“Eat like an athlete” is often confused with a diet with an abundance of fruits and vegetables and minimally processed food. However, after close to 10 years of working with athletes of all levels, I can tell you that “eating like an athlete” is nowhere near that.
Since most of the athletes I deal with are endurance athletes, their energy requirements are often high. Meeting these energy needs relying primarily on fruits and vegetables is nearly impossible. Those who dare to try it are likely to spend most of their day visiting the toilet… yikes!
Due to their convenience and energy density, energy gels, sports drinks and bars (aka processed foods) are also part of an athlete's regular diet.
However, due to this belief attached to what “eating like an athlete” should look like, many endurance athletes find themselves not fuelling correctly in their attempt to eat as clean as possible.
Even recently, in an interview for 220 Triathlon, professional triathlete Lucy Charles-Barclay shared her experience dealing with her nutrition. She mentioned how her need to be as professional as possible in every aspect of her life forced her to restrict her diet and not fuel properly. Lucy shared that she now understands the role nutrition plays and that energy restriction will keep her from becoming the world's best Ironman triathlete.
In contrast, Michael Phelps’ diet became very popular a few years ago. He regularly ate hamburgers and fried food to meet his 10,000 kcal needs and keep up with his daily 6 hours of training.
So, what does eating like an athlete actually look like? There is no particular food list you need to follow to ensure you are eating like an athlete. What you need is that your food choices help you achieve the following:
- Include sufficient energy to meet your caloric needs for optimal health and performance.
- Add enough protein to spread out your protein intake throughout the day.
- Include enough variety to assist with essential nutrient intake.
- Prioritise key fuelling times to support training adaptations.
- Be easy to absorb and digest when consumed close to training.
There is no single food that ticks off each of the points above, and that is not the intention. For example, a high in fibre food won’t be as easy to absorb and digest as a refined grain or sugar.
An example of a day of an athlete’s diet meeting these requirements is outlined below.
- 4:50 am - Pre-training meal: Toast with jam and fruit
- 5:30 am - Swim session
- 7:30 am - Post-training meal: Eggs on toast with spinach and a fruit smoothie
- 10:00 am - Morning snack: Fruit, greek yogurt and granola bowl.
- 1:00 pm - Lunch: Mixed greens, pasta and chicken breast with a glass of lemonade
- 3:30 pm - Afternoon snack: Fruit and nuts
- 5:30 pm - Pre-training snack: Muesli bar and fruit
- 6:00 pm - Run session
- 7:30 pm - Dinner: Salmon fillet, a bowl of rice and roasted veggies followed by sweets: ice-cream scoop
- 9:00 pm - Bedtime
As you can tell, the majority of the foods are those included in a regular “healthy/balanced diet”, but there is room for energy-dense foods. The meal frequency spreads energy intake throughout the day while including energy at key times near the training sessions.
Eating like an athlete does not mean restriction. Before you go on cutting things from your diet, have a look at what could possibly be missing. Focusing on what you need to add rather than remove will bring you far better results.
6 nutrition tips for enjoying the silly season
Christmas is by far my favourite time of the year. I enjoy it so much because I love spending time with family, friends and I relish the atmosphere of happiness and harmony that you can feel everywhere. Unfortunately, for many people, it can become a stressful season where the pressure to "avoid gaining weight at all cost" becomes exacerbated. This is why I have put together my top recommendations for enjoying the holidays without the pressures of diet culture.
Food is at the top of the things I enjoy the most about Christmas. Much of what was prepared in my house when I was growing up was rarely cooked at another time of the year. Now that I live overseas, I enjoy the food even more, every time I visit Mexico. I have also learned to enjoy the food prepared in Australia and share some of the Mexican cuisine by cooking the family stuffing recipe. Apparently, I have turned it into a tradition over here too.
This is why I promise you none of my tips will result in a look of terror from your nanna when you suggest she makes a sugar-free pudding.
1. Enjoy it!
This pandemic has shown us how important it is to value what we have. Take the time to be with your loved ones and enjoy their company by being present in the moment. Stressing about how many calories you're eating or how much weight you think you're going to gain will only distract you from the things that matter like the company of those around you and the hands that prepared the delicious food in front of you.
2. Eat during the day
Skipping meals or not eating enough during the day to "save calories" will only make you hungrier at dinner, end up eating more than you need, and enjoy less than you should.
Sometimes this is unintentional. We get so busy chatting, cooking or travelling during the day and we forget to eat. Try to listen to your body and eat if you're hungry, preferably choose foods that you know will make you feel good and that will keep you satisfied for longer.
3. Choose what you love best
Filling your plate with vegetables or salad isn't going to stop you from finding room for the casserole or the things you like. It is better to fill your plate with what you love the most from the start and give yourself the time to enjoy it. By the way, if vegetables or salad are on the list of things you enjoy most... go ahead! But this applies to the rest of the food too.
You don't have to try absolutely everything there is, especially if you are already full; remember, there's usually enough for leftovers.
4. Be compassionate
What's done is done. Hating yourself for everything you ate and how "bad you behaved" doesn't help at all.
5. You don't need to "burn" what you ate
Staying active has countless benefits; however, "burning dinner calories" does not belong on this list. Killing yourself by exercising the next day to compensate for everything you ate is neither necessary nor healthy.
