The diet of a professional athlete doesn’t work for the average gym-goer, discovers Lisa Salmon.
With the Olympics underway, fans may marvel at the skill, training and dedication shown by our athletes to get to the top of their game. But an unseen – yet vital – part of their success is their nutrition.
“For athletes, focusing on optimum nutrition is important for maximising performance, reducing the risk of injury and illness, and ensuring the best recovery after training,” explains Alex White, a nutrition scientist at British Nutrition Foundation (nutrition.org.uk).
And while we’re talking a large volume of food – sometimes up to 7,000 calories a day – that’s not always nearly as much fun as it sounds, says sports nutritionist and dietitian Chris Cashin, a spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association (BDA; bda.uk.com).
“One of the things athletes say to me is, they’re eating so much during the day, sometimes it can become a bit of a chore,” she explains.
While on average, men need about 2,500 calories a day and women about 2,000, Cashin says professional athletes may need 3-5,000. Some consume even more; for example, Tour de France cyclists probably needed 6-7,000 calories a day.
So, what about ‘ordinary’ fitness fans who want to improve? Here, White and Cashin discuss what pro athletes eat, and how it relates to the average exerciser…
Timing is key for the professionals
Pro athletes usually have higher requirements for energy, protein and carbohydrates than the general population, says White, but the specifics will differ depending on their particular sport. A power lifter will probably have different nutritional needs to a long-distance runner, for example.
“At professional level, it’s all about timing, and athletes will often have different food intakes for different days, depending what time they’re training or competing,” Cashin says. “Recovery is a big thing too – if they’re in a sport where they’re going to compete in rounds, they’ve got to make sure they’re fuelling up ready for the next round.
“So, if it’s something like 800m or 1,500m, it’s going to take them a few hours to build their glycogen stores back up, so when they get off the track, they need to be thinking about refuelling straight away.”
What about ‘ordinary’ exercisers?
As for mere mortals? “If you’re becoming more active and want to stay healthy and improve, eating a healthy, varied diet is the basis of improving performance,” states White.
“If you’re just going to the gym regularly, make sure you’ve had something to eat a couple of hours before going, and maybe think about eating a banana or some fruit before, and something similar afterwards,” suggests Cashin. “But apart from that, and making sure you drink enough fluid, you don’t really need to eat anything different.”
Getting the protein balance right
White says ordinary exercisers don’t need lots of extra protein if they’re getting more active, but it’s worth thinking about when and what you choose to include. “It may be beneficial to spread protein intake through the day – think about ways you could include lean protein at breakfast, including eggs, beans, yoghurt or fish,” he says.
Also, try varying sources. While animal proteins provide all the amino acids the body needs, it’s also good to include plant proteins as they provide a different range of nutrients, and are high in fibre and low in fat.
Cashin says many people are overeating protein. “If you eat a couple of helpings of meat, fish, cheese, egg or a veggie alternative, and you have some milk or a milk alternative, that should be enough,” she stresses. “You also get quite a lot of protein in things like pasta and bread. It’s very unusual to find people who have a low protein intake.”
FOODS TO EAT BEFORE EXERCISING
Allow about 3 hours before you exercise after having a main meal, such as breakfast or lunch. An hour before exercising, having a light snack that contains some protein, and is higher in carbohydrate and lower in fat, can help you perform during your training and recover afterwards.
Choose a snack that you'll digest quickly such as:
porridge, fruit, such as a banana, a slice of wholegrain bread spread thinly with a nut butter, a plain or fruit scone with low-fat cheese, yoghurt or non-dairy alternatives, cottage cheese and crackers, a glass of milk or non-dairy alternatives
Some food may cause stomach discomfort if eaten just before exercising. For example, fatty foods such as: chips or French fries, avocados, olives, crisps, full-fat cheeses, large amounts of nuts. Also, high-fibre foods such as: raw vegetables, high-fibre cereals, raw nuts and seeds.
If you're exercising for less than 60 minutes, you should only need to drink water. If you're exercising for longer, have a quick-digesting carbohydrate and some electrolytes (salts and minerals), such as: an isotonic sports drink, a glass of milk, a banana, dried fruit or a cereal or sports bar.
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