Eating more plant-based protein appeals to many health-conscious athletes who want to reduce their intake of saturated fat as well stand up for the environment and animal welfare concerns. As a result…
Fact or Fiction: The vegan diet is unlikely to support optimal performance in athletes?
Fiction! No evidence suggests a nutritionally balanced vegan diet impairs athletic performance (1,2). Google vegan athletes; you’ll find an impressive list of Olympians and elite athletes from many sports (football, basketball, tennis, rowing, etc.). That said, vegans (and vegetarians) could choose a diet that helps them be powerful athletes, but do they?
Some vegans eat too many salads, sweet potatoes & berries (or chips and candy), but not enough beans, nuts, and seeds. They eliminate animal protein but fail to replace it with enough plant protein. Weight-conscious vegan athletes who restrict calories often reduce their intake of protein and other nutrients. Hence, dieting vegan athletes need to be extra vigilant to consume a menu supportive of their needs.
Two keys to thriving on a balanced vegan (and vegetarian) sports diet are to consume:
- adequate vitamins and minerals (in particular iron, zinc, calcium, iodine, vitamins D and B-12) as well as omega-3 fats, and
- adequate protein from a variety of plant foods that offer a variety of amino acids (the building blocks of protein).
The amino acid leucine is of particular importance for athletes. Leucine is an essential amino acid your body cannot make, so you need to get it from food. Leucine triggers muscles to grow. It also can help prevent the deterioration of muscle with age. When you lift weights, you stimulate the muscles to take up leucine (and other amino acids); this triggers muscular growth. Hence, leucine is a very important component of an athlete’s diet!
The richest sources of leucine are animal foods, such as eggs, milk, fish, and meats. When a meat-eating athlete swaps beef for beans and other plant-proteins (hummus, quinoa, nuts, tofu, etc.), the swap commonly reduces leucine intake by about 50%. Hence, vegan athletes need to pay attention to getting enough high-quality plant-proteins that offer the optimal amount of leucine (about 2.5 grams per meal or snack). That means, vegans want to consistently enjoy soy, beans, legumes, seeds and/or nuts regularly at every meal and snack. Don’t have just oatmeal for breakfast; add soy milk and walnuts. Don’t snack on just an apple; slather apple slices with peanut butter. Enjoy it with a swig of soy or pea milk instead of almond milk.
This table compares the leucine content of plant and animal foods. Note that when you swap animal-based protein for plant-based protein (such as trade eggs for peanut butter, or dairy milk for soy milk), you’ll likely need to eat more calories of plant-foods to get the same amount of leucine as in animal foods:
|Calories||Plant food (swap)||Leucine
|Eggs, 2 large||1.1||155||Peanut butter, 2 Tb||0.5||190|
|Milk, 8 oz||1.0||120||Soy milk, lowfat||0.5||105|
|Tuna, 5-oz can||2.3||120||Black beans, 1/2 c||0.7||110|
|Chicken, 3 oz cooked||2.1||150||Tofu, extra firm, 6 oz||1.4||140|
|Cheese, 1 oz||0.6||115||Almonds, 3/4 oz.||0.3||120|
|Beef, 5 oz ckd||3.8||265||Lentils, 1 cup||1.3||225|
How much protein and leucine do you need?
A 150-pound vegan athlete who seriously wants to build muscle should plan to eat about 20 grams of protein with 2.5 grams leucine every 3-4 hours during the day. (If you weigh more or less than 150 pounds, adjust that target accordingly.) Here’s a sample 1,800-calorie vegan diet (read that, weight reduction diet for most athletes, both male and female) that offers adequate protein at every meal —but not always 2.5 grams leucine. To be a dieting vegan athlete requires some menu planning. Some dieters choose to be “mostly vegan.” This flexibility allows for leucine-rich milk, eggs & fish.
|Sample 1,800 calorie Vegan Diet||Leucine||Protein||Calories|
|B. 2 slices whole wheat toast||0.5 g||10. g||200|
|2 tablespoons peanut butter||0.5||8||200|
|1 cup soy milk||0.5||7||100|
|Sn: 1 medium apple||trace||0.5||100|
|L: Salad: greens plus vegetables||0.3||4||50|
|1/2 cup chick peas||0.8||6||100|
|1/4 cup sunflower seeds||0.9||12||350|
|1 tablespoon oil||—||—||100|
|Sn: 1/3 cup hummus||0.2||3||100|
|10 baby carrots||trace||0.5||50|
|D: 1/3 cake tofu||1.1||12||100|
|1 cup cooked brown rice||0.4||6||250|
| 2 cups broccoli
|Total for the day:||10||76||1,800|
Target for the day:
2.5 g /meal
Note: I have not included fake meats such as the Impossible Burger or Beyond Burger in this menu. Those are ultra-processed foods that have a questionable place in any diet. I have also not included almond milk (a poor source of protein) nor supplements with leucine. You want to choose whole foods; they come with a matrix of nutrients that boost protein synthesis and can better invest in your health, recovery and overall well being.
