Eat like an athlete: taking lessons from the experts

Kick your bad food habits and use your food as fuel, whatever sport you’re in

Eating like an athlete means that every mouthful you consume is giving your body something good. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Eating like an athlete means that every mouthful you consume is giving your body something good. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

 

Top performing athletes know that nutrition is king when it comes to gaining an edge over their competitors. However, no matter what your goal is – couch to 5km, carving out your six-pack, taking on a marathon – key to your success is what you put on your plate. Core to any training plan is food – it’s more than calories in and calories out, it’s fuel.

The right foods increase your energy, promote muscle growth and help muscle repair after hard sessions. The wrong ones set you back. So what are the lessons that can be learned from this lifestyle that can help us kick our bad food habits?

Eating enough food

“The big difference between everyday eating and a high-level amateur or professional athlete is volume.

“They eat a lot more because they understand the importance of being fuelled for performance and recovery. It’s not so much that the types of food are different,” explains David O’Hara, strength and performance coach and personal trainer at EDR Fitness in Dún Laoghaire, south Dublin.

“Diet is as important as your training for any goals. If you want to increase your strength, fitness, performance or stamina, it is hugely important – 99 per cent of the people I train, including some athletes, just need to eat better.

“Quite often, food is the easiest thing to get an advantage in. Anyone I train for a competition, I push them on food because chances are 90 per cent of the people they are up against are not working on their food properly.

“Most people just need standard improvements such as making sure you eat carbs before you work out; making sure you eat carbs and protein after training; and if you are a competitive athlete, then protein shakes are appropriate.

“It’s the simple stuff that really helps and we need to stop trying to find the quick fix or the ‘secret’ to successful training and weight loss, it doesn’t work. You shouldn’t be rushing to get results.

“If you want results yesterday, you’re probably not going to get them. It is better to work on the medium- to long-term approach. That’s where you’ll find success.”

Having good exercise nutrition

The concept of food as fuel for our bodies seems obvious for athletes or anyone doing fitness training and is widely accepted.

However, the definition of exercise nutrition has become very ambiguous with so many theories being preached by various gyms, nutritionists and exercise gurus.

While there are many schools of thought, one aspect of it has everyone in agreement and that is that to get the most out of the calories consumed, you must ensure they are the right calories for you and your goals.

According to Sarah Keogh, a dietitian with the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute, what an athlete needs to eat depends on the type of athlete they are.

“If someone is body building, they are going to need a lot more protein; if someone is running, they will need more carbohydrates; and if they are doing ultra-running, they actually need a bit more fat,” she explains.

“When we think about athletes, we think of them as being fit without being extreme. Processed foods are almost entirely gone from most athletes’ diets; it is about real, natural foods.

“They may use some supplements, but they are very careful about making sure their body gets the nutrition it needs.

“When you eat a lot of processed foods, there tends to be lower levels of vitamins and minerals.

“If you are cooking from scratch and eating whole, unprocessed foods, then you are getting better nutrition and that is one thing that is common to anyone who is an athlete.”

Protein-rich diets are the most popular trend in the past two years, mostly because of the increase in the amount of people doing weight lifting as part of their exercise regimes.

“You really have to look at nutrition as a whole. I’ve seen a lot of men, in particular, who go to the gym a lot and have great muscles but still have a belly. That’s because they are overdoing the protein shakes or protein in general.

“What a lot of people don’t realise is that you do need protein to build muscle, but the body can absorb only a certain amount of it at a time, so if you eat a huge amount of it, the body takes what it needs and the rest is turned into fat.

“Part of that is spreading it out over the course of the day and not just having a lot of meat for your dinner. Perhaps have nut butter or eggs on toast for breakfast, beans or lentils for lunch and then meat at dinnertime.

“If you’re eating eight eggs or six rashers, you are wasting your time.

“It’s all about balance. I see people spending a lot of money on protein supplements, bars and shakes and they are not getting benefit from it because they are eating more protein than they actually need.”

Avoiding a quick fix

Eating like an athlete means avoiding going for a quick fix. “Often, people tend to skip breakfast before leaving the house and then grab a pastry and coffee on the way to work,” says Keogh.

“What you get from a pastry is fat, sugar and white flour. In terms of nutrition, you are not getting what your body needs – there is no fibre to help clear you out and you’re missing an opportunity to pick up minerals like zinc, iron or selenium.

“If you were to have a wholegrain cereal in the morning, you are getting lots of those vitamins that are essential. If you add fruit, you get antioxidants too. That’s a huge difference from just making that small change in the morning.

“If you are eating like an athlete, you’re thinking that every mouthful you take is really giving your body something good. A lot of us live on white flour and sugar and we’re not really looking at the nutrition. People waste their calories on food that is not really feeding their body.

“You can see people who are a lovely weight, but their body is not actually healthy because they are getting their calories from foods that are not good for them.

“We have a situation in Ireland where one in four children is obese. They don’t eat enough vitamin A, iron, calcium, so we actually have malnutrition in the middle of an obesity problem.

“To get the most out of the calories we consume, look at the nutrient density of what you’re eating.

“Fruit and vegetables are important, but so are protein foods. I see nuts and seeds as nature’s multivitamins.”

Sarah’s tip

“Write down how many foods you eat each day that have sugar in them and halve it. Not dairy or fruit, I mean junk food. How much sugar are you adding to your cereal in the morning? Could you have porridge with honey instead? It’s an easy one to look at. There is a fact sheet on the INDI website ( indi.ie) about sugar and how to measure how many teaspoons, etc are in food.”

Keep it simple

As the saying goes, simple is always best. Strength and performance coach David O’Hara believes this is the key to successful exercise nutrition. “Don’t overthink it or worry too much,” he explains.

“If you have a healthy, well-balanced diet, you’ll be fine. Most people understand what they should be eating. Getting them to do it, that’s the hard part – getting them to break the bad habits of eating junk food, and to eat wholesome food instead.

The biggest mistake people make is they overcomplicate it because they think it’s a special diet or they listen to someone else who says some diet worked for them, when really it comes back to just finding that balance.

“If you do that, your performance in training will go up too and it’ll all become cohesive.

“If you’re trying to get the most out of your training, you really need to focus on what you’re eating before, during and after your session. Lots of people ignore that because their focus is weight loss, but if you are trying to improve your performance or you have an event coming up, whether it’s a sports match, a 5km run or a triathlon, you want to make sure that you have your body well fuelled so you can recover as quickly as possible.”

David’s tip

Keep it simple. Eat plenty of wholefoods and restrict, or ideally remove, junk food from your diet. Also try to limit your consumption of alcohol. Eat to exercise and to recover. Break the association between exercise and weight loss, it is more about diet and weight loss than it is exercise and weight loss.
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