Ever watched an Olympic track star, gravity-defying gymnast or pro football player and wondered "What's their secret?" Sure, there are those minor details of natural talent, dogged perseverance and countless hours of training—but are elite athletes doing anything else to give them a competitive edge? Particularly, what are they putting on their plates to fuel their remarkable performance?|
Cynthia Sass has a pretty good idea. As one of the first registered dietitians in the country to be board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, she works with professional and competitive athletes to ensure that they get the nutrition they need to excel. In addition to her certification as a personal trainer, Sass also has formal culinary training and a master's degree in nutrition science—so she knows a thing or two about what to eat before, during and after competing.
"Think of food as both your fuel, and the building blocks for keeping your body in tip-top shape," says Sass. "You can train hard and have a winning attitude, but nothing can take the place of proper nutrition for fuel and recovery."
Sass designs her clients' nutrition plans to optimize their mental and physical performance; maximize energy, immunity, strength and endurance; and maintain muscle mass and reduce the risk of injury. That's a pretty tall order for just three meals a day—so what's exactly going on the athletes' plates, and how can you incorporate similar eating habits into your life?
1. They pack on the protein.
Everyone benefits from the power of protein: It's essential for building and repairing muscles, providing oxygen to the cells and boosting immunity. But for elite competitors, the macronutrient is even more important. According to Sass, the protein needs of high-performance athletes can be up to twice as much as the average person. Why such a drastic difference?
"Elite athletes typically have more muscle mass," explains Sass. "Also, because they train and perform daily, often for hours each day, they’re always in recovery mode, which is the body’s opportunity to heal from the wear and tear exercise puts on the body. All of that healing requires additional protein."
Takeaway Tip: You don’t have to be an elite athlete to reap the benefits of protein. If you're stepping up your training--whether it’s longer runs, heavier weights or more strenuous hikes--protein can promote muscle recovery, sustain your energy levels and keep you feeling fuller longer.
2. They fuel up before competing.
As our team learned when we ran the half-marathon together in May, what you eat and drink before a competitive event can be the difference between sailing across the finish line and hitting the wall at the halfway point.
When prepping pre-exercise meals and snacks for her clients, Sass says her choices depend on a variety of factors, such as the type of sport, what time the event starts and what the athlete can tolerate. That said, there are some common recommendations that apply to most.
Before training or competition, Sass advises her clients to consume easy-to-digest carbohydrates to fuel the activity. She advises against eating too much protein, fat or fiber too close to the start of exercise, because they all slow the rate of digestion and delay the absorption of food from the GI tract into the blood. When they’re eaten right before a workout, blood flow is diverted away from the digestive system and toward the muscles, which can result in cramps or that dreaded "brick in the stomach" feeling.
"Many athletes I work with will eat a healthy breakfast, then two or three hours later eat something like a banana drizzled with honey, or oatmeal sweetened with maple syrup about 30 minutes before the start of the activity," Sass says. "Of course, it also depends on the sport and how long it lasts."
Takeaway Tip: When planning your pre-exercise meal or snack, the key is to find out what works best for you, for both timing and food choice. This could require some trial and error before finding that "sweet spot." Be sure to take the specific activity into account: If you’re about to run a half-marathon, for example, you’ll likely require more calories and carbs than if you’re heading to a yoga class.
3. They eat for maximum recovery.
After a grueling workout, a pizza or burger might seem like a fitting reward—but high-level athletes know to choose that first meal carefully. The primary goal isn't just to tantalize your taste buds and fill your belly; it's to replenish lost nutrients and provide the body with the right raw materials for healing.
To maximize recovery, Sass recommends consuming a meal, snack or beverage within 30 minutes after training or competing. It should contain lean protein, in addition to vegetables, good fat and nutrient-rich carbs.
"One example would be a shake made with protein powder, fresh or frozen fruit and a handful of greens, almond milk and almond butter," Sass says. "Another great go-to recovery meal is a simple grain bowl made with sautéed herbed veggies, served over a scoop of whole grains, like quinoa or brown rice, along with a lean protein, such as chicken breast, topped with sliced or chopped almonds."
And even if you stayed well-hydrated during the event, it's critical to replace fluids and electrolytes afterward. "Most elite athletes use sports drinks to accomplish this, as well as simple carbs to fuel the ongoing activity," says Sass.
Takeaway Tip: Even if you’re not breaking marathon records or playing competitive soccer, it’s important to refuel properly after a workout. For that first meal, fitness expert Dean Anderson recommends consuming around 50 percent of the calories you burned, with an approximate breakdown of 60 percent carbs, 25 percent protein and 15 percent fat. "Eating too much of the wrong thing can do the opposite of what you want—cause your body to store that food as fat instead of using your post-workout food to refuel and repair your muscles," says Anderson.
4. They don't deprive themselves.
Calorie counting isn't a common activity among competitive athletes, mainly because they're burning plenty of them. "Sports that involve both strength and endurance generally require the most calories and protein," Sass says. Calorie requirements will depend on many factors, including age, gender, height, weight and the amount of physical activity. Generally speaking, Sass says that young, tall, male athletes who have a high body weight due to a high muscle mass—and whose sports require both strength and endurance—need the most calories and protein.
When you're active and busy, it can be easy to underestimate your caloric needs. Sass warns against the risks of underfueling, which include zapped energy, compromised strength and endurance, loss of muscle mass, weakened immunity and higher chance of injury. "Don’t deprive yourself," she says. "If you aren’t sure how to strike the proper balance, reach out to a qualified sports nutritionist."
Takeaway Tip: Although calorie counting might seem like the route to weight loss, be careful not to deprive your body of the fuel it needs to power your exercise regimen. "Don’t think about nutrition in terms of calories in and calories out," says Sass. "Even if you burn a lot of calories, the quality of the calories you consume is still critical for athletic performance."
5. They don't fall for fads.
These days, you can barely turn a magazine page or click a link without getting inundated by the latest fad diet. From cleanses to fat blockers to diets that restrict entire food groups, most of these quick fixes are all hype and no health.
Sass advises her athlete clients to not get fooled by fads. "Just because a nutrition trend has become popular doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right for you," she says. "For example, I’ve had athletes overly limit carbs, which resulted in poor performance, irritability, lack of sleep and poor immunity, but they kept doing it because it seemed like everyone else was cutting carbs. If a fad doesn’t feel right to you, it’s not a good fit for your body’s needs."
Takeaway Tip: If it sounds too good to be true--or too restrictive for reality--it’s probably a fad and should be avoided.
6. They listen to their bodies.
One runner might swear by oatmeal with sliced banana before a race, but another could find herself in digestive distress after the same meal. Ultimately, each athlete should experiment with various sources of fuel until he finds the one that keeps him energized, satisfied and at peak performance.
Takeaway Tip: You don’t have to be an Olympic contender to heed your body’s cues. "Pay attention to your body to learn which foods make you feel best, and which do not, and use your observations to fine-tune your eating regime," recommends Sass.
7. They're smart about their splurges.
Clean, whole foods are the rule for most high-performance athletes, but that doesn't mean there's not room for the occasional exception. Sass says it's fine to splurge on can’t-live-without foods sometimes, but that it's best to do so when you aren’t going into or just ending a tough training session or competition. "Even though this may feel like the time to treat yourself, it’s best to splurge on a rest day for the sake of performance and recovery," she says.
Takeaway Tip: Even the best nutrition plans should allow for the occasional splurge. Whether you’re trying to build muscle, lose weight or beat your best 5K time, smart splurges can help curb cravings and keep you motivated without dooming your diet.
Which of these elite athlete eating habits do you follow, or would you like to try?