Nutrition can be quite an advanced topic when you reach elite levels, but there are some basic athlete nutrition guidelines that apply to mere mortals and dedicated fitness devotees alike.
General Athlete Nutrition Guidelines
Some things are pretty much no-brainers, so let's get them off the table right from the start. Generally speaking, the more strict you can be, the better your progress you'll make.
- Avoid alcohol
- Avoid highly processed foods whenever possible
- Eat lots of fiber
- Sip plain water throughout the day between meals
- Minimize sugar intake
- Steer clear of anything "instant"
- Avoid trans fats whenever possible (hydrogenated oils)
No magic there, but nonetheless quite important to decrease the risk of derailing your dieting efforts before they've even begun. Now, let's dig into the more specific stuff.
Protein is very important to athletes, since protein is the single most important nutrient for recovering after workouts. Think of protein as building blocks of which your muscles are made. Exercise damages the muscles, requiring them to use more protein to rebuild themselves and overcompensate (which is why you get stronger over time). However, if you fail to take in sufficient amounts of protein, your recovery efforts are compromised and progress slower.
Bodybuilders use one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight as a good yardstick for optimal protein intake. In other words, a 200 lb man should eat 200 grams of protein per day using this formula. Less extreme athletes will likely see perfectly adequate results at around 0,7 grams per pound of bodyweight (140 grams in the case above). The exception is those who have kidney problems or otherwise should be careful with protein intake; discuss with your doctor if you fall into this category.
Good sources of protein
- Lean beef
- Tuna, shrimp and similar sea foods
- Peas and beans
- Tofu/soy (in moderation, since excess intake can mess with your natural hormone balance)
Carbohydrates, or carbs in fitness lingo, provide fuel for your muscles. If you're into endurance sports like marathons, triathlons and the like, you need to make sure you have fuel in the tank for that last grueling hour. That's where complex carbs, i.e. carbs that take a long time to digest and thus release a slow but steady trickle of energy into your system, come into the picture. Crazy carb-loading schemes that leave you bloated and nauseated right before a big race isn't the goal here, but having lots of whole wheat pasta, rough bread and similar foods the day before is a good way to make sure the glycogen deposits are nicely topped off.
On the flip side, there is one exception to the previous rule about avoiding sugar, and that is immediately following a workout. By then, you've depleted the aforementioned glycogen deposits and your body is essentially in a state of starvation. Lacking other sources, it soon begins cannibalizing your hard-earned muscles. To prevent this, slam down a protein drink spiked with 50 grams of dextrose or other quickly-absorbed sugar -- or enjoy a classic Coke from the vending machine.
Good sources of complex carbs
- Whole wheat pasta
- Rough bread (chewy with lots of fiber)
- Brown rice
- Bran-based foods, like cereals
- Peas and beans
Fans of the Atkins and South Beach diets have long preached the benefits of fats. Truth is, their unconventional approach makes a lot of sense, even for athletes. While you can debate the merits of stuffing your face with bacon grease, a sensible fat intake even on a diet makes the burning of body fat easier as lack of fat is your body's cue to slam the big, red "stop fat burn" button. Furthermore, your body needs good fatty acids to function properly in a myriad of ways, and you need fats to enable proper vitamin absorption.
Bottom line: don't make the mistake of adopting old-school athlete nutrition guidelines that endorse cutting out all fats, as it is doomed to certain failure in the long run.
Good sources of fats
- Fatty fish like salmon and mackerel
- Vegetable oils like olive oil
- Flaxseed oil
- Sunflower seeds