Nancy Clark MS RD counsels both casual & competitive athletes at her Boston-area office (617-795-1875). The new 2019 edition of her best selling Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook is available at www.NancyClarkRD.com, as is info about her popular online workshop.
For additional information about a vegan sports diet:
1) Wirnitzer, K. et al. 2018. Health Status of Female and Male Vegetarian and Vegan Endurance Runners Compared to Omnivores—Results from the NURMI Study (Step 2). Nutrients 11(1):29 doi: 10.3390/nu11010029 (Free access)
2) Rogerson, D. 2017. Vegan diets: Practical advice for athletes and exercisers. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 14: 36 doi: 10.1186/s12970-017-0192-9 (Free access)
Too many of today’s athletes believe carbohydrates are “bad.” If that’s true, what does the latest sports nutrition research say? The following studies, presented at the American College of Sports Medicine’s 66th Annual Meeting (Orlando FL, May 2019) indicate sports scientists agree that carbohydrates (grains, fruits, veggies; sugars, starches) can be health- and performance-enhancing sport foods. As you may (or may not) know, ACSM is a professional organization for sport science researchers, exercise physiologists, dietitians, doctors, and health-care providers for athletes (www.ACSM.org). Here are some answers to questions posed by ACSM researchers.
Does sugar cause diabetes?
No. The problem is less about sugar, and more about lack of exercise. Most fit people can enjoy a little sugar without fear of health issues. Muscles in fit bodies burn the sugar for fuel. In unfit bodies, the sugar accumulates in the blood. Fitness reduces the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.
In a 6-week training study to boost fitness, 35 middle-aged men with over-weight or obesity did either endurance cycling, weight lifting, or high-intensity interval training. Regardless of the kind of exercise, all types of training improved the bodies’ ability to utilize glucose with less insulin.
These subjects had blood glucose levels within the normal range at the start of the study; their glucose levels improved with exercise. While we need more research to fine-tune the types of exercise that best manage blood glucose, rest assured that living an active lifestyle is a promising way to reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes.
Can natural foods replace ultra-processed commercial sports drinks and foods?
Yes, standard (natural) foods can be fine alternatives to commercial sport fuels. Look no farther than bananas! In a study, trained cyclists who enjoyed bananas (for carbs) plus water (for fluid) during a 46 mile (75 km) bike ride performed just as well as those who consumed a sports drink with an equivalent amount of carbs plus water.
Natural foods offer far more than just fuel; they contain abundant bioactive compounds that have a positive impact on health and performance. For example, after the ride with bananas, the cyclists had lower levels of oxylipins (bioactive compounds that increase with excessive inflammation) compared to the sports drink ride. Athletes who believe commercial sports foods and fuel are better than standard foods overlook the benefits from the plethora of bioactive compounds found in real foods.
Are potatoes—an easy-to-digest sports fuel—a viable alternative to commercial gels?
Yes. In a study, trained cyclists ate breakfast and soon thereafter competed in a 2-hour cycling challenge that was then followed by a time trial. For fuel, the subjects consumed either potato puree, gels, or water. The results suggest 1) both emptied similarly from the gut, and 2) potatoes are as good as gels for supporting endurance performance.
The cyclists completed the time trial in about 33 minutes when they ate the potato or the gel. This is six minutes faster than with plain water. Any fuel is better than no fuel!
Is fruit juice a healthful choice for athletes?
Yes, fruit juice can be an excellent source of carbohydrate to fuel muscles. Colorful juices (such as grape, cherry, blueberry, orange) also offer anti-inflammatory phytochemicals called polyphenols. In a study, subjects did muscle-damaging exercise and then consumed a post-exercise and a bedtime protein recovery drink that included either pomegranate juice, tart cherry juice, or just sugar. The protein-polyphenol beverages boosted muscle recovery better than the sugar beverage.
Does carbohydrate intake trigger intestinal distress for ultra-marathoners?
