Running long distances means that diet plays a crucial role in providing the necessary fuel to train...
- - -
Athletes demand a lot from their bodies. Running longer distances, climbing higher peaks, and lifting heavier weights than the average person means that diet plays a crucial role in providing necessary fuel to train. Helping maintain muscle mass, aiding in recovery, and preventing vitamin and mineral deficiencies that will significantly impact performance, diet is important in an athlete’s day to day life as well as for ensuring long-term health and well-being.
The fundamental key to maintaining a healthy diet is the 80-20 rule; eat a variety of nutrient-dense foods 80-90% of the time, and eat foods that provide pleasure (but not much nutrition) the remaining 10-20%. A mix of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats should make up the bulk of an athlete’s diet. Protein, carbohydrates, and fats are equally important. There is a current fad of demonizing carbohydrates and praising protein and fat, but all athletes need carbohydrates to fuel the brain and working muscles, while protein is necessary to build and repair muscles. Carbohydrates, protein, and fats perform different jobs in the body thus each nutrient must be represented in every nutrition plan. Unless there is a medical necessity, such as lactose intolerance or celiac disease, avoid eliminating entire food groups. Every nutrient works together synergistically, allowing the body to function, perform and heal.
Carbohydrates can be confusing because not all carbohydrates are created equal. Complex carbohydrates are minimally processed, which means they provide a plethora of fiber, vitamins and minerals, while simple carbohydrates that are processed and refined, provide few nutrients. Athletes should focus on consuming most of their carbohydrates through whole grain pasta, whole wheat bread, brown or wild rice, beans, legumes, fruits, and starchy vegetables for optimum nutrient intake and keeping blood sugar stable.
An article in the journal of Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism states that, given the critical role protein plays in stimulating muscle protein synthesis after exercise, athletes can benefit from higher protein intake to maximize athletic performance. Research has shown 20-30 grams of protein per meal to be ideal for the body’s ability to synthesize muscle proteins. Twenty-five to 30 grams is equal to 3 ounces, or about a palm size serving of meat, 1 cup of cottage cheese, 1 cup of Greek yogurt, 4 eggs, 1 cup of lentils or 1 ¼ cup of tofu.
Dietary fats are often undervalued as a contributor to the health and performance of athletes. Along with carbohydrates, fats are an important fuel source for endurance exercise and are required for optimal health. Fats help support cell growth, protect organs, and regulate body temperature. Fats also aid in vitamin absorption and production of vital hormones. Because of the many functions of fats, they should make up about 20% to 35% of total caloric intake.
The other 10-20% of diet can be spent on indulgent foods, that taste good but may not offer much health advantage. Any diet that is too stringent can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food, and in extreme cases, disordered eating behaviors. A strict eating regimen may be followed for a short period of time, but after a goal is achieved, it is recommended to return to the 80-20 rule. For example, athletes getting ready to compete in the Olympic games may follow a strict, no sugar, no alcohol, no refined anything diet to achieve optimal body composition for the event. After the Games, athletes eating styles relax so body weight can return to its natural equilibrium.
Nutrient timing also plays a role in how well the body is able to utilize nutrients for performance and recovery. Stay tuned: the next post will cover nutrition before, during and after training or racing.
- - -
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Maria Dalzot is a member of the La Sportiva Mountain Running Team.
- - -