Optimal Nutrition: A Critical Edge for Elite Athletes

Eating for Health Differs From Eating for Performance.

By Jennie Waegelein

Food is fuel is not just a hashtag used on Instagram. There is so much truth to it. For the everyday person, the food we eat gives us the energy to go about our lives, drop the kids off at school, go to work, make dinner, etc. Athletes’ bodies have a much higher demand for this fuel. Vitamins and minerals are essential for everyone, but these nutrients tend to be more depleted in athletes. Athletes tend to have a higher metabolic rate due to their training and lean body mass. This means that at rest, athletes burn more energy and nutrient stores. With crazy training schedules, it can be difficult for an athlete to get in all of the calories or nutrients they need.

In general, athletes need to maintain a healthy diet. Depending on the type of sport or activity an athlete participates in, they may be lacking certain nutrients. Understanding which athletes are at an increased risk for lacking certain nutrients is critical.

Endurance athletes seem to have a greater need for iron. Iron helps to carry oxygen to your red blood cells and muscle. Runners and other endurance athletes have higher iron losses from sweating and increased blood loss. Athletes who practice more resistance-based training do not experience this.

Consuming simple carbohydrates regularly is not typically recommended to maintain a healthy diet. Simple carbohydrates are an essential part of an athlete’s diet. Eating white rice, some pasta, or toast with peanut butter, however, might be what your body needs to make it through the next 2 hours of play. These foods provide calories, quick-acting energy, and will not leave you with bloating or the same sluggish feeling that a high fiber, whole grain might.

Many people immediately associate muscle building with protein. Eating protein is essential, but not many people understand that the combination of protein and carbohydrates is what allows the muscle repairing and building process to begin. Consuming whole grains or fruit consistently throughout the day will allow protein synthesis to occur optimally.

Eating protein, specifically the amino acid leucine, is essential for muscle repair within 30 minutes of finishing any athletic activity. That big 8oz steak you had after your game that you thought will provide you with all the protein you need for the day? Half of it might not have even been adequately used or absorbed by your body. Some of it is turning to fat tissue as we speak. Learning when and how to consume protein can optimize muscle growth and overall cell and metabolic function in the body.

The principles of sports nutrition can be simple. Understanding how your body differs from your competitors and creating sports nutrition-related habits based on YOU will enhance your athletic performance and make it easier to defeat any competitor.

I am a firm believer that every meal prepares you for your next event. Every time you eat, you help your body build or repair muscle, regain energy, or increase alertness. The information out there is endless, and we have only scratched the surface in this article. Exploring what works for the individual, how to consume meals throughout the day, or understanding that when you eat is just as important as what you eat, allows you to create changes and habits that will enhance performance.

Eating for health does not equal eating for performance. Eating for BOTH will allow you to optimize performance. That is what we strive to do with our athletes at Terrain Health.