Not always. During a 37 mile (60-kilometer) ultra-marathon, 33 runners reported their food and fluid intake. They consumed between 150 to 360 calories (37-90 g carb) per hour, with an average of 240 calories (60 g) per hour. This meets the recommendation for carbohydrate intake during extended exercise (240-360 calories; 60-90 g carb/hour). The majority (73%) of runners reported some type of gut issues. Of those, 20% of the complaints were ranked serious. Interestingly, the GI complaints were not linked to carbohydrate intake or to gut damage. In fact, a higher carbohydrate intake potentially reduced the risk of gut injury. (More research is needed to confirm this.) Unfortunately, runners cannot avoid all factors (such as jostling, dehydration, and nerves) that can trigger intestinal problems.
We know that consuming carb during extended exercise enhances performance, but does it matter if endurance athletes consume a slow-digesting or a fast-digesting carbohydrate prior to extended exercise?
Likely not, but this can depend on how long you are exercising, and how often you want to consume carbohydrate. Well-trained runners consumed 200 calories of carbohydrate in UCAN (slow-digesting) vs. Cytocarb (fast-digesting) prior to a 3-hour moderate run during which they consumed just water. At the end of the run, they did an intense sprint to fatigue. The sprint times were similar, regardless of the type of pre-run fuel.
That said, the slow digesting carb provided a more stable and consistent fuel source that maintained blood glucose concentration during the long run. Hence, endurance athletes want to experiment with a variety of beverages to determine which ones settle best and help them feel good during extended exercise. A slow-digesting carb can help maintain stable blood glucose levels without consuming fuel during the run. Fast-digesting carbs need carbohydrate supplementation throughout the exercise to maintain normal blood glucose.
Concluding comments: These studies indicate carbohydrate can help athletes perform well. To be sure your muscles are fully fueled, include some starchy food (wholesome cereal, grain, bread, etc.) as the foundation of each meal. Consuming carbs from just fruit or veggies will likely leave you with inadequately replenished muscle glycogen. Think twice before choosing a chicken Caesar salad for your recovery meal.
Nancy Clark, MS, RD counsels both casual and competitive athletes at her office in Newton, MA (617-795-1875). Her newly updated Sports Nutrition Guidebook is now available in a new sixth edition. For more information, visit NancyClarkRD.com. For her popular online workshop, visit NutritionSportsExerciseCEUs.com.
Keeping up with the latest science-based sports nutrition recommendations is a challenge. We are constantly bombarded with media messages touting the next miracle sports food or supplement that will enhance athletic performance, promote fat loss, build muscle, and help you be a super-athlete. At this year’s Annual Meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine (www.acsm.org), a sports nutrition myth-busters session sponsored by the global network of Professionals In Nutrition for Exercise and Sport (www.PINESNutrition.org) featured experts who resolved confusion with science-based research.
MYTH: Protein supplements build bigger muscles.
Protein needs for a 150-pound (68 kg) athlete average about 110 to 150 grams of protein per day. (More precisely, 0.7 to 1.0 g pro/lb. body weight/day; 1.6 to 2.2 g pro/kg./day) Hungry athletes can easily consume this amount from standard meals. Yet, many athletes believe they need extra protein. They consume protein shakes and bars in addition to protein-laden meals. They are unlikely to see any additional benefits from this higher-than-needed protein intake. Resistance exercise is a far more potent way to increase muscle size and strength than any protein supplement.
MYTH: Eating just before bedtime makes an athlete fat.
While it is true the body responds differently to the same meal eaten at 9:00 a.m., 5:00 pm, or 1:00 a.m., an athlete will not “get fat” by eating at night. The main problem with nighttime eating relates to the ease of over-eating while lounging around and watching TV. When your brain is tired from having made endless decisions all day, you can easily decide to eat more food than required.
That said, bedtime carbohydrates to refuel depleted muscles and bedtime protein to build and repair muscles can optimize recovery after a day of hard training or competing. For bodybuilders and others who want to optimize muscle growth, eating about 40 grams of protein before bed provides an extended flow of amino acids needed to build muscle. (This bedtime snack has not been linked with fat gain). Cottage cheese, anyone?
MYTH: A gluten-free diet cures athletes’ gut problems.
If you have celiac disease (as verified by blood tests), your gut will indeed feel better if you avoid wheat and other gluten-containing foods. However, very few gut issues for non-celiac athletes are related to gluten. FODMAPs (Fermentable Oligo-, Di-, Mono-saccharides and Polyols) are often the culprit. These are types of hard-for-some-people-to-digest carbohydrates found in commonly eaten foods such as wheat, apples, onion, garlic, and milk. For example, the di-saccharide lactose (a kind of sugar found in milk) creates gut turmoil in people who are lactose intolerant. The poorly digested and absorbed lactose creates gas, bloat and diarrhea.
