I challenge you to find a Team USA or other elite athlete that goes into a competition without a tried and true fueling plan. Eat the wrong thing at the right time or the right thing at the wrong time and you could seriously suffer. Anything from gastrointestinal (GI) distress to cramping to fatigue, and it could potentially cost you the competition. At that level, that’s no way to go down. Meal and snack nutrient composition will depend heavily on the type of activity and also the intensity of the activity. But if you’re wondering how these athletes stay at the top of their game, here are a few nutrition rules they live by:
1. Athletes won’t eat a massive breakfast before heading to their AM sweat session, but it’s important to get some carbs in about 30 minutes before an intense workout to support performance and avoid a blood sugar crash. If you’re just starting out with a morning food routine, start small and test it out. Try liquids or a piece of toast and maybe a small amount of lean protein depending on how long you’ll be exercising. If it’s less than two hours you could likely save the protein for post-workout recovery.
2. Regardless of the time of day, these athletes focus on lean protein and complex carbohydrates such as whole grain breads, oatmeal, fruit, eggs and Greek yogurt to maximize performance. It’s also important to throw small amounts of healthy fats into the mix (i.e., nuts and natural nut butters, seeds and avocado) to help feel satisfied.
3. Plan ahead and eat frequently. Consistency in the timing, composition and quality of the foods they eat ensures they’re armed and ready to perform at their best.
4. Have a solid recovery plan to help restore muscle glycogen and support muscle recovery and growth. They immediately hydrate (within 5 minutes) after a competition or race, and within a half hour, they have had 30-60g of carbs and a solid source of lean protein.
5. This should go without saying, but these athletes stay hydrated! 0.5 oz. to 1 oz. of water per pound of body weight is a good rule of thumb, and they replenish fluids every 15 to 20 minutes during and also after a workout if possible. They definitely don’t wait until race day to see how that sports drink sits with them only to realize that their stomach is in knots and they’re running for the bathroom instead of the finish line. Test these products out while you’re training so you know what you’re getting into.
6. Their diets are packed with antioxidants. Being a Team USA athlete is stressful, and not just on race or competition days. They work out for hours each day, which puts a ton of stress on the body. Because of this, they make sure they’re putting the highest quality fuel in – not only to keep their body healthy, but to keep their immune system in tip top shape. That means plenty of whole grains, lean protein, fruits and veggies. Taste the rainbow. Literally. If you check the fridge of an elite athlete, you’ll find plenty of plain Greek yogurt, fruit, colorful vegetables, nuts, and other healthy fats such as avocados, which generally contain the highest amounts of these immune boosting nutrients.
7. They get plenty of iron. Female athletes in particular, but any athlete could be at risk for iron deficiency from all the pounding and punches the body takes. Incorporating regular doses of lean red meat and other animal sources of protein into your diet is a great way to keep iron stores up. Spinach, oatmeal, lentils and quinoa are excellent non-meat sources of iron and ensure your iron stores remain adequate.
The nutrition needs of a member of Team USA differ significantly from the general public. But the three key principles of sports nutrition apply as much to the average exerciser and weekend warrior as they do to Team USA: Eat to fuel. Eat to repair. Eat to be healthy.
Dana Pitman is a Registered Dietitian and a New York State Certified-Dietitian Nutritionist at Hospital for Special Surgery and a regular media contributor for the hospital as well as outside websites and publications.