It’s not just part of your game plan, but a game plan in itself—nutrition and athletic performance are inextricably linked, and to succeed in planning nutrition meals for athletes is to succeed on competition day.
Eating plans have to be able to facilitate training and recovery, and when properly mapped out, they can help athletes keep their energy levels up. A good plan can also help athletes recover faster from exercise and injury by supporting muscle growth and repair.
Plans are also indispensable to achieving and maintaining a healthy weight, which is particularly important for weight-sensitive sports such as rowing, boxing and other combat sports.
Eating plans have to be tailored to the individual needs of athletes, which will include their training and competition schedule. The level of intensity will also have be factored in as well as personal goals such as ideal weight or improved reaction time.
What should go into a good eating plan for athletes
Nutrition meals for athletes should prioritise making sure they have enough energy, and how much energy a type of food has depends on how much of a macronutrient it contains. Carbohydrates and protein contain 4 Kcal or kilocalories per gram, while fat contains 9 Kcal per gram.
A good eating plan should provide an athlete with all the macronutrients, with at least one kind of food from each type.
It’s interesting to note how studies show that many athletes actually don’t eat enough carbs, which is bad news considering how they are the body’s main energy source during more intense training.Good, that is to say healthy examples of carbohydrates include bread, wholegrain cereal, fruits, vegetables and pasta.
Not only do proteins help with muscle growth and repair, but they also help you feel full after meals. Dairy, eggs, lean meat and legumes are among the best protein sources.
Given how fat actually contains the most energy among the macronutrients, including fat in nutrition meals for athletes helps to meet their energy requirements as well as keeps their hormones at healthy levels.
Do note the difference between healthy fats found in natural food and “bad” or trans fats found in fried food, cake, frosting and cream fillings—it’s the bad fats athletes and pretty much everyone else have to avoid.
Good examples of healthy fats include avocado, coconut oil, nuts and butter from nuts, and olive oil. You’ll want to cut back on corn, cottonseed, soybean and other vegetable oils.
Fruits and Vegetables
Eating plans should include five servings per day of fruits and vegetables of different colours. Phytochemicals are natural bioactive compounds which promote health and give fruits and vegetables their colour—the brighter a fruit or vegetable’s colour, the greater their content of vitamins, minerals and fibre.
Not only do these colourful foods have the energy and nutrients needed to fuel training and recovery, but they also contain antioxidants to help fight disease.
A good eating plan will also include a wide variety of food, which means you don’t have to eat the same milk and wholegrain cereal for breakfast every day. Having a lot of choices will make it easier for you to stick to your eating plan, as well as provide a range of nutrients that can help to boost your athletic performance.
Sample eating plan
Here’s an example from New England Nutrition & Exercise of a one-day eating plan:
Breakfast: Peanut butter and banana toast with blackberries
Snack 1: Almonds and tangerines
Lunch: Chicken, brown rice and salad with banana and peanut butter
Snack 2: Apple with string cheese
Dinner: Honey-roasted brussels sprouts, spaghetti with baked chicken and veggies
For planning your pre-training snacks and meals, focus on simple carbohydrates for energy by including food like low-fibre cereal, toast, graham crackers, english muffins or a Peanut Butter Protein Bar.
Post-training snacks and meals will also have carbs but will focus instead on protein for muscle recovery with food like chickpea wraps, a gluten-free Greek burger or a simple chicken burger.
Knowing the rightportion sizes during meals is key because you don’t want to eat too much or too little. One way to figure this out is to note how much you eat for a week by using measuring cups or spoons before eating, then comparing the amounts with approximated portion sizes. Here are a few of the most common approximations:
- Apple: tennis ball size
- Cheese (1 oz): size of 4 dice
- Fish (3 oz): chequebook size
- Meat (1 oz): matchbox size
- Pasta (1 cup): tennis ball size
- Peanut butter (2 tbsps): pingpong ball size
- Potato (3 oz)” tennis ball size
When should an athlete eat
As you’ve seen with planning pre- and post-training snacks and meals, eating plans also have to factor in timing. Athletes should eat within one hour after training, competition or event, preferably within 15 to 30 minutes. This is when your body will be best disposed to repairing muscle and replacing spent glycogen.
Post-training snacks should contain at least 6 to 20 grams of protein and 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates. Our top selling Peanut Butter Protein Bar has 23.3 grams of protein and 13.4 grams of carbs (average quantity per serving).