For certain athletes, a low FODMAP diet two or three days before a competition or long training session can help curb intestinal distress. If you live in fear of undesired pit stops, a consultation with your sports dietitian to learn more about a short-term FODMAP reduction diet is worth considering.
MYTH: Athletes should avoid caffeine because of its diuretic effect
With caffeinated beverages, the diuretic effect might be 1.2 ml. excess fluid lost per mg. of caffeine. That means, if you were to drink a small mug (7 oz./200 ml.) of coffee that contains 125 milligrams of caffeine, you might lose about 150 ml. water through excess urine loss. But you’d still have 50 ml. fluid to hydrate your body—and likely more if you drink coffee regularly. Athletes who regularly consume caffeine habituate and experience less of a diuretic effect. In general, most caffeinated beverages contribute to a positive fluid balance; avoiding them on the basis of their caffeine content is not justified.
MYTH: Athletes should be wary of creatine because it is bad for kidneys.
Creatine is sometimes used by athletes who want to bulk up. It allows muscles to recover faster from, let’s say, lifting weights, so the athlete can do more reps and gain strength. A review of 21 studies that assessed kidney function with creatine doses ranging from 2 to 30 grams a day for up to five and a half years indicates creatine is safe for young healthy athletes as well as for elderly people. Even the most recent studies using sophisticated methods to assess renal function support creatine supplements as being well tolerated and not related to kidney dysfunction.
MYTH: The vegan diet fails to support optimal performance in athletes.
Without a doubt, vegan athletes can —and do—excel in sport. Just Google vegan athletes; you’ll find an impressive list that includes Olympians and professional athletes from many sports (including football, basketball, tennis, rowing, snowboarding, running, soccer, plus more.)
The key to consuming an effective vegan sports diet is to include adequate leucine, the essential amino acid that triggers muscles to grow. The richest sources of leucine are found in animal foods, such as eggs, dairy, fish, and meats. If you swap animal proteins for plant proteins, you reduce your leucine intake by about 50%. For athletes, consuming 2.5 grams of leucine every 3 to 4 hours during the day optimizes muscular development. This means vegan athletes need to eat adequate nuts, soy foods, lentils, beans and other plant proteins regularly at every meal and snack.
Most athletes can consume adequate leucine, but some don’t because they skip meals and fail to plan a balanced vegan menu. Vegan athletes who are restricting food intake to lose undesired body fat need to be particularly vigilant to consume an effective sports diet. Plan ahead!
Nancy Clark, MS, RD counsels both casual and competitive athletes at her office in Newton, MA (617-795-1875). The newest 6th edition of her best selling Sports Nutrition Guidebook is being released in July 2019. For information about readymade handouts and PowerPoint presentations, visit www.NancyClarkRD.com. For her popular online workshop, see www.NutritionSportsExerciseCEUs.com.
As an athlete, you have two jobs. One is to eat wisely to perform well. The other is to stay healthy by sleeping well, eating well, and living well. Wellness was the theme of the 35th Annual Symposium …
For most of the past 40 years, dieters have been told to limit dietary fat, believing it leads to obesity and heart disease. Today, dieters hear messages to indulge in a very high-fat (ketogenic) diet and limit the carbohydrate-based foods that fueled their low-fat diet. Confusing, eh? The bottom line is: calories count. You can lose weight by limiting carbs and/or fat. Let’s look at the weight management picture, as we understand it to date. (Nutrition is an evolving science!)
Are carbs fattening?
Foods such as white bread, pasta, rice and potato (“carbs”) have been demonized as being fattening because they have a high glycemic index. That is, they digest quickly and can spike blood glucose when eaten solo in 50-gram carbohydrate (200-calorie) doses. That happens when the average (unfit) American devours a basket of warm dinner rolls. Blood glucose rises quickly; the pancreas secretes insulin to carry glucose out of the blood and into the muscles. Insulin can stimulate hunger, the desire to eat, and the potential to gain weight.
But how often would you eat rolls without butter? A plate of pasta without sauce and Parmesan cheese? A large potato all by itself — with no butter or protein? Most likely, rarely. Eating “carbs” as part of a meal elicits a lower glycemic response than eating them solo. Protein and fat slow their conversion into blood glucose, thus blunting the glycemic response.
