The Professional Athlete Diet

There are hundreds of athletes participating at an elite level, who maintain a level of professionalism through their training, recovery, nutrition and much more. This group of elite athletes (both amateur and professional) follow a ‘professional athlete diet’ to source the nutrients that he or she needs in order to perform at his or her best. What the conscientious athlete eats is carefully controlled through guiding principles, specific to the individual and the sport that they compete in. Following a professional athlete diet requires awareness of the nutrients your body needs – and eating to these requirements so that you can perform at your best.

What you eat affects how you perform

Today, there is very little difference between top athletic performances, and therefore, athletes are continually looking for any little advantage that they can get over their competitors. Nutrition is one factor that influences performance that athletes have control over.

Consuming and using energy = balancing input to output

When you exercise you are using energy. The more intense you work, the more energy is required for the working muscles. Elite athletes, more so than the general population, undergo frequent and demanding training sessions, which means there can be greater implications for what they put into their bodies. In particular, it is important that the type of food elite athletes eat and how much is consumed, matches energy and nutrient requirements without being deficient or in excess. This is one principle that everyone should apply to his or her nutritional plan.

The need for carbohydrates

The key energy sources used when exercising are carbohydrate and fat, which are stored to fuel the body. The type of fuel the body uses is dependent upon the level of intensity of the exercise. Low intensity exercise uses fat, while higher intensity exercise uses carbohydrate to fuel the muscles. The muscles do not store much glycogen (muscle stored carbohydrate), thus, when athletes are performing large amounts of high intensity exercise and therefore burning up that fuel source, it is important that it is replenished effectively. There are many athletes who perform repeated high intensity stints of exercise (e.g. Australian footballers, soccer players, tennis players), and eating enough carbohydrate to restock the glycogen stores is an important factor in this type of athlete’s diet. Like other nutrients, how much carbohydrate is dependent upon the type of athlete, the type of exercise undertaken during different training days and the type of competition.

The need for protein

Though protein isn’t important to provide energy to the working muscle, it is important for maintaining or building muscle. When we exercise we cause damage to the muscles that power our activity, making muscle recovery post training and competition a vital part of the athlete regime. As proteins (amino-acids) are the building blocks of muscle, athletes require a higher protein intake than the general population. The additional protein can be, for the most part, sourced from food sources (e.g. meat, eggs, dairy, soy). Although, those who perhaps require an increase of lean protein, without additional food energy that comes with increasing meal sizes, may find it easier to increase their source of protein through supplements such as whey protein.

The need for hydration

Maintaining a good level of hydration is really important for athletes, and waking up the morning of a competition with fluorescent urine probably isn’t the preference for most. Athletes can lose a lot of fluid during training and competition in both hot and cold environments. It is not unusual for athletes to lose two to three kilograms of fluid weight over the period of an intense training session. This means that replenishing fluids is really important in order to get the body rehydrated. In some instances, athletes will combine the need for rehydration with the need to ingest some carbohydrates quickly, which is where commercial sports drinks come in handy.

Timing of intake

Finally, the timing of food and water intake relative to the time of exercise can be really important. For example, considering hydration, it is important to have enough fluids prior to, throughout and after training and competition. In some instances intake of particular nutrients can be very helpful during competition or training. For example, team sports athletes who require repeat bursts of high-intensity might benefit from a couple of pieces of fruit or jellybeans at half time to try to boost his or her glucose level. For most athletes, post exercise meal consumption that is timed close after finishing exercise is believed to be important to help the body recover. This includes carbohydrates to replenish glucose stores and protein to help muscle recovery.