As a sports dietitian to high school, collegiate, professional, Olympic, over-40 and recreational athletes, I spend a great deal of time talking about performance eating. Many athletes are advised to cut carbs, track macros – or macronutrients (carbs, protein and fat) – or eliminate foods without regard to the impact on performance and well-being, and the emphasis is more on what not to do than what to consume.
To change the focus, here are five rules to fuel performance:
- Prime Time. Parenthesize your workouts by fueling up before and after vigorous exercise and longer workouts lasting more than an hour. Drink fluid and eat a little food before an early morning workout and after several hours have elapsed since your last meal. This could include fruit or a granola bar and a glass of water, or a small smoothie. Expedite rehydration and refueling by drinking fluid and eating a little bit of food after exercise, too. This could be a glass or bottle of low-fat chocolate milk or a banana with peanut butter.
- Rethink Your Drink. Hydration is important for strength, speed, stamina, recovery, injury prevention and cognition. Too little or too much fluid can be a problem. The goal is not to play catch-up, but to be proactive with fluid intake. According to the Institute of Medicine, adult women should drink nine 8-ounce glasses, or 70 total ounces, of fluid a day. Adult men should drink 13 8-ounce glasses, or 100 total ounces, of fluid a day. These are baseline recommendations, with additional fluid required for exercise. It’s recommended that you drink 20 ounces of fluid an hour prior to exercise; take in fluid during exercise, according to sweat rate; and replace what you lose, drinking 24 ounces of fluid for every pound lost.
Water is a great beverage for most athletes. However, sports drinks may be advised for those who are practicing or competing several hours daily, as well as for salty sweaters, i.e., those who lose enough salt to burn or sting the eyes, have a salty taste or deposit gritty, white residue on clothing.
I prefer my athletes get the majority of their calories from what is on their plate, not what is in the glass. However, milk is food in a glass and can help meet protein requirements. A small smoothie may sit more comfortably in the gut of an athlete with a nervous stomach than eggs and toast.
If one is looking to “energize” the body, there is a vast difference between food, which provides energy, and caffeine, which is a stimulant. Caffeine is not a diuretic. It does make one need to void more quickly, which is why many assume it’s a diuretic, but a cup of coffee or tea will hydrate as effectively as a cup of water. The problem is, in excess, caffeine can lead to insomnia, nervousness and jitteriness. Try not to exceed 400 milligrams of coffee, or the equivalent of one 8-ounce cup per day.
Alcohol can be a diuretic and an appetite stimulant, and alcohol can impair performance and delay recovery from exercise. So, avoid alcohol around the time of exercise. No alcohol in the days leading up to competition. And don’t celebrate with a six-pack of bottle of champagne.
- Create a Great Plate. To optimize performance and body functioning and composition, the goal is inclusive eating or consuming foods with protein, carbohydrates and fat. This allows for tremendous variety in food choices, but does not shortchange the body. Exercising muscles need carbohydrates – grains, potatoes, fruits and vegetables – as the fuel source for endurance and high-intensity activities; protein, such as meats, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, soy foods, beans, nuts and seeds for strength and muscle rebuilding; and fat, such as oils, nuts, seeds, avocado, mayonnaise and salad dressing, as the energy source for longer-duration activities. Body goals can determine the distribution of the plate, and the goal is to focus on what’s on, not off, the plate.
- Be Supplement Savvy. Supplements an enhancement to the diet, not a replacement for food. Taking a supplement to correct a deficiency or to augment an inadequate diet is a prudent and economical approach. For my collegiate and professional athletes, choosing products with the NSF Certified for Sport designation provides the peace of mind that the products do not contain supplements that are harmful or banned.
- Treat the Body Right. An active body needs time to rest and recover, so adequate sleep is critically important. Eating more evenly throughout the day instead of uploading – or consuming the majority of your calories at the end of the day – places less load on the gut before bed. Being mindful of caffeine intake and avoiding excessive alcohol are strategies for self-care. If one is interested in changing body composition through increasing muscle mass, decreasing body fat or both, gradual, attainable, realistic and affordable strategies work best.
Eating and drinking like an athlete results in a performance-enhancing diet that maximizes what you can do.
Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, LDN, CSSD is a Sports Dietitian who has worked with numerous professional, collegiate and Olympic teams. For more information on sports nutrition, please see her book, Bonci, Leslie. Sport Nutrition for Coaches, Human Kinetics, 2009