Most athletes only eat two to three times a day, when they should really be eating every three to four hours—that’s three meals and two or three snacks every day. This helps them to maintain their energy levels, gain lean tissue and facilitate their recovery. You can’t afford to skip meals because you need to keep your energy levels up.
Another rule of thumb for timing in eating plans is to eat two-thirds of the calories you need, two-thirds into your day. This helps to make sure you have enough energy to perform your best, and to help with muscle recovery and repair.
Nutrition for athletic performance in preparation for competition
When getting ready for a competition, your eating plan shouldn’t be just for competition day, but for the weeks and even months leading up to it. It’s absolutely essential that you don’t try a new diet on the day itself, and if you do try a new diet, make sure you do it well before the event and before training. That way, you can make sure the new diet doesn’t upset your digestion and affect your performance.
Hydration as part of a good eating plan for athletes
If there’s an eating plan for athletes, there’s also a hydration plan which includes what you should be drinking and how much of it to drink. You should be drinking at least two cups before you train, and 4 to 6 oz every 15 minutes during training.
To figure out how much you should drink after training, weigh yourself right before training and immediately afterwards. For every 0.45 kg you lose, you should drink 16 oz.
Water will always be the best for hydration, but you can also drink low-fat milk. Quite a number of experts have recently started to recommend chocolate milk for post-training hydration because of its combination of protein and carbohydrates.
Pure fruit juices tend to have a lot more sugar than is usual, and actually aren’t as good for you as eating the fruit itself. Sports drinks also have a high sugar content and are best taken during the competition itself rather than during training on a regular basis.
And though it has no place in nutrition meals for athletes or their hydration plans, here’s a quick word about alcohol, which has a high calorie content at 7 Kcal per gram. While some athletes will break out the champagne after a big win, alcohol should be avoided as it may not only lead to unwanted weight gain, but it can even decrease the synthesis of muscle protein.
Diets for Athletes
Having mentioned diets as a possible part of your preparations for a competition, let’s a take quick look at some of the most popular diets for athletes. Do note, however, that just because a certain diet might be endorsed by your favourite athlete, doesn’t mean it’s right for you.
Said to be one of, if notthebest diets for athletes, this eating plan is based on what people traditionally eat in Greece, Italy and Spain. It cuts back on processed food and focuses instead on whole grains, fruits, vegetables and healthy fats such as nuts, seeds and olive oil. Athletes will be able to benefit greatly from the calcium, iron and magnesium in these foods.
Nutrition for vegetarian athletes
This diet focuses on making sure these athletes get enough protein, as plant-based protein doesn’t come with all the essential amino acids and aren’t as digestible as animal-based sources.
Vegetarians should therefore aim for the upper limit of the recommended protein consumption of 3.5 grams per kg of body weight, but no higher. Dietary sources of protein include grains, seeds, nuts, legumes and soy.
Semi-vegetarian or Flexitarian
While this diet also emphasises plant-based food, it also includes modest amounts of fish, meat and poultry, making it easier for you to meet your protein requirements. Plant-based diets like this one are said to help increase glycogen stores, with Flexitarian in particular being said to be ideal for male athletes because of their high risk of heart disease.
Said to be best for muscle building, this eating plan is based on what people might have been eating during Paleolithic times, namely fruits, vegetables and animal proteins. Processed food and dairy hadn’t been invented yet, and so are not included in this diet. Our Lamington Bar with its raw organic cacao, vanilla bean and coconut has been said to be ideal for those following a Paleo diet.
This diet was developed by Dr Barry Sears and has been in use by famous athletes for decades. It focuses on a balance of macronutrients which includes a high amount of protein and relatively low amounts of carbohydrates to control blood sugar which may improve athletic performance. Following the Zone diet may also reduce inflammation and support weight loss.
How to choose a diet
Personal preference counts for a lot in choosing a diet focused on nutrition for athletic performance. Some athletes would rather follow a flexible eating plan than one that’s more structured with guidelines for what you can and can’t eat. There’s also nutrition for vegetarian athletes and other dietary restrictions to factor in, as well as your personal athletic goals.
The key is to avoid overly strict eating plans, not only because they are difficult to stick with but actually not sustainable in the long run. Consistency is arguably the most essential factor in the success of an eating plan for nutrition and athletic performance.
Eating plans should never be forever, but should be adjusted to suit your nutritional needs as you progress through your athletic career. Consulting a sports dietitian or a qualified professional for preparing your eating plan is always best, and you should always choose healthy food.
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