Do athletes need to eat nothing but salads and lean meat? No, they don't. Take a deeper look at how proper nutrition can make the difference between winning and losing.

Many people think athlete nutrition means eating like Michael Phelps; 12,000 calories a day of just about anything you want. While that may be true for an elite level, 22 year old athlete that swims 2 or 3 miles a day in 100 and 200 meter chunks, that diet plan simply won’t work for the rest of us; athletes or not. Here are some nutritional guidelines for athletes that even non-athletes can use to lose body fat and improve their overall health.

Weather you are a hyper-competitive, world class athlete,  or one who rarely competes, you should have some common elements in your nutrition program. As much as possible, stick to whole, non processed foods. Steam your vegetables or eat them raw to preserve essential nutrients. Keep away from foods loaded with chemicals. All that crap will require your liver to work overtime filtering out the chemistry set, rather than helping you metabolize fat for energy. Eat plenty of lean meat and fish for protein. For fat, rely on the “good” sources of fat, such as walnuts, almonds, Alaska wild caught salmon, rainbow trout, mackerel, albacore tuna, extra virgin olive oil, flax seed meal, and butter (not really about the butter, just checking to see if you are awake!)

The largest difference between what you eat as a competitive athlete and even a weekend warrior style athlete is that in certain situations, the competitive athlete will eat a high complex carb diet in the days immediately prior to a competition. This mainly applies to endurance athletes such as triathletes, distance runners, professional boxers, cross country skiers, and cyclists. In addition, eating extra carbohydrates is for athletes that are competing in events longer than 90 minutes.

This maximizes the long term energy available for the muscles, because they can draw on sources other than muscle glycogen for energy. Eating high amounts of complex carbs immediately before an endurance event is sometimes known as “carbo loading”.

A paper published by Anderson, Young, and Prior of Colorado State University, advises athletes, and presumably others, that  “Eating a high-carbohydrate diet constantly is not advised. This conditions the body to use only carbohydrates for fuel and not the fatty acids derived from fats.”

If you are a competitive athlete, your nutritional requirements are more intense than the average sedentary person and even the recreational gym rat that lifts weights and runs, plays tennis, racquetball, or basketball a few days a week.. The recreational athlete will have more intense nutritional requirements than the sedentary person, but not to the degree of the competitive athlete on the high school, college, or professional level.

Where Your Energy Comes From
Obviously, your energy is derived from the foods you eat, but how much of what kind? In the first half hour or so of moderate exercise about half of your energy requirement is supplied by carbohydrates. The energy / oxygen ratio supplied by consuming carbohydrates is higher than with fats or protein. That means that you will have to supply your body with less oxygen for an equivalent amount of energy if you’re burning carbs than for fats or protein.

Most individuals are limited by how much oxygen they can get more than any other factor. That is why, during athletic events, the athlete will want to get as much of their energy as possible from carbohydrates. This is not the case during conditioning or weight loss however. In that case, it is often more desirable to burn a maximum amount of fat, rather than carbohydrates.

If you are carbo loading in the days prior to a competition to maximize stored glycogen, do not eat high sugar foods in the 15 minutes to half hour immediately before your event. Rather than than giving you energy, it can have the opposite effect, no matter what the Snickers (actually, as candy bars  go, Snickers have a very low glycemic index) commercials may tell you.  For one thing, it typically takes about 30 minutes for the sugar to enter your bloodstream, so it will not be helping you until well after your event is underway.

The next reason to avoid sugar immediately prior to your competition is that it can lead to dehydration, a performance enemy. Finally, sugar will cause your pancreas to deliver a high amount of insulin into your bloodstream, causing a rapid blood sugar level drop. This will happen smack dab in the middle of your competition, when you can least afford it. Low blood sugar levels will cause irritability, which could make you one mean son of a bitch. That would be great, but it also causes dehydration, low energy levels, weakness, and nausea. These are hardly what you want to experience when you are trying to maximize your performance.

The other half of your energy requirement in the first hour of an even is derived primarily from metabolizing fatty acids. The longer the event, the greater percentage of the energy requirement is satisfied by burning fats.

In addition, the higher their level of conditioning, the faster the athlete will use fats as fuel. That is yet another reason for the weekend athlete (you?) to strive for a high level of conditioning; you’ll burn fat more effectively.

Endurance Athletes –
This includes soccer players, long distance runners, cyclists with events of longer than 1 hour, triathletes, tennis players in best of 5 set matches, professional boxers, and cross country skiers.
As noted earlier, you’ll want to increase your carbohydrate intake to about 70% of your dietary calorie intake for the 3 days prior to your event. That will maximize the available muscle and liver glycogen and keep your energy flowing during your competition.

Other Athletes –
Your muscle’s energy requirements can be satisfied without having to resort to such carb shenanigans as endurance athletes must go through. Your calories requirements may be far above the average person’s, and you may well need to eat more protein than the sedentary or infrequently athletic individual. If you are playing sports such as football and participating in a high intensity resistance training program, you will definitely need more protein than if your primary exercise consists of groping about madly for the PS3 controller, or dashing to the fridge during commercial breaks for another beer and bag of chips.

How much protein is enough for a hard training athlete? An endurance athlete should consume about 1.3 gr/kilo of body weight per day. Other athletes should be closer to 1.8 gr/kilo. Another rule of thumb for strength and power oriented athletes is 1 gr of protein per pound of lean body mass per day. Make sure that your protein intake is divided up into many different meals (between 5 and 6) so that you can actually assimilate all of the protein effectively.

The Magic Nutrient
Water is one of the most important nutrients that actually supplies no nutrition. You need plenty of water to prevent dehydration, which has all manner of side effects, ranging from the uncomfortable to the catastrophic. In any event dehydration definitely detracts fro your performance significantly. If you are training hard, especially in a hot environment, staying properly hydrated is essential. Drinking cool liquids has a double bonus. It helps lower body temperature during exertion, and it is absorbed more rapidly. As an added bonus, cold water requires your body to burn more calories, so it is beneficial if you’re trying to lose body fat.

If you are eating a well balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, you will get most of what you need. Take one multivitamin per day that includes more than 100% of the USRDA of B vitamins and vitamin C. They are water soluble, so you can eat more than you need with impunity.

Athlete Nutrition Takeaways:

  • Endurance athletes should eat a diet of approximately 70% complex carbohydrates  in the days leading up to an event.
  • Highly trained athletes burn fat more effectively than do relatively lesser trained individuals. Fat is used effectively as an energy source by highly trained athletes in longer events.
  • On a daily basis athletes should eat many small, well balanced meals per day (5 – 7 depending on schedule and type of training) containing roughly 40% protein, 35% “good” fat, and 25% complex carbohydrates. Athletes training more for endurance and less for strength can swap the protein and fat requirements.
  • Do not eat simple sugars, especially pure sugar or honey, in the half hour immediately prior to an event.
  • Make sure you are properly hydrated at all times, especially during hard training sessions or competition. You have to maintain hydration in the days leading up to an event, as it can take some time for your body tissues to absorb adequate fluids.
  • Endurance athletes should consume approximately 1.3g protein/kilo of body weight/day, strength and power athletes should be closer to 1.8g protein/kilo of body weight/day.

If you’re an athlete, competitive or otherwise, remember that your body will only perform as well as the nutrition you give it. If you are a strength training athlete, see my post on the top 5 weight lifting supplements and how (if?) they can help you.