The advice given to the general public to limit high-glycemic foods often results in eating fewer calories (and losing weight). The advice can appropriately help stabilize blood glucose in women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), and unfit people with obesity, pre-diabetes, and Type II diabetes. But the advice may not pertain to YOU, an athlete. The bodies of athletes eagerly take up blood glucose to fuel exercise and replenish depleted muscle glycogen stores. Too little carb (grain, fruit, vegetable) results in needless muscular fatigue if you train hard day after day.
That said, some very athletic people live in large bodies. They tend to be frustrated they don’t shed fat despite religiously abiding a low calorie diet plus rigorous exercise. As one triathlete complained “I should be pencil thin by now, for the exercise I do…” What’s going on? The answer might relate to that athlete’s personal insulin response to carbohydrate. Research suggests genetics causes some people to be high insulin secretors. Just as not all couch potatoes secrete excess insulin, not all lean athletes escape Type II diabetes.
What does this mean for you, a weight-conscious athlete? If you struggle to lose weight, you might be a high insulin secretor. Take a look at your family genetics: Do your relatives gain weight easily? Do they have diabetes? If yes, you want to talk with your doctor. You might be better off choosing a low glycemic diet, trading processed carbs for whole grains and combining them with lean protein and healthy fats such as nuts, nut butter, and avocado. And plan to keep exercising, religiously.
Keto or veto?
You have undoubtedly heard people rave about the keto diet. This very rigid high fat, low carb food plan with more than 70% of the calories from fat and less than 5% of the calories from grains, fruits and veggies is touted to reduce weight and risk for heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer’s. Here’s some food for thought on the current keto rage. You can figure out if you want to jump in or think twice.
- Nutritional ketosis (NK) (as opposed to diabetic ketoacidosis, a life-threatening condition) curbs hunger due to the appetite suppressing effect of ketones. To induce NK, a person needs to restrict carbohydrate to about 20 to 50 grams a day. That means eating only a few berries, some leafy greens, mushrooms, no milk, yogurt or grains. You’d eat lots of avocado, olive oil, nuts, nut butter, and some cheese, bacon, and fatty meats.
- When carbohydrate is not available for fuel, the body adapts (painfully over several weeks of feeling lousy, hence the term “keto flu”) to burning fat and makes a byproduct called ketones. Infants burn ketones; the adult body needs to relearn how to use them.
- Due to lack of carbohydrate, keto dieters secrete very little insulin, which contributes to reduced appetite which, when combined with limited food options and consumption of fewer calories, leads to fat loss—and the health benefits associated with weight loss, including reduced risk of diabetes, heart disease, etc.
The questions arise:
- Would following a ketogenic diet suit your lifestyle? No bananas, beer, or birthday cake. What would you eat on Meatless Monday? Plant proteins like beans come with too many carbs. No hummus, burritos, chili.
- Would a high intake of saturated fat (bacon, sausage, spare ribs) create cardiovascular issues?
- Does the low fiber intake have a negative impact on your gut (constipation)?
- If you happen to love crunchy apples, fruit smoothies, and roasted veggies (to say nothing of a social life) how long could you sustain the keto lifestyle?
- What would happen when you get out of “Keto Jail”? Would you end up binge-eating carbs? Would that leave you with rebound weight gain, feeling depressed and being worse-off than your pre-keto status?
- Would changing the nutrient-poor food choices in your current lifestyle be the wiser weight management solution? Meeting with a registered dietitian (RD) could help you make those changes more easily than you may think.
You have to figure out your answer to the keto or veto question. For serious athletes who do intense exercise, take note: It is a lot of work with no proven performance benefits to date.
Nancy Clark, MS, RD CSSD (@nclarkrd) counsels both casual and competitive athletes at her office in Newton, MA (617-795-1875). Her best selling Sports Nutrition Guidebook offers additional fueling information, as does her blog at NancyClarkRD.com and online workshop NutritionSportsExerciseCEUs.com.
Nancy, do you offer different nutrition recommendations for elite athletes as compared to recreational exercisers? I am highly competitive, work out intensely, and often wonder if I am eating to be the best athlete that I can be.
Answer: Sports nutrition recommendations are based on the assumption we all want to get the most benefits from our workouts so we can perform to the best of our abilities. Because each elite athlete and casual exerciser is unique, a one-diet-fits-all approach doesn’t work. Rather, all exercisers want to be curious and experiment with a variety of fueling practices to learn what works best for their bodies. The following compares recommendations I might make for competitive athletes vs. recreational exercisers.
Note: Sports nutrition is a new science. In the near future, with the refinement of personalized nutrition based on genetics, sport dietitians will be able to offer individualized advice. Some athletes might perform better with more fat than carbs, or more beef than beans. Until then, here are today’s science-based recommendations.