If you're going to exercise, do it because you enjoy it, don't use it as a punishment or as a way to justify everything you're going to eat afterwards.
6. Ignore January!
Thinking about January as the month you're going to "behave yourself", start your diet and finally "be good" only causes you to feel guilty during December. It's impossible to enjoy something when it's done with guilt. "I'll be good in January" practically translates into "what I'm doing right now is wrong, but I will fix it later". This prevents you from following everything I just recommended and enjoying the things that matter the most during this season: family, friends, health and all the good stuff.
Thank you for reading! I wish you a merry Christmas and hope you and your loved ones enjoy good health.
The essential ingredients in fuelling your personal best
I’ve been a dietitian for more than nine years. During this time, I’ve been a strong advocate for nutrition and how this can make a significant positive impact on endurance athletes’ sports performance and health. In addition, being a triathlete has helped me understand the main struggles endurance athletes face when it comes to improving their nutrition.
Information overload. Everybody seems to have an opinion on the best diet to follow, the new magical supplement and the #1 food you should avoid.
Constant body battle. Your body refuses to change despite how much you train or look after what you eat.
You are going nowhere. It feels like you are barely improving. You are often cranky, lacking energy and unable to bring out your best self.
Understanding how to use nutrition to your advantage is fundamental to unlocking your true potential. The following are key principles I have identified as paramount to maximise your performance and move your results from average to outstanding.
#1 - Fuel your core
Fad diets are not sports nutrition
A common mistake I see is thinking that nutrition is a quick fix. Unfortunately, I know many people wasting time and energy finding that ‘magical supplement’ or following a trendy diet hoping it will be the solution to all their problems.
As much as we all would love a quick fix, unfortunately, that is not the case. Fuelling your core is all about getting your foundations right. Ensuring your diet has all essential nutrients that you are consistently fuelling throughout the day and paying attention to hunger and fullness cues.
Your nutrition needs to include all essential nutrients in your diet, so your body has the vital tools it needs to work as efficiently as possible and put up with the endurance demands. Carbohydrates, proteins, fats, fibre, vitamins and minerals are essential nutrients your body needs daily. When one of these nutrients lacks, the body needs to make adjustments that can ultimately create imbalances.
Diets advising against consuming any of these nutrients are likely to be unsustainable and to put both your health and performance at risk.
#2 – Fuel your endurance
Burning calories is part of the activity, not the purpose
The ultimate purpose of your training sessions is to provoke a physiological adaptation that eventually will lead to improved performance. This is because your systems receive different stimuli depending on the type of training, and your body adapts in different ways. Ultimately, the idea is that you can perform the same effort faster, better or easier next time.
It turns out that nutrients and energy are critical for each step along the path. Your body needs the energy to complete that training session, but it also needs nutrients for those adaptations to occur.
Fuelling your endurance means ensuring that you can commence your training sessions feeling energised, maintain your energy levels throughout the session and optimise your recovery and performance adaptations afterwards.
A frequent error I see athletes making is underestimating their training sessions. They often think the session won’t be as hard or long, so eating before or during is unnecessary. However, even if you can complete your sessions in a fasted state, many athletes would likely benefit from consuming energy beforehand.
Another essential thing to keep in mind is the importance of prioritising post-workout recovery. Right after your training session, your body becomes very efficient at absorbing essential nutrients that will replenish your fuel stores and repair your muscles. So in the first hour after your training session, remember the following: Refuel, repair and rehydrate.
- Refuel – Add carbohydrates to your meal
- Repair – Add protein and essential amino acids to support your muscles
- Rehydrate – Add fluids
#3 – Fuel your performance
A successful race tomorrow starts with what's on your plate today
“Do not try anything new on race day” is a saying known by most athletes. As important as I think this is, I believe most people do not adequately implement this phrase. Just because you ate an energy gel while running and nothing happened, it doesn’t mean that having five while running a marathon will go as smoothly. Therefore, it is important to try things the way you intend to do them during the event.
Doing this will help you decide if what you are planning is truly going to work or if some adjustments need to get made BEFORE completely ruining a race and months of preparation for it.
Fuelling your performance is all about feeling confident at the start line, knowing you have a successful plan to ensure you will feel energised during the event. As a result, the likelihood of gut issues is low and you will be crossing that finish line feeling strong.
#4 – Fuel your soul
Food is fuel and much more
This principle took me the longest to understand, mainly because they don’t teach this at uni. Nutrition and sports units teach you about nutrients, pathways and systems for endurance athletes but rarely about the influence food has on mood and its cultural and social implications. All this seems secondary and irrelevant.
I thought that what was pulling me towards eating certain foods was weakness and lack of willpower. I used to think that maybe I didn’t want it bad enough. Today I understand that food is more than energy and fuel; food is connection, family, joy. Having a truly healthy and balanced diet also means embracing and accepting these other components of food.
I learned that I needed to nourish my body but also to nourish my soul and the best part is that they complement each other. This realisation is what helped me to truly connect with food and improve my relationship with it. Today I see food as an ally. It brings energy, health and joy to my life, and I’m sure it can to yours too.