Remember the saying “you are what you eat”? Well, it’s pretty much true, at least in terms of athletic performance. Nutrition is an essential part of being an athlete. The quantity and type of food you consume can impact your games, practices, energy, and more. Here are some tips to help you make the most out of your meals!
The Fake News
There are plenty of misconceptions about what an athlete should or shouldn’t eat to maintain (or lose) their weight while simultaneously improving their athletic performance. To be sure, everything should be consumed in moderation, but there are some false claims out there that we should talk about.
- Carbohydrates (carbs) are bad. Especially if you’re trying to lose weight.
In today’s day and age, low-carb diets, including ketogenic, are heavily encouraged as a method to shave off pounds. (If you don’t know about the ketogenic diet, read about it in here). Here’s the real news: carbohydrate is the main source for generating fuel during exercise. When your carb consumption is inadequate, it means your performance will also be inadequate.
Harvard student-athlete Samantha Acker held a similar misconception but after meeting with a nutritionist, she worked on getting slow-digesting carbs, and says it’s made a big difference.
She says, “I don’t have as many cravings after practice and I feel like I have more energy during long conditioning sets.” Carbs give you sustenance and allow you to play or practice for prolonged periods of time. Depending on the intensity and the duration of exercise, you should be fueling up both before and after with carbs. Check out Tables 1 & 2 in this study to find out recommendations based on these 2 factors.
- You can’t get protein if you’re vegan or vegetarian. And it’s not sustainable as an athlete.
Meat isn’t the only source of protein you can find; it’s just the most talked about. Michigan student-athlete alumni Caroline Anderson is vegan, and also manages to be a record-breaker water polo player with numerous accolades.
She says, “[being vegan] is something I believe is very possible for athletes at all levels to do.” Eggs, greek yogurt, nuts, beans, and quinoa are all great sources of meatless protein that are found easily and affordable. Another option many athletes take is protein powder. (If you’re interested in purchasing some, use the promo code 219157 for Klean products at this link)
- You can never have enough water.
I’ve heard the phrase “hydrate or diedrate” a lot. Don’t get me wrong, hydrating before, during, and after is definitely necessary and maybe not emphasized enough. But there’s a danger with excess hydration. If you’re drinking solely water, and drinking too much of it, you’re putting yourself at risk for hyponatremia, a condition where your sodium levels are too low. Hyponatremia includes a list of symptoms that detrimental to a person’s health and well-being, let alone their athletic performance. So when you’re lapping up that water, make sure you’re also replacing the electrolytes you’re losing during exercise.
- You shouldn’t eat before a practice or game, because it might make you feel sick or bloated.
To an extent, this is true. The amount of time between when you eat and when you practice, as well as the type of food that you’re eating can impact your performance. And of course, every athlete is different; what works for 1 person may not work for the next. For Duke student-athlete Daichi Matsuda, eating too close to exercise led to him feeling bloated and cramping up. He’s found that eating 1 to 1 ½ hours prior to practice or competition is ideal. Keep reading for more tips on what to eat and when!
- Snacks are always unhealthy.
“Snacks” is just a name, as is “lunch” or “dinner”; they all can be unhealthy if you choose to make it so. There are definitely ways to snack in a way that you’re benefiting from it, both physically and mentally. Listen to your body—if it’s signaling you for food, grab a small bite to eat. Avoid the heavily processed foods and go for the fiber-filled foods to keep you full longer. Acker states, “if [I] don’t have enough time to eat a full meal, [I] need to find some snack that is filling and energizing, without making us feel sick.” Her go-tos are a good bar and a piece of fruit. (Click here for a list of our snack bar recommendations).
Rules for Fuel
- It’s best to eat a meal containing fat, carbs and protein 3-4 hours before you exercise
- If you exercise early in the morning, there’s usually not much time to digest, but low-fiber foods and fluids that are easily digestible is a quick fix
- Stick to simple carbohydrate foods
- Eat foods that you’re comfortable and adjusted to
Here are some options if you’re eating closer to your workout (45-60 minutes prior):
- Low-fiber cereal
- Hard boiled eggs
- Grilled chicken sandwich
- Hydrate! But don’t forget sodium!
Matsuda used to cramp and feel exhausted in the tail end of workouts. He started fueling through means of carb drinks or small bites of energy bars throughout workouts and he’s noticed a significant change.
- Replenish your glycogen stores after you finish a workout!
- If you’re hoping to build muscle mass, a protein-rich snack could benefit you, by promoting muscle protein synthesis
- If you’re not meeting your carb intake goals, combine your carbs with protein to restore glycogen stores and get your necessary amino acids!
Anderson’s go-to post-workout drink is chocolate milk because it provided her the carb and protein content, which she said helped with replenishing her tired muscles.
Check to see if your school or college offers resources for nutrition counseling. (Here’s a good website for trying to find a Registered Sports Dietitian). Talking to a dietitian or nutritionist can get you started in the right direction. As Acker put, “if you can build healthy habits now and learn to like the food that you are eating, it will be much easier for you when you get to college and have unhealthy foods readily available.