In this era that pushes fat and protein, carbohydrate deficiency is common. All exercisers can improve their performance (and health) by consuming adequate “high quality” carbs (grains, fruits, veggies) to fuel muscles and prevent needless fatigue. While elite athletes might want to strategically withhold carbs before specific training sessions to trigger performance-enhancing cellular adaptations, recreational exercisers want to focus on fueling well each day in order to have enjoyable workouts. A sports dietitian can help both elite and recreational athletes reach these carbohydrate goals:
|Amount of exercise/day||gram carb/lb. body wt.||gram carb/kg body wt.|
|1 hour moderate exercise||2.5 to 3||5-7|
|1-3 h endurance exercise||2.5 to 4.5||6-10|
|>4-5 h extreme exercise||3.5 to 5.5||8-12|
Example: For a 140-lb fitness exerciser who trains moderately hard for an hour a day, carb goals are 350 g (1,400 calories) For the competitive athlete who trains harder and longer, a good goal is 630 g carb (2,500 calories) a day. Divide that into 3 meals (400 to 700 calories from carb per meal) and 2 snacks (100 to 300 calories from carbs per snack). Start reading food labels to see how well you do. You’ll discover a spinach-cheese omelet doesn’t hit the goal.
A well-fueled competitive athlete with trained muscles requires a little less protein than a novice exerciser who is building new muscle. The range of protein needs (0.6 to 1.0 g protein per pound body weight; 1.2 to 2.0 g/kg) tends to be moot, given most hungry exercisers and athletes consume plenty of protein.
Most competitive athletes can easily meet their protein needs by targeting about 20 to 30 grams protein per meal (a can of tuna) and 10 to 20 g protein per snack (a Greek yogurt). The protein in natural foods is preferable to protein supplements. Natural foods offer a complex matrix of nutrients that interact with a synergistic effect. Plus, they are unlikely to be spiked with illegal drugs and compounds that can lead to a failed drug test.
Competitive athletes lose lots of sweat when exercising for hours on end. But so can recreational exercisers who are out of shape and working hard. That’s why everyone who sweats heavily wants to learn his or her sweat rate. You can learn this by weighing yourself (without clothing) before and after an hour of exercise without drinking anything at X pace and in X degrees of heat or cold. For each pound lost, you are in deficit of 16-ounces of fluid. Drink enough during exercise to minimize this deficit. Throughout the day, drink enough to urinate every 2 to 4 hours. (Peeing every half-hour is excessive; no need to over-hydrate!)
Fueling during exercise
For competitive athletes, a sport drink or gel is a convenient and precise way to boost energy during extended exercise over 90 minutes. With a target intake of 60 to 90 g carb per hour of extended exercise, an elite athlete generally prefers drinking a beverage than eating solid food. A casual exerciser might want some tastier orange slices or a granola bar.
Electrolytes (potassium, sodium, magnesium, and calcium) are readily available in standard pre- and post-exercise foods. Most recreational exercisers don’t sweat enough to lose a significant amount of electrolytes. Highly competitive athletes, however, train and sweat for 2 to 3 or more hours in the heat. They should add extra salt to their pre-exercise food (helps retain water and delays dehydration) and consume sodium-containing foods and fluids during extended exercise (endurance sport drinks). Afterward, chocolate milk beats Gatorade for an electrolyte-filled recovery drink. Most sweaty athletes intuitively seek salty chips, soup, or salted foods in for their recovery meal. If you are craving salt, consume salt!
Recreational exercisers who train 2 to 3 times a week can easily recover by backing their workout into a balanced meal that contains carbs (to refuel) and protein (to build and repair) muscles, such as oatmeal + eggs; yogurt + granola; sandwich + milk; chicken + rice. Competitive athletes who train twice a day should more rapidly refuel by eating soon after working out. The key is to plan ahead to have the right recovery foods and fluids ready and waiting. While a commercial recovery drink can be handy, a fruit smoothie (made with Greek yogurt) or some chocolate milk does an excellent job. Real foods work well for everyone.
After lifting weights, no need for anyone to immediately slam down a protein shake. Muscles stay in building mode for the next 24 to 48 hours. Regular meals, with protein evenly spaced throughout the day, do the job.
The bottom line
Every exerciser and athlete can win with good nutrition. The key is to be responsible, and plan ahead to have the best foods and fluids available at the right times. Here’s to satisfying results from your hard work!
