Board Certified Sport Dietitian, Master of Science in Exercise Physiology, 2017 IM CHOO Amateur Female Champion, 12x Ironman finisher including 4x IM Kona finisher, Triathlon Coach, 25-year Vegetarian, Writer/Speaker
(Re)learning how to eat as an athlete
A passion of mine is helping athletes adopt a more real food diet. I don't think I need to discuss the many benefits of eating real food, grown from nature, to support your health needs as you train for your fitness/athletic goals.
For many athletes, there's a lot of confusion as to how to eat as an athlete vs. as a non-athlete. Yes, all human beings should adopt a more real food diet but for athletes, there are many times throughout the year when your lifestyle is not normal, and you need to relearn what "healthy eating" means as an athlete.
You see, as an athlete, your body processes food differently than your sedentary counterparts and you need a lot of it. You burn more calories, your body requires key nutrients, at certain times, to help assist in metabolism, protein synthesis and glycogen resynthesis and food is not simply consumed for health but it is also your fuel.
Far too many athletes think they are eating healthy but in reality, they are underconsuming calories (often 500-1500 calories less than what you should be eating), eating too much fiber before workouts (causing GI issues during the workout), not taking advantage of post workout nutrition (this is where you actually become a better athlete) and not spreading out total calories, with balanced meals, throughout the day (thus initiating overeating in the evening due to not feeling an appetite during the day or intentionally underfueling during the day). If this is you, there's a good chance that your idea of a healthy diet may actually hurt your health as you stress it with training.
Many athletes struggle with this concept because they struggle with food and weight. Despite burning an excessive amount of calories on a daily basis, you don't understand why you are training all the time but can't seem to get the scale to go down. Athletes often email me, concerned about their inability to lose weight despite working out all the time and they assume that eating less is the strategy to weight loss or that being lighter will automatically improve performance.
The best way to change your body composition is by unintentionally trying. When you put all of your energy into your daily diet as an athlete, you will not only adapt better to your workouts, but you will instantly notice more energy, a favorable change in body composition (stronger body) and sleep better, with improved mood throughout the day.
My message to athletes is that weight loss, performance gains or keeping your body in good health relies on your ability to support your workouts with your daily diet. Seeing that every workout and every day is different, you may never properly adapt to training if you don't learn how to eat as an athlete.
But, it's not as hard as you think, for there are many guidelines and recommendations that are easy to apply and follow.
For many athletes, there can be an underlying disconnect as it relates to how much food an athlete needs to eat to support training, specifically endurance athletes. For any athlete who has spent years of dieting, restrictive eating or relearning how to eat a more real food diet, I understand how you may be very confused as to how to eat as an athlete, and still eat healthy, maintain a healthy relationship with food and perhaps, meet your body composition goals.
Due to much conflicting information, athletes need to understand that strict eating restrictions, "clean" (no processed food) eating, calorie control and improper food/nutrient timing can make it difficult to perform during workouts but also, you may be sabotaging any forward progress with body composition changes, alongside slowly damaging your health.
You see, as athletes, we have similar nutritional guidelines as the normal population but because of our training demands to intentionally change our physiology to adapt to training, there are many circumstances in the training season when a typical healthy diet will not work in our favor.
Consider the below examples:
No appetite post workout
Two a day workouts
Very early morning training
Very late evening training
No time to sit down and eat a meal
Unfortunately, many athletes are so committed to eating the standard "healthy" diet (if there such a thing) that the above examples can actually compromise your health and delay gains in fitness if you don't create a different style of eating to support your training. In other words, your training regime and the affects that training has on your body, energy needs and appetite, can make your definition of a "healthy diet" turn unhealthy.
I see it a lot as athletes will come to me with issues with the following:
Inability to lose weight
Stress fractures and other chronic injuries (tendon/bone/muscle)
Menstruation and hormonal issues
Inability to gain muscle
Moodiness, low motivation
Chronically sore muscles
Inability to get through long or intense workouts
Disordered style of eating
Body image issues
Lightheaded, dizzy, low blood sugar
By understanding an athletes thoughts about food, his/her typical diet and training regime, along with getting to know the athletes "normal" life routine, I can understand if an athlete is eating "too healthy" (often restricting food groups, counting calories, underfueling, etc.). As you can see, sometimes your good intention to eat healthy can bring out health issues which negatively affect performance.
Now consider this:
-When you have no appetite post workout, is it ok to just not eat? What about maximizing recovery after your workout?
-Did you think about how your energy is affected when you don't recover or fuel properly throughout the day on two workout days?
-If your morning workout is a key workout, don't you want to get the most out of your body during the morning workout?
-If your workout is in the evening, you don't want to affect your digestion before bed but you still need to recover from the workout.
-When your long workout takes up many hours of your day, have you considered the big responsibility that you now have to replenish your glycogen, rehydrate and repair damaged tissues. Don't assume that you can train for many hours and neglect eating post workout and throughout the day.
For athletes, in order to support the demands of training, the daily diet will likely include foods that may not be advocated in a "healthy" diet. But, as athletes, we need eating strategies that will keep our body in good health as we place intentional stress on the body, to change physiology, and to stay consistent with training (while still functioning well in life).
So while I strongly endorse and advise a real food diet, we must consider that processed food, like cereal, sport nutrition or pretzels or learned "unhealthy" food, like juice, potatoes, pancakes with syrup, raisins or saltine crackers, has a place in an athletes diet under certain circumstances. As great as it is to eat whole foods, thriving on vegetables all day is not performance enhancing.
A rewarding part of my job as a sport dietitian is helping athletes relearn "healthy eating". There's often some resistance at first because many of the foods I suggest to eat around workouts or on higher volume workout days, are viewed as "unhealthy". Therefore, it's important that throughout any session with an athlete, that I fully understand all past and current eating behaviors and thoughts around food to discover any underlying fears about changing the diet or how/why the current diet was created.
Keep in mind that a diet doesn't have to be perfect to improve performance and to keep the body in good health. If you are holding too strong onto your defined "perfect diet", it may be working against you as you work hard for fitness gains or a change in body composition.
Fore more info on this topic, PopSugar intervewied me on the topic. While this discussion is more in depth than what was shared in the article, I hope that the information helps you understand your current eating patterns and food choics that may be sabotaging your health, performance and body composition goals. Perhaps, just maybe, you are trying to eat "too healthy"???