Do you need to eat like a professional athlete?

As the Olympics begin, fans can marvel at the skill, training and dedication our athletes show to reach the top of their game. But an invisible – but vital – part of their success is their nutrition.

“For athletes, focusing on optimal nutrition is important for maximizing performance, reducing the risk of injury and disease, and ensuring the best recovery after training,” says Alex White, a nutrition scientist.

And while we’re talking about a large volume of food – sometimes up to 7,000 calories a day – it’s not always as fun as it sounds, says sports nutritionist and dietitian Chris Cashin, spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association.

“One of the things athletes tell me is that they eat so much during the day that it can sometimes become a chore,” she explains.

While on average, men need around 2,500 calories per day and women around 2,000, Cashin says professional athletes may need between 3 and 5,000. Some consume even more; for example, Tour de France cyclists probably needed 6-7,000 calories per day.

So what about “regular” fitness fans who want to improve themselves? Here White and Cashin discuss what professional athletes eat and their relationship with the average user …

Timing is the key for professionals

Professional athletes typically have higher energy (calorie), protein, and carbohydrate needs than the general population, White says, but the specifics will vary depending on their particular sport. A weightlifter will likely have different nutritional needs than a distance runner, for example.

“At the professional level, it’s all about timing, and athletes will often have different food intakes on different days, depending on what time of day they train or compete,” says Cashin. “Recovery is also an important thing – if they’re playing a sport where they’re going to compete in rounds, they have to make sure they’re ready to refuel for the next round.

“So if it’s something like 800m or 1,500m, it will take them a few hours to replenish their glycogen stores, so when they get off the track they have to think about refueling immediately. “

What about “ordinary” users?

As for mere mortals? “If you become more active and want to stay healthy and improve, eating a healthy and varied diet is the basis for improving performance,” White says.

That means, he says, getting your five fruits and vegetables a day, choosing mostly whole-grain carbohydrates like wholemeal bread, whole-wheat pasta, or brown rice, and eating a variety of different protein sources, including vegetable proteins like beans and lentils, alongside animal proteins like meat, fish and eggs. (Although plant-based diets are also gaining popularity among athletes.)

“If you go to the gym regularly, make sure you have eaten something a few hours before going, and maybe consider eating a banana or fruit before, and something similar after,” suggests Cashin. “But other than that, and making sure you’re drinking enough fluids, you don’t really need to eat anything different.”

Pack in extra calories

For the pros, getting enough calories is crucial. “Professional athletes will definitely have a lot more calories than you or I could eat,” says Cashin. “Sometimes you have to be imaginative and resort to things that you might not suggest to the general public, which are very high in fast-release carbohydrates, like candy or Jaffa cakes, so that they can quickly get energy. “

Balancing proteins well

White says regular athletes don’t need a lot of extra protein if they become more active, but it’s worth considering when and what you choose to include. “It may be beneficial to spread the protein intake throughout the day – think about ways to include lean protein in breakfast, including eggs, beans, yogurt or fish,” he says. he.

Also try to vary the sources. While animal protein provides all of the amino acids the body needs, it is also good to include plant protein as it provides a different range of nutrients and is high in fiber and low in fat. “We can still get all the amino acids we need, as long as we eat a variety of foods,” White explains.

Don’t forget hydration (Alay / PA)

Cashin says a lot of people eat too much protein. “If you eat a few servings of meat, fish, cheese, eggs or a vegetarian alternative, and you have milk or an alternative to milk, that should be enough,” she stresses. “You also get a lot of protein in things like pasta and bread. It is very unusual to find people who have a low protein intake.

People who do a lot of intense exercise, like weight lifting, may need a little more, but Cashin says most people need around 1.2 to 1.7g of protein per kg of protein. body weight. “The evidence suggests that if you exceed 2g of protein per kg, you are wasting your time because it doesn’t matter,” she adds.

Supplements or not?

White believes that for non-professionals there is “no need for any special supplements or sports products. We can get all the nutrients and fluids we need from a healthy diet and plenty of water. Save money by bringing healthy snacks and a drink with you when you exercise, ”suggests White.

However, Cashin says professional athletes may sometimes need extra protein: “You may need to use extra protein to absorb their protein intake. I was really anti-supplements, but now I’ve realized that some athletes can’t do without it. They need a recovery drink with extra protein, and if they are not hungry after a competition or training, a protein shake with carbohydrates is very helpful.

Healthy snack

If you like to have snacks before or after a workout, keep them healthy, advises White. He suggests trying unsalted nuts and seeds, fresh fruit, whole crispy breads with nut butter, or veggie sticks with hummus or cream cheese.

What about extra carbohydrates?

Cashin says long-distance runners may need fuel while they run, so they might want to have a carbohydrate drink. “They’re really fed up with these, so I give them homemade versions that they can make themselves. Just dissolve 10 teaspoons of sugar in a little lukewarm water, add a pinch of salt and get a liter of cold water, then add some unsweetened squash, ”she says. . “Some have other things added, like vitamins, but basically they’re all the same. It provides carbohydrates if you exercise for more than an hour, so for a marathon or half marathon they can be helpful.

Always test the road first

Never try something for the first time on race day (Alamy / PA)

If you are thinking of trying a drink with carbohydrates, or any other food or nutritional product to help fuel you during a workout or an important event, it is important to know first if it is right for you. “If you’ve never done it before and try it during a run, you might get a stomach ache,” Cashin warns. “Never, ever try anything in a race that you’ve never done before.”

Exercise on an empty stomach

Some people thrive when exercising on an empty stomach, says Cashin. “Recently published articles show that some people, especially women, seem to exercise better in the morning if they haven’t eaten anything. What this highlights is that we are all different. Gone are the days when all dieticians said you have to have breakfast. “

She suggests that people who exercise in the morning before eating eat a substantial breakfast afterwards, and perhaps a snack before bed the night before. “Have something light like a bowl of cereal – it’s not going to stay on your stomach, and you refuel overnight and can catch up after exercising.”

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