Friday, July 25, 2014

Sports Nutrition Tidbits: A Healthy Athlete Is A Well Fueled Athlete

Back in April I had the opportunity to attend an afternoon workshop on "Fueling the Elite Athlete." There were a lot of great takeaway messages and I was more recently able to properly "digest" them all in giving a presentation to a group of high school cross country athletes "Fuel Right, Train Hard."

Fueling for physical activity without a doubt varies based on sport and overall goals. Most competitive athletes eat to train and compete at their best, and it's important to remember that both the quantity and quality of calories consumed matter. Fueling patterns over the long term are important for overall health, maintenance of immune function and maximization of energy levels so we can train at our best. While many athletes get caught up in the philosophy that getting "leaner" or "lighter" will boost their performance, one must remember that a chronic calorie deficit (even a small one!) over the long run can be a contributing factor to illness, injury or impaired performance.

In my recent presentation, I shared a commonly used metaphor of fueling a car appropriately to emphasize the importance of each macronutrient in the athlete's diet as explained by Randy Bird, Sports Dietitian for UVA:

Credit goes to Randy Bird, MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS

Each of the macronutrients are an important piece of the puzzle and uniquely contribute to successful fueling over the long haul. Let's break it down, shall we?

Carbohydrates are the main fuel for physical activity. We store about 60-100 minutes of carbohydrate via muscle glycogen, THAT is IF we are replenishing those glycogen stores day to day. The higher the intensity of training, the more our body relies on carbohydrates.

Drop the notion that carbs will lead to weight gain.  Instead, fill up with complex carbs that are nutrient dense and a source of fiber with each meal and snack (my favorites include oats, sweet potatoes, quinoa, brown rice). Simple carbs in the form of fruit or fruit juice are important at times also, as they are  more quickly digested and taken up into muscles for fuel/refuel. I personally love a good post workout smoothie, fruit & yogurt parfait or orange juice or tart cherry juice post-workout to refuel!

Most people know that protein is an important part of any diet to maintain lean body mass and build new muscle. After a hard training session, we create tiny tears in our muscle fibers that must be repaired. Protein plays an essential role in the repair process, as does adequate REST. What many people do not realize is that protein also plays a critical role in carbohydrate uptake into muscles to refuel glycogen stores post exercise. So pair those carbs with a little protein to maximize your refueling potential! Just remember, extra protein does not build muscle without the hard work to go behind it! For overall health, choose lean cuts of meat and try to include some plant-based proteins too!

Healthy fats are a critical component in any diet to support immune health and hormone production, but they also function to fight inflammation. While exercise and training are GOOD, physical activity actually creates an inflammatory state in the body and releases free radicals (NOT good). Rest assured that this is a normal process in muscular adaption that in the long run and that adaption makes you faster and stronger. Healthy fats via omega-3 fatty acids (salmon, avocado, olive oil, nuts & seeds) are known to my for their heart health benefits, but did you know they are effective in reducing the inflammatory state of the body post-exercise? Healthy fats should be part of any athletes diet to boost immune health and protect the muscles against injury. Peanut butter, anyone?!

Fruits and veggies are an important source of nutrients, including the all-familiar antioxidant, which plays a key role in reducing free radicals created during exercise and supporting immune health. Intense training is taxing on the body and, just like providing regular maintenance to a car keeps it running smoothly, choosing quality fuel on a daily basis by including colorful produce in your diet is essential to keep your body functioning at its best!! Plus, a colorful plate is just plain FUN!

It takes a lot to keep a hard working athlete healthy. Adequate rest, stretching, injury prevention, strength conditioning and overall lifestyle balance are part of that equation. Fueling right on a daily basis is like the glue that holds all those pieces together! It boils down to quality in, quality out and eating enough to cover your match your daily caloric expenditure. And don't forget to indulge every once and a while too! Eating the foods we enjoy and that make us happy (though sometimes not the most nutrient dense) is an important aspect of balance! Indulging in moderation can be beneficial in keeping up with demanding calorie needs and for boosting mental health :-D

A few of my favorite fueling eats :)

Fuel Right, Train Hard... and ENJOY the Weekend!


  1. Excellent breakdown! I need to work on my healthy fat intake right now, been out of avocados for a couple of days.

    1. Ah yes, we can't go a day without them in our household!

  2. Lovely post and I totally agree with everything you said.Excellent list you have here.Thanks for publishing this blog.This is really useful and knowledgeable!


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