Elite athletes know the importance of a structured diet tailored to their goals. While a diet to enhance sports performance may have some similarities to a diet for general health or weight loss, an athlete needs to change his diet depending on the sport he competes in, his current objectives and his schedule. Above all, an athlete's diet needs to promote peak performance and enhance efficient recovery.
Calories are Critical
For athletes involved in sports that burn a high number of calories, keeping body weight up can be an issue. Dr. Michael Joyner of the Mayo Clinic told "The New York Times" that some elite athletes can burn 4,000 to 6,000 calories in just one day of training. These calories need to be replenished quickly to enable the athlete to train again the next day. How many calories you need as an elite athlete depends on a number of factors. The smartest thing to do is monitor your body weight on a weekly basis; if you're dropping weight you need to eat more, but if you're gaining weight, you may need to eat slightly less.
Proteins, carbohydrates and fats constitute the three macronutrients, and elite athletes need all three in the appropriate measure. Carbs are the most important, notes the Peak Performance website, as they're an athlete's main source of fuel. A lack of carbs will leave you tired and fatigued, so include carb-rich foods such as pasta, bread, potatoes and fruit at every meal. Athletes should aim to get around 55 to 65 percent of their calories from carbs, 12 to 20 percent from protein and 20 to 35 percent from fat.
The Big Day
Every day nutrition is crucial for elite athletes, but perhaps even more important is the diet on the day of big events. Optimal competition nutrition depends on the individual athlete, according to the McKinley Health Center at the University of Illinois. As general a rule, however, elite athletes should avoid large meals within three to five hours of competing and stick mainly to easily-digested, carb-based foods. Rice cakes, crackers, white bread, jelly and fruit or sports drinks are good choices. Protein- and fat-heavy foods should be kept to a minimum, as these take longer to digest and can cause stomach problems.
A Day in the Diet
Elite athletes' diets can vary greatly, but on the whole, they'll revolve around nutrient-dense foods. A cross country skier, for instance, may start her day with eggs, oatmeal, berries and yogurt, followed by a lunch of beef and vegetable chili, cornbread, and a spinach and avocado salad. Dinner could be chicken, plantains and vegetables, with snacks in between consisting of almonds, fruit, string cheese and chocolate milk. As another example, the U.S. women's hockey team fueled up for the Sochi Winter Olympics with a breakfast of eggs, potatoes, cereals, oats and fruit, followed by bananas, more oatmeal and nut butters, then they rewarded themselves afterward with yogurt, protein shakes and sandwiches. While elite athletes eat healthfully most of the time, sometimes a little junk food is warranted to help maintain a high calorie intake. Speed skater Shani Davis admits to indulging in ice cream and pizza, while hurdler Lolo Jones enjoys bacon cheeseburgers. Snowboarder Kelly Clark drinks chocolate milk to refuel.
- The New York Times: Why Some Olympic Athletes Need to Gorge
- Peak Performance: Do Athletes Pay Enough Attention to Their Nutrition Needs?
- Practical Applications in Sports Nutrition; Heather Hendrick Fink
- McKinley Health Center: Pre-event Nutrition Basics for the Competitive Athlete
- Sports Illustrated: Q&A: Talking Olympic Nutrition with Team USA Chef Allen Tran
- The New York Times: Menu for U.S. Women’s Hockey Team Is About Eating to Win
- Huffpost Taste: The Surprisingly Unhealthy Foods Olympic Athletes Eat