Nancy Clark, MS, RD counsels both casual and competitive athletes at her office in Newton, MA (617-795-1875). Her best selling Sports Nutrition Guidebook and good guide for soccer, marathoners and cyclists offer additional information. Visit NancyClarkRD.com. For her popular online workshop, see NutritionSportsExerciseCEUs.com.
Many athletes train in the early morning. Rowers commonly meet at 5:30 a.m. Hockey players might get rink-time at 5:00 a.m.. Athletes who need to be at work at 7:00 often train at 4:30 a.m. Many of these athletes report eating nothing before their training session. My stomach isn’t awake. … It’s too early to even think about food. … I get reflux if I eat. Others report they have better workouts when they eat something simple. The question arises: What’s the best way to fuel for early morning workouts?
Before answering that question, let’s first address the physiological goals for fueling before morning workouts.
1) To change the stress-hormone profile. Cortisol (a stress hormone) is high in the early morning. This puts your body in muscle-breakdown mode. Eating carbs + protein can switch to muscle-building mode.
2) To provide energy and prevent low blood glucose with the consequences of feeling light-headed, dizzy, and needlessly fatigued.
3) To be adequately hydrated. Dehydration slows you down.
If you are making the effort to get up early to train, you might as well get the most out of your workout! In a fueling study, athletes had dinner the night before and then a 60-minute exercise test the next morning. They performed 6% better in the 10-minute sprint to the finish when they had some fuel (carb) compared to having had nothing; 6% better when they had adequate water (compared to minimal water), and 12% better when they had both fuel + water (a sport drink). (1) Twelve percent better means running an 8-minute mile in about 7 minutes. Powerful, eh?
Your body can digest pre-exercise food and use it to energize your exercise as long as you are exercising at a pace that you can maintain for more than 30 minutes. (If you do stop-and-start exercise, you can still digest the food, but at a slower rate.) In another fueling study, athletes ate dinner and than nothing for the next 12 hours. Those who ate 180 calories (sugar) just five minutes before an hour-long exercise test performed 10% better in the last 15 minute sprint compared to when they ate nothing (2). Grab that granola bar or swig of juice!
If you are tempted to skip pre-exercise food so you can lose weight by burning more fat, think again. Yes, pre-exercise food will contribute to burning less fat at the moment, but that is irrelevant. The issue is not whether you have burned fat during exercise but if you have created a calorie deficit by the end of the day. Eating excess calories after a fat-burning workout gets you nowhere.
All of this means consuming some food and fluid on your way to the gym, spin class, or boot camp will enhance your workout—assuming you have trained your gut to tolerate the food and fluids. If you are worried about intestinal distress, start small (a few crackers) and work up to a handful of crackers, and then add, let’s say, a latte. For workouts longer than 60 minutes, the recommended intake is about 200 to 400 calories within the hour before you train. That recommendation obviously varies according to body size, exercise intensity and duration, and personal tolerance to food.
If you have been exercising on empty, you will likely discover you can exercise harder, feel better, and get more enjoyment from your workouts. Research subjects who ate 400 pre-exercise calories were able to exercise for 136 minutes until they were exhausted, as compared to only 109 minutes with no breakfast (3). Big difference! After learning this, one of my clients reported he was done with skipping pre-exercise fuel in the name of intermittent fasting. “Not eating is slowing me down and taking the fun out of my workout.”
Early morning options
Here are some options for fueling your early morning workouts so you are adequately hydrated and fueled.
Eat a quick and easy snack with about 200 to 400 calories (depending on your body size and workout intensity). Some popular options include: English muffin, toast, bagel or banana (with peanut butter); oatmeal, a smoothie, Fig Newtons, or granola bar. Coffee is OK; it’s a functional fluid that boosts performance and yes, helps with hydration.
Wake up 4 hours before important training sessions/events, eat a simple breakfast (bread + peanut butter), then go back to bed. This is a common practice among elite athletes. As one marathoner explained, “I don’t want to have food in my stomach when I’m racing. If a race starts at 8:00 a.m., I’ll get up at 4:00, eat a bagel with peanut butter and a banana, and then go back to bed. At 6:00, I’ll get up, have some coffee (to help me take a dump and wake me up), and then get to the race start. Because I never really sleep well the night before an event, getting up at 4:00 isn’t terribly disruptive.” In comparison, a rower reported she used to wake up two hours before practice to eat. She became too sleep-deprived and decided she needed sleep more than food. She started eating a bigger bedtime snack.
