“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.
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 (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.”
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 metabolism, 28(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 Compass, 7(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 Exerc, 49(12), 2478-2485.