| Sep 08, 2016
By: Felicia D. Stoler, DCN, MS, RDN, FACSM, FAND
From September 8 through September 18, the ACSM Sports Performance Blog is featuring a special content series in celebration of the achievements of elite athletes participating in this month’s international competition. Be sure to follow the blog as well as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (acsm1954) and share using #ScienceofSport.
The calls have begun to come in over the past few weeks with requests to explain how athletes need to eat for what many consider to be the ultimate athletic competition beginning today in Rio. Let me start by saying, this is a loaded question, even for someone like me. You probably don’t want to hear me say, “Well, it depends.” Truth be told, it does depend on so many factors.
Consider that the age range of those representing the US is from 16 to 52. I note this because food choices are based upon preferences… most teens do not like the same foods as an older adult (I say this as a mother of two teens). Religion, culture, food beliefs (vegan, lacto-ovo, paleo) and even food allergies and intolerances will impact what an athlete needs to eat in order to fuel their competition.
Trust me, one thing athletes of this caliber have mastered by the time they qualify is their fueling strategy. Game day versus training may change for some athletes, whereas for others, it may be exactly the same. Here are the essentials of what keeps an athlete fueled for victory:
- Carbohydrates – my favorite macronutrient that gets a bad rap… it is the master fuel for exercise. We can only store about six hours’ worth of carbohydrates (in the form of glycogen) in our bodies… so just like the gas you put in your car (or electricity)… it needs to be replenished. This includes all fruits, vegetables, whole grains and even dairy foods that contain carbohydrates. This should make up 50 percent of an athlete’s daily caloric intake.
- Protein – while not necessarily used for fuel, it is important for muscle recovery. Amino acids – which are the building blocks of protein – can be found in just about every food “group” except fruits. Foods of animal origin, beans, nuts, legumes, grains and vegetables have amino acids. This should make up around 20-25 percent of an athlete’s dietary intake.
- Fat – helps many foods taste better, transports fat soluble vitamins into the body, and is an important way to add calories for athletes who require more than 5000 calories per day. Michael Phelps reported he consumed almost 12,000 calories per day during the 2008 competition in Beijing. Trust me, it is difficult to get all of those calories in.
It is important to note that the one thing athletes do not want is to have any food in their stomach pouch while competing or even training, because it causes cramping. Mixed macronutrient foods are consumed hours before the real workout begins. Liquid calories that do not have a lot of fat or fiber, prior to physical activity are generally well tolerated. After training or competition, it is time to load up on calories and macronutrients for recovery… carbohydrates and protein.
Practice makes perfect. Just as an athlete keeps track of their training, their fueling strategy needs to be perfected during training!
Dr. Felicia Stoler, DCN, MS, RDN, FACSM, FAND is a Registered dietitian nutritionist, exercise physiologist and expert consultant in wellness and healthful living.