Do athletes pay enough attention to their nutrition needs?

In fact, a great diet cannot make an average athlete elite, but a poor diet can make an elite athlete average. This quote by Ron Maughan, a Scottish sport nutrition scientist, was made as he stood at the start line of the World Cross Country running championships in 1995:

“The winners will, without doubt, be highly talented, highly trained and highly motivated. At one time that would have been enough. But these days it is highly likely that everyone in the race will have these qualities…….where everyone else is equal, it is diet that will make the vital difference.”

Most people, athletes and non-athletes alike, tell me that they are aware of the importance of good nutrition, but when they sit down to eat, their eating patterns are often less than optimal.

  • 90% report that they are not eating properly
  • 45% report having days when they don’t have enough energy to exercise
  • 84% do not eat an hour before working out
  • 76% wait an hour or longer to eat after exercise
  • Only 10% eat 6 times a day
  • Many athletes skimp on carbohydrate rich food

One key problem is the lack of high quality carbohydrate in everyone’s diets. This is likely a result of the fascination with low carb dieting and the rapid weight loss that occurs. Unbeknownst to most is that the rapid weight loss initially seen on a low carb diet is water loss. For each gram of carbohydrate stored in the muscles another 3 grams of water are stored along with it. This “metabolic” water ensures that the muscle cells are well hydrated and can keep functioning optimally throughout your training sessions. One tough training session can use up a large chunk of your muscle carbohydrate (and muscle water) so it is not surprising that we see huge weight losses within a day or two of eating a low carb diet. But then comes the knockout punch – if you do not replace this muscle carbohydrate you lose the ability to train hard – so low carb eating is not for athletes or anyone trying to improve their fitness level.

Kenyan runners like to say, 'You must eat to train and race hard - not to get skinny'.

Low carb dieters remain convinced that carbs are responsible for weight gain – and this is confirmed when carbohydrate rich foods (usually breads) are eaten on a day off the diet and a 5 lbs weight gain in seen. The automatic assumption is that weight gain on the bathroom scale is body fat gain, which is actually physiologically impossible to do in one day. In fact the previously empty muscle carbohydrate stores have simply refueled – with carbohydrates and water. The associated weight gain is very transient in nature because the now ample supply of muscle carbohydrate re-energizes the body to be able to do higher-quality training and the muscle energy makes it easier to train for longer periods of time. Thee extra carbohydrates make you considerably fitter! Eating more – not less - is often a key way to improve performance.

Happy muscle cells are carbo-loaded!

Athletes who are “watching their carbs” may end up feeling tired and drained in no time. This disappears rather rapidly when they begin to stock up on carbohydrate rich foods. While carbohydrate rich foods are every athlete’s best energy foods this does not mean slurping away on soft drinks, stuffing in plates of pasta or wolfing down middle of the night brownies with ice cream. It means choosing just enough nutrient rich carbohydrate rich foods to meet training needs.

Follow these pre, during and post workout guidelines:

Pre-Workout Fluid & Food Guidelines:
The intensity of the exercise will also dictate how much you will be able to eat and how close to your exercise you will be able to time your eating. High intensity exercise means that you should try to eat a few hours before whereas long, slow distance exercise If you are one of those frequent feeders that has to eat something right before you exercise, that's okay. Just follow these guidelines: choose something rich in complex carbohydrate, low in fibre, fat and protein, and preferably liquid if it is within the hour before exercising. Using Canada's Food Guide, emphasize carbohydrate-rich selections from within each food group. Here are some great choices:

  • White bread, bagels, wheat crackers, scones
  • Low fibre cereals e.g. cheerios, cream of wheat with milk or yogurt
  • Vegetable and fruit juices, fruit cocktail, fruit drink
  • Low fat milk, flavoured milk/soy milk and yogurt/yogurt drinks

Stick to your own tried and true favorites that fall within the guidelines suggested AND ensure that you are well hydrated BEFORE beginning your training/competition.

During Workout Fluid & Food Guidelines:
If the activity is vigorous and for longer than 90 minutes, take in some carbohydrate with your fluids e.g. sport drink or diluted fruit juice. For prolonged endurance events or activities (2 hours or more) , eat small carbohydrate rich snacks (approx 15-20 gms/60-80 kcal of carbohydrate) every 20 minutes or so. Examples include dried fruits, fig newtons and oatmeal cookies, energy, or sport gels. This ingestion of carbohydrate during exercise has the potential to delay fatigue and enhance exercise performance. Remember that everyone is different and that what works for you is not necessarily the best choice for one of your training buddies!

Post Workout Fluid & Food Guidelines:
Muscle glycogen (stored carbohydrate) may be measurably reduced after 45 minutes of moderate intensity exercise. Glycogen depletion can occur in:

  • endurance athletes: runners, rowers, cyclists
  • in team sports such as soccer
  • in fitness and aerobics instructors
  • in resistance athletes e.g. weight trainers
  • in high intensity intermittent exercise e.g. interval sprint training

The more glycogen you burn off the greater and more receptive your muscles will be to re-fueling. That means that the tougher a workout is (a function of intensity and duration), the more important it is for you to refuel...ASAP! To maximize muscle glycogen stores, carbohydrate rich foods should be consumed immediately after exercising. Timing is critical to restore muscle glycogen. Research shows that athletes who want to store maximal amounts of muscle glycogen for optimal training and peak performance should shift their intake of carbohydrate-rich foods to immediately after workouts. In fact the best way to rapidly replenish muscle glycogen is to eat or drink carbohydrate immediately after exercise. When carbohydrate is combined with protein, this muscle glycogen storage is enhanced post exercise. Skim milk, fruit yogurt or chocolate skim milk are ways to encourage post workout refueling with carbohydrate-protein combinations. Make your own power punch for recovery nutrition by combining fruit and/or fruit juices with milk or plant based beverages.