We’ve all known that kid, the über-athlete who pulled off that track record in high school or a college swim record, all the while being a junk-food junkie. But don’t be fooled—they’re the exception rather than the rule. Although working out often affords us the luxury to be more lenient with our calorie intake, not paying attention to proper nutrition in the higher ranks of athleticism can be the difference in, well, making it to the Olympics or not.
Whether you’re an aspiring Olympian or everyday athlete, you should focus on nutrition for overall health rather than for performance, says Bob Seebohar, a sports dietitian and exercise physiologist who has worked with more than a dozen Olympic athletes and teams. “If you’re not healthy, you can’t perform,” he explains. And although training is a big player in determining who will qualify for an event, such as the Olympics, it’s all for naught if nutrition isn’t part of the package. “If they’re not eating well for health, then getting to that line to even try out is only a dream, not a dream come true,” he says.
Jackie Briggs, a goalie for the U.S. National Field Hockey Team, knows this firsthand. For the 28-year-old, playing field hockey is a full-time job, and she has had to evolve her nutrition over the years to meet the demands of the game. She works out with her team year-round, with a schedule of three weeks of intensive weight lifting, running and playing, and one week of less intensive activity. Tracking her nutrition, she says, has become a 24/7 job. “What you put in your body really does affect how you perform,” she says. “You can exercise all you want, but if you’re not eating the right things, you’ll never be the best you can be. It’s like putting gasoline in a car; you need to have the best type of oil in your tank to run the most efficiently.”
A key challenge is eating to stave off hunger, while not eating so much before a training session that you can’t move. Briggs created a breakfast—a mix of oatmeal, eggs, seeds and fruit (see “Jackie Briggs’s Breakfast”)—that has enough calories and protein to keep her fueled throughout her morning workout but is also easy to digest.
Nutrition Your Way
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to sports nutrition: Seebohar says the trick is matching your nutrition to your workout. Athletes have workout cycles, so you first have to determine where you are in your training cycle. Are you building a base? In race season? Or are you maintaining your fitness level in the off-season? Ultimately, no matter where you are in your seasonal training cycle, he says it’s about controlling your blood sugar through the entire day and your workout. “You’re controlling the optimization of blood sugar through food,” he explains. “You use carbohydrates, protein and fat in appropriate amounts throughout the day to support your workout, recovery and sleep.”
For instance, he says if you’re thinking of running 60 minutes in the afternoon, you might eat a banana before that run. You might feel good for 20 minutes, but then your blood sugar will crash. Solution: Eat protein, such as nut butter, with the banana. Doing so will spike your blood sugar in a way that increases insulin and boosts your body’s ability to burn fat, Seebohar explains. This strategy is particularly important for endurance athletes, he says. “We only have about two hours worth of carbohydrate stores in our body, but we have hours and days of fat stores. If we’re burning carbohydrates at too high a rate, we will bonk. You can prevent this by teaching your body to burn more fat—a banana with peanut butter creates a metabolic environment to use fats and preserve carbohydrates.”
Olympic triathlon hopeful Ben Kanute says on an easier day he will aim to eat roughly 40 percent carbohydrates and balance out the rest between fat and protein. On harder days, the 23-year-old will aim for 60 percent carbohydrates.
Find Your Balance
Although Kanute’s workouts are demanding, he’s not overly strict about what he eats. “For the most part, I try to have a diet that I don’t hate, so that I can continue it year-round,” he says. That means foods like good proteins, fruits and veggies, whole-grain and seeded breads, quinoa, and lentils. But he adds, “I like baked goods every so often. I love ice cream, too. If you have a little bit, it’s not going to hurt you—if you’re working out.”
Briggs, too, follows a 90-10 diet: 90 percent of the time she follows a strict diet, centered around organic, whole and fresh foods, and 10 percent of the time she makes room for indulgences. If you don’t, she says, you’re miserable. “I like to have just a cookie or a little bit of ice cream after dinner. That’s my time of day I crave something sweet.”
Former ski racer turned Olympic cyclist Timmy Duggan agrees. “You’re more likely to get sick if you’re too strict,” he says. Duggan was a member of the U.S. Olympic road cycling team that raced in London in 2012. Noting that cycling is a sport where nutrition is front and center, he says what helped him most was his love of cooking. “I wanted to make food that tasted good,” he explains. “The biggest thing you can do for your nutritional health is learn basic cooking techniques. Then you can spend $9 on great ingredients and make great meals.”
Finding the right nutrition balance is a combination of reality and mentality. “If you’re so stressed out about every little thing, you will have an affected performance, and as an athlete traveling around you can’t have total control,” says Duggan. “You can train your body to make fuel out of a lot of different things, not just one or two things that work for you.” That’s where ice cream comes in.
“Ice cream is my favorite thing in the world,” Duggan says. “I thought it was a really good recovery food, actually—all that sugar and fat and protein.” So even Olympians can have their ice cream and eat it, too.