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“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: 

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. 

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.

Racing weight is a term a lot of endurance athletes are familiar with. It is based on the premise that racing at a lower body weight will improve sports performance and achieve faster times. 

Because of this principle, many endurance athletes frequently find themselves restricting their food intake in the hopes of getting leaner to achieve peak performance. 

Thankfully, current sports nutrition evidence demonstrates that food’s true benefit lies in what we need to add and not so much in what needs to be subtracted. 

These are the main reasons why achieving a racing weight shouldn’t be your top priority: 

1. There is no evidence of a real benefit

This one shocked me. For years we’ve been told that leaner and lighter athletes achieve better results than their heavier counterparts. However, no data demonstrate that getting an athlete to drop weight and fat ahead of the competition is beneficial. In other words, Joe at 60kg may perform better than Peter at 65 kilograms, but nothing is demonstrating that asking Peter to aim for a racing weight 5kg lighter will improve his sports performance.

There is, however, plenty of evidence demonstrating the harmful impact energy restriction has on performance and health.

2. Losing weight requires a caloric deficit

This is achieved by either reducing energy intake, increasing energy expenditure or both. However, restricting energy intake can put the athlete at risk of developing energy deficiency, ultimately significantly compromising their performance.

3. Underminishes other nutrition benefits

Someone concerned with looking after their weight is less likely to do carb-loading, include nutrition during long training sessions and prioritise recovery after training. As a consequence, they are missing meaningful opportunities for supporting training adaptations and getting the most out of training. 

4. Leads to frustration

Often, racing weight goals don't consider the athlete’s body composition, body weight fluctuations, and overall individual circumstances, making these goals very unrealistic. 

Additionally, restricting calories does not always translate into weight loss. Your body’s priority is survival. When energy is missing, it conducts adaptations to preserve energy. Therefore, you are constantly tired and cranky, craving high-calorie foods and struggling to perform at the expected level. 

5. Poses a health risk

Relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S) is a severe problem. Consequences include impairments of metabolic rate, menstrual function, bone health, immunity, protein synthesis and cardiovascular health. In addition, weight-loss attempts and the desire to be leaner are risk factors for RED-S. 

Health and performance consequences of Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S)

Health (left) and performance (right) consequences of Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S) Source: IOC consensus statement on relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S): 2018 update

What can you do instead?

I’m not saying that weight loss can’t happen. What I’m saying is that it needs to stop being your focus. Fuelling your body right, getting quality training sessions and prioritising your body’s overall recovery and ability to support the training adaptations will bring you better results than keeping a close eye on the scale. 

I love the way Jesse Thomas talks about this after overcoming an eating disorder that put his career and life at risk. “Don’t aim for a number on the scale. Aim for consistently healthy habits (...) If you eat consistently healthy, sleep well, and get your workouts in, your body will adjust to the appropriate weight, and that is your ideal race weight.”

 

References:

Mountjoy, M., Sundgot-Borgen, J., Burke, L., Ackerman, K. E., Blauwet, C., Constantini, N., ... & Budgett, R. (2018). International Olympic Committee (IOC) consensus statement on relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S): 2018 update. International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism28(4), 316-331.

Tomiyama, A. J., Ahlstrom, B., & Mann, T. (2013). Long‐term effects of dieting: Is weight loss related to health?. Social and Personality Psychology Compass7(12), 861-877.

Hicks, L. (2020, July 29). For young female athletes, losing weight may not improve performance. Retrieved from https://www.science.org/content/article/young-female-athletes-losing-weight-may-not-improve-performance

Tornberg, Å. B., Melin, A., Koivula, F. M., Johansson, A., Skouby, S., Faber, J., & Sjödin, A. (2017). Reduced neuromuscular performance in amenorrheic elite endurance athletes. Med Sci Sports Exerc49(12), 2478-2485.

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Len Hartley

Previously during Ironman distance events I had issues with hydration and fuelling resulting in a few subpar performances on the run. After speaking to a few other triathletes as well as my coach I decided to contact Gaby at IntensEATfit to get help in identifying and solving these issues to improve my overall performance. While working with Gaby we uncovered that I wasn’t fueling my training sessions well enough, I wasn’t practicing fueling through training enough to condition my stomach to take onboard the required amount of carbs and through testing that my fluid and salt loss was well above average. 

Gaby was great at explaining how these things impact my performance and it was a surprise to find out exactly how much carbohydrate and fluids it takes to successfully fuel and Ironman training & racing. Gaby instilled the importance in training nutrition, and we worked on my nutrition plan weekly allowing my body to get used to the amount of carbs it was taking on board, optimizing the plan to get the best result. This enabled one of the best training blocks I have completed and set me up for a great race in Cairns where I had a strong run to PB by over 10 mins on a challenging course.

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