The athletic heights that humans are capable of is truly remarkable. And what fuels these elite athletes is vital in keeping them at the top of their game. These eating habits can give the rest of us some valuable cues on how to improve our own fitness form.
Whether you’re an elite marathon runner, a weekend warrior or you just like to keep active during the week, the basics of sports nutrition never change. The three key principles of eating to fuel the body, eating to repair the body, and eating to be healthy apply just as much to elite athletes as they do to the everyday exerciser.
So do professional athletes need a special diet that is different to everyone else? Surprisingly, the answer is no.
"Instead of copying diets, we should focus on the key habits of athletes: eat quality, eat plenty and eat individually."
When preparing for a fitness event, some simple guidelines for a healthy training diet include:
- Eat plenty of vegetables, legumes and fruits.
- Eat plenty of cereals (including breads, rice, pasta and noodles), preferably wholegrain.
- Include lean meat, fish, poultry or vegetarian alternatives such as tofu or legumes at both lunch and dinner daily.
- Include milk, yoghurt, and cheeses or alternatives such as soy milk.
- Drink plenty of water.
- Limit take-away foods, cakes, soft drinks and alcohol, as they contribute little in the way of important nutrients.
While athletes can have a need for a lot of extra kilojoules to fuel long runs and additional protein to build muscle, these extra demands are normally met from the greater volume of food they eat. They also eat with the understanding of the importance of being fuelled for performance and recovery.
Eating like an elite sportsperson, though, does not mean eating exactly the same foods they eat. That’s because there is no universal ‘athlete diet’. Athletes eat based on their size, sport and specific training goals. That is no different to what anyone else should aim to do.
Food is such an individual thing and personal preferences should be listened to. That means instead of copying diets, we should focus on the key dietary habits of athletes. And these habits are that they normally eat everything, eat quality, eat plenty and eat individually.
"There is no need to over-complicate things. Find the balance that works for you and this will keep your body and mind fuelled for peak performance."
Sports nutrition myths and facts
Carbs are important for keeping your body energised, and this is especially true when you're exercising. However, you don't need to go overboard. Unless you’re training at high intensity for an hour or longer, there is no need for excessive amounts of carbohydrates. Your body will have all the fuel it needs just from eating a varied diet.
The same applies to protein. Protein is vital for muscle repair and energy. But just with a focus on good sources of protein foods in the diet such as eggs, beans and legumes, dairy foods, lean meat and fish, even a weightlifter can meet their extra protein needs from the extra volume of food eaten from training demands.
Athletes may use some supplements, but they are careful about making sure their body gets the nutrition it needs from whole foods first. If you are cooking from scratch and eating plenty of whole, minimally processed foods, then you can be confident that you’re giving your body plenty of the nutrients it needs.
Eating like an athlete means you’re thinking that every mouthful you take in is giving your body something good. There is no need to over-complicate things. Find the balance that works for you and this will keep your body and mind fuelled for peak performance in all that you do.