December 16, 2002 - The Athletic Performance Diet
By Matt Russ, CTS Coach
Interestingly the athletic diet has changed very little over the years. The reason being is that there are not many pathways to fueling the body most efficiently. A diet consisting of 60-65% carbohydrate, 20-25% fats, and 15-20% protein is the proper ratio of macro nutrients for most athletes and has been the mainstay for years. A highly trained endurance athlete would not last very long on a high protein diet, because their glycogen stores would quickly become depleted and they would no longer have the energy or reserves to train effectively. There is little controversy in athletic nutrition when compared to the general population. I believe the reason for this is athletic nutrition is based on hard science and fact, rather than sensationalism and circumstantial evidence. Coaches rely on clinical studies and proven methods rather than the latest hype. Remember, most diets have to have a "hook" or gimmick to get you to purchase their plan or products. That is not to say there is not hundreds of performance enhancing athletic supplements, many with dubious value. But the overall big picture on how to fuel an athletes body really has not changed all that much. This is what most athletes should focus on, rather than the latest supplement, performance enhancing product, or fad diet plan.
Complex carbohydrates such as starches and fiber should be the cornerstone of the athletic diet. Complex carbohydrates include breads, pasta, cereals, vegetables, rice and other grains, and potatoes. I try to choose carbohydrates that are in there "natural" form such as whole grains because they have more fiber and nutrients, and give a slower steady release of energy. Processed carbohydrate foods such as pasta and bagels are great for loading your body with energy before and after competition. Simple sugars are good during a competition and for quick energy replacement afterwards (sports drinks). I try to avoid fruits before competition. They can upset your stomach and the type of sugar, fructose, can be harder for your body to process during exercise. Carbohydrates are broken down and stored as glycogen; the bodies fuel source, or converted to energy to compete and train. When glycogen stores run out you may "bonk" or "hit the wall." You feel lousy, lethargic, and slow. Your body begins breaking down your muscles to use as fuel. Several days of hard training can also deplete glycogen stores. This sluggishness and inability to train hard is often misdiagnosed as overtraining. A good post work out recovery plan is crucial to maintaining glycogen stores for repeated training and competition. This means eating carbohydrates and a little bit of protein (4:1 ratio), immediately after training.
Fat is also a fuel source used during training, especially at lower intensities. But fat can't be broken down very fast. As the intensity of exercise increases carbohydrate becomes the main fuel source, but the total amount of fat burned can remain the same, and the calories burned will be much greater. Don't fall into the fat burning "zone" exercise plan. Fat is not a good source of energy to consume during exercise, but is crucial to processing certain vitamins and performing body functions. The best fats are mono / poly unsaturated fats. A good way to remember these types of fats is that they are liquid at room temperature (oils), and generally come from plant sources. Examples are avocados, canola, olive, safflower, and other oils, and nuts. Saturated fats generally come from animal sources and include cheese, lard, butter, meat fats, and cream. Your body only needs a small amount of saturated fats; about 10% of your diet. These are considered your "bad" fats that can raise cholesterol.
Protein is a poor source of energy and requires a lot of work to break down. Protein only supplies about 5% of energy during exercise, and up to 10% when glycogen stores are depleted. Protein however is crucial to repair the muscle damage of heavy training. There is evidence that endurance athletes need even more protein than body builders. Don't fall into the protein=muscle trap. Muscle gain comes from adaptation to stress (ex. weights), and proper nutrition. Consuming too much protein can be hard on your kidneys and is unnecessary. Your body can only process so much protein at a time; the rest is flushed from your body.
If weight loss is you goal focus on energy in and energy out- calories. Do not fall victim to fad diets. Weight loss is really just a numbers game; you have to burn more than you consume to create a deficit. Remember; Lance weighs his pasta. A round number for weight loss is 10 x weight + 2 x weight for men, and 10x weight + weight for women. This is roughly your resting metabolism, the number of calories your body needs daily to sustain bodily functions. This is less than the number of calories your body burns every day. Couple this deficit with the deficit created by exercise, and you will loose weight. It is preferable, however, to loose weight by the deficit created from training only. This way you do not have to worry about being depleted for training. Eating smaller meals throughout the day can boost your metabolism and keep you from over eating. Try not to go hungry; you tend to eat too much at one sitting when you are hungry.
The "big picture" is to try to make sure each meal has carbohydrates, fats, and protein in the approximate ratios. Make sure your diet is balanced and consistent. You can do this by quantifying and calculating your food choices, or by simply eyeballing your plate. Eat a variety of complex carbohydrates, low fat proteins, and healthy oils. Stay away from high fat foods, especially saturated fats. It is important to read labels so that you know what you are putting in your body. Consider yourself as an athlete. Athletes' put grade A high octane fuel in their bodies because it gives them a competitive advantage.