As athletes, (athlete = everyone who exercises) we often think that we burn so many calories that we can eat whatever we want and as much as we want. In truth, athletes need to be more careful with their diet – as food is fuel.
80% of what we eat should contain properties that will boost performance and speed recovery. The other 20% we can reserve for enjoyment of life.
There are many myths and confusion around nutrition, specifically around carbohydrates (carbs) and fat, which have long been made into the enemies of most weight loss programs. This is wrong. Fat and Carbs do not make you fat.
Each of the macronutrients: protein, fat, and carbohydrates, are essential for the performance, growth, and repair of the body. Although they may be required in different quantities during different stage of training (daily, weekly, and yearly), each is just as important as the other.
Many athletes have found success following a KETO, Paleo, or Vegan diet. There are also many medical reasons (cancer, colitis, ulcers, irritable bowl, chronic fatigue, Parkinsons, etc), when these types of diets might be appropriate for you – either in the long or short term. However, choosing a diet that eliminates certain food groups requires much research and planning. I suggest you develop eating habits that you can sustain for your entire life – not just for a short period of time to achieve a short term goal. This could mean that you still chose a vegan or Paleo diet – but you are making these choices because you enjoy the diet and/or you have made a conscious decision to eliminate meat for many reasons.
The following is a quick debunking of some of the most common myths around macronutrients and how you can start to create an eating plan that is sustainable for life.
Eating protein does not result in bigger muscles, but muscles cannot grow without adequate protein. Protein is one of the building blocks that make humans who we are. Every cell in the human body is made up of protein. During exercise, we deliberately create micro-tears tears in the muscles. The long-chain amino acids help repair the cells and even create new ones, strengthening the muscles. Without enough protein, micro-tears in the muscles may take longer to recover, or not repair at all. So instead of getting stronger, muscle mass decreases, and the risk of injury or illness increases.
Athletes require 1.2 – 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. So a 68kg (150lb) athlete will need between 80 to 136 grams per day. Since the body can only digest and use 30 grams in one meal, we require at least 3 to 5 small protein meals throughout the day.
Vegetarians and vegans will need to combine foods to ensure their meals include complete proteins. Note: A complete protein contains the nine essential amino acids that our bodies do not produce.
Eating fat does not make a person fat. Eating more than what your body requires will make you fat. Fat is essential for providing long sustained energy, supporting cell growth, allowing the body to absorb certain nutrients, and controlling inflammation, which is crucial after a long hard ride or workout. Fat is also the primary fuel source for endurance athletes. After the first hour, when an athlete runs out of glycogen, the body turns to fat for energy. Fat is not the enemy but an endurance athlete’s best friend who never lets them down.
The primary function of carbs is to provide quick, immediate energy, sparring fat, and protein so they can do all of their other vital jobs. However, we can only store so much glycogen at once. Once glycogen stores are full, sugar transforms and is stored as fat. So while fat can sustain us for a long time, converting fat into energy is slow and not as efficient as glycogen, so topping up our small glycogen reserves by eating simple carbs during a long workout will help the athlete access quick, readily available energy. Athletes can train their body to work and become more efficient using only fat, but this also requires a dedicated commitment to a specific diet and eliminating almost all carbohydrates both on and off the bike.
So the big question is: Without following a specific diet plan, which foods are best?
Variety is the key.
Foods that are whole, unprocessed, and from various sources will help bring about the most significant gains to enhance training and decrease recovery time. Avoid fast convenience foods and alcohol as they lack the necessary nourishment and deplete the body of essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
To help simplify things, ensure that each meal contains a selection of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. The exception to this rule is immediately before training, exercising, or racing, when you want to avoid protein and fat as they take longer to digest.
Choose food from a wide variety, in every colour, and always fresh if possible. Change up your food choices every week to ensure that you are getting adequate micronutrients as well. By using many different cooking methods such as steaming, blanching, baking, or eating food raw will also allow different nutrients more bioavailable.
For athletes suffering from stomach issues, lack of energy, slow recovery, irritable bowel, or possible food allergies, take notes and record energy levels one to two hours after eating. Pay attention to how certain foods make you feel – not just in the moment – but throughout the day.
There is no one eating plan that will work for everyone, so although it may seem easier to follow a diet, you will be more successful long term if you can discover what works best for you. As you age, or circumstances change, you will need to adjust again. Hopefully, you will know your body well enough by then to make those changes, without resorting back to another diet plan.