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How to eat like an athlete

Post by: Gaby VillaMarch 21, 2022

“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. 

In summary

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.

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