Training hard is extremely important, but it’s just one component of an athlete’s regimen. The latest, greatest, most carefully structured training routine still won’t deliver those results you’re chasing without a balanced, nutritious diet!
The food you eat today fuels tomorrow’s training session and allows your body to recover from today’s hard work. While there are endless variations of eating styles, every athlete’s daily diet should aim to include the right balance of lean proteins, nutritious carbohydrates, healthy fats, and produce.
Protein: The Building Block
The importance of protein for athletes cannot be understated; indeed, protein is the nutrient that most athletes tend to focus on first! Protein is made of amino acids, which function in the body as building blocks that are used for virtually everything – muscle growth and repair, digestive and immune system function, hormone production, and so much more. Adequate protein intake is absolutely vital to your body’s ability to physically adapt to the stresses exerted by your training regimen. As a result of these adaptations, your body becomes stronger, faster, leaner, or any other goals you’re working towards.
To maximize the benefit of protein in your diet, opt for nutritious, lean proteins such as lean meat and poultry; low- or nonfat dairy; eggs; plant protein sources such as soy, nuts, beans, and legumes; and protein supplements if needed. In addition, try to space out your protein consumption throughout the day to improve nutrient uptake; eat some protein with each meal and snack, rather than in one or two large servings.
Carbohydrates: The Fuel
Carbs are the body and brain’s preferred source of fuel, and they’re essential to both the quality of athletic performance and the body’s capacity to recover from intense exercise. Carbohydrates can be further classified as sugar (simple carbohydrates), starch (complex carbohydrates), and fiber.
During the digestion process, all carbohydrates break down to a simple sugar called glucose. Glucose is converted into glycogen, which your body uses as fuel for movement, especially during high-intensity exercise such as sprinting, explosive movement, and combat sports training. Your brain also relies on glucose for energy, so it’s important to fuel yourself with high-quality, nutrient-dense carbohydrates to perform at your peak and stay mentally sharp!
Nutritious carbohydrate sources for athletes include whole grains (rice, oats, and whole grain breads); starchy foods (potatoes, beans, and squash), and fruits like bananas and apples. In addition to incorporating a moderate serving of carbohydrates in your meals and snacks, also try to eat some quick-digesting carbohydrates (like fruit) before your training session, as well as immediately afterwards to help your muscles replenish glycogen stores.
Fat: The Protector
Dietary fat is a high-energy nutrient that is also essential for the absorption of many vitamins and minerals, used in the body’s production of hormones, and helps protect vital organs. Fat can be found in foods from both plant-based and animal-based sources, and should generally be consumed in moderate amounts as a part of each balanced meal. Dietary fat aids in the recovery process by promoting hormonal balance during rest periods, which allows for greater physical adaptation to the stresses of training.
Nuts and nut butters, seeds, avocados, olive oil and plant oils, and fatty fish are among the most highly recommended sources of dietary fats for athletes because these provide unsaturated fats, which contribute to heart health and fight inflammation. Fatty meats and high-fat dairy, like butter and cheese, tend to be very high in saturated fat, which is not converted to energy as easily and can also contribute to cardiovascular disease.
Fruits & Vegetables: The Nutrient Powerhouse
In addition to providing fiber, water, and some carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables also contain a vast array of micronutrients that contribute to athletic performance and recovery. These are vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that help the body repair damage, improve muscle contraction, and fight illness and infection. Everyone – not just athletes – should aim to include at least one serving of produce in every meal, as well as incorporate fruits and vegetables into snack choices.
Apples, bananas, berries, and citrus fruits are just a few examples of great fruit choices for athletes, as they provide natural sugars for quick energy in addition to plenty of important micronutrients.
Dark leafy greens (like kale and spinach), starchy produce (such as squash and root vegetables), cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts), celery, peppers, onions (and so much more!) can help you add bulk, flavor, and powerful nutrients to your meals.
This article is part of our April blog series on athletic performance and recovery. Follow along with us as we explore how Nutrition, Hydration, Stretching, and Rest all contribute to improved recovery for athletes!