving down because they are calorie-dilute meaning can eat a lot of them without worrying about consuming a large amount of calories.
- #4: Limit processed foods.
- Processed foods are usually high in fat and sugary carbs. These foods are calorie-dense and nutrient dilute meaning you can eat a small amount of processed foods (chips, sodas, pastries, etc.) and take in a lot of calores with minimal nutrients that help the body recover and rebuild. On top of that, these foods leave you feeling hungry giving you the opportunity to consume more processed foods. This is NO BUENO!
- #5: Drink water throughout the day
- A good rule of thumb for water consumption is to drink half your body weight in (pounds) in ounces throughout the day. For example, a 200lb athlete should drink 100 ounces throughout the day. This does not include water consumption before or during physical exertion. 20minutes before a practice or game and athlete should try to consume 18-24 ounces of water. During training/competition an athlete should try to drink 8-10 ounces every 15minutes. To give you a frame of reference a Gatorade squeeze bottle can hold 32 ounces.
General Amounts of Macronutrients
Instead of giving you an equation or a percentage of each macronutrient to consume I’m going to give you a pie chart which represents a plate. I wanted to give you an easy way of setting up your meals in order for you to create successful eating habits for performance. There are two plates for you to reference. These two plates are for two goals an athlete might have: weight gain or maintenance and improved body composition (weight loss).
Weight Gain/Maintenance Plate
Improved Body Composition/Weight Loss Plate
*pictures and graphs used from Baylor University’s Sports Performance Department*
How do you utilize these plates?
A full plate is 100% covered. If we look at the weight loss plate, 50% of the plate should contain the lean protein source, 25% of the plate has the fiber rich carbs, and the last 25% has the starchy carbs. The same goes for the weight maintenance plate; 50% of the plate has starchy carbs, 25% has a lean protein, and the last 25% has fiber rich carbs. This is the easiest way to portion macronutrients that I’ve come across without having to measure out or calculate exact portions, although exact measurements are a great way to individualize eating habits for specific performance goals an athlete might have.
So there you have it. The best diet an athlete can be on is one that has the correct ratio of Proteins, Carbs, and Fats to help with your athletic goals. It will change from athlete to athlete and can change as you make your way through your athletic endeavors. I hope this gives you a good starting place with your meal planning so you can go conquer the playing field.
*For a more thorough and precise meal plan you should contact a Registered Dietitian.*