Eat your breakfast the night before via a bedtime snack, such as a bowl of cereal, or yogurt with granola. If you have dinner at 6:00, you’ll be ready for a bedtime snack by 9:00. Choose quality calories; this is your breakfast that you are eating the night before. Limit the cookies and ice cream!
Fuel during your workout.If your stomach isn’t awake when you first get up, it may be receptive to fuel when you are 30 minutes into your bike ride, run, or row. Be sure you have some fuel with you: sport drink, dried pineapple, gels, chomps, gummy bears—whatever is easy to carry and simple to digest. You want to target about 30 to 60 grams carb (120 to 240 calories) if the workout lasts 1 to 2.5 hours, and 60 to 90 g carb (240 to 360 cal) if the workout is longer than that..
What about “training low”?
If you are highly competitive and has mastered the sports nutrition basics (eat a diet with 90% quality foods; fuel evenly during the day; have no disordered eating behaviors), you might try training low (with depleted muscle glycogen and/or low blood glucose) once a week or so. To do this, eat primarily protein for dinner after a late-afternoon workout. The next morning, train without having eaten carbs. Exercising depleted like this is not fun, but it stimulates cellular changes that can be performance enhancing if you need to get to the next level (4). Novice and recreational athletes, however, first need to work on the basic ways to improve performance—by surrounding their workouts with food, and fueling wisely the rest of the day.
Nancy Clark, MS, RD counsels both casual and competitive athletes at her office in Newton, MA (617-795-1875). Her best selling Sports Nutrition Guidebook and food guides for marathoners, cyclists and soccer players offer additional inform-ation. They are available at NancyClarkRD.com. For her online workshop, visit NutritionSportsExerciseCEUs.com.
- Below, P. et al. Fluid and carbohydrate ingestion independently improve performance during 1 hour of intense exercise.Med Sci Sports Exerc27:200-210, 1995.
- Neufer P. et al. Improvements in exercise performance: effects of carbohydrate feedings and diet. J Appl Physiol62(3):983, 1987
- Schabort, E. et al. The effect of a preexercise meal on time to fatigue during prolonged cycling exercise.Med Sci Sports Exerc31(3):464-471, 1999.
- Hawley J and Burke L. Carbohydrate availability and training adaptation: effects on cell metabolism. Exerc Sport Sci Rev. 38(4):152-60, 2010.
As the New Year starts, I hear way too many athletes vowing to “knock off carbs” for their nutrition resolution. Most intend to eat less sugar (OK). Some plan to cut out bread, pasta, potato and starchy foods (not OK), and others plan to also limit fruits and veggies (bad idea). The reality is, carbs should be the foundation of your sports diet.
By carbs, I mean primarily fruits, vegetables, beans and grains. But little is wrong with a sprinkling of added sugar (less than 10% of your total daily calories) or enjoying a meal with refined white flour (as long your other meals include whole grains). To be sure we are all on the same page, let’s define this much-maligned word “carb.”
- Carbohydrates include both sugars and starches. They are biochemically similar. For example, green peas (and other veggies) are sweet when young; their sugar converts into starch as they mature. Unripe bananas (and other fruits) are starchy when young and become sweeter as they ripen. Their starch converts into sugar.
- Both sugars and starches are equal sources of muscle fuel. Whether you eat a starchy potato or sugary candy, the digested end-product is the same: glucose.
- Glucose feeds your brain, gets stored as glycogen in muscles (for fuel during hard, extended exercise) and also in the liver (where it gets released, as needed, into the bloodstream to prevent your blood sugar from dropping).
- Some carbs are more nourishing than others. Added sugars (white sugar, maple syrup, honey, agave, gels, chomps, sport drinks, etc.) lack the vitamins and minerals that invest in good health. Fruits, veggies, beans, and dairy, however, are health promoting sources of carbs. Obviously, you want to eat more of the best and less of the rest.
- Physically fit athletes easily metabolize sugars and starches. Unfit people, however, often end up with high blood sugar and pre- or Type II diabetes.Note: Most messages to cut out carbs are targeted at unfit people, not athletes.
Reasons to keep carbs in your sports diet
Here are five reasons why you, a physically fit athlete, want to include carbohydrate in your sports diet.
- Carbohydrates fuel muscles. Athletes who restrict carbs pay the price: “dead legs” and inability to exercise at their best. If you routinely train hard 4 to 6 days a week, carbs should be the foundation of each meal. Here are the International Olympic Committee’s research-based carb recommendations for an optimal sports diet:
|Amount of exercise/day||gram carb/lb. body wt||gram carb/kg body wt|
|1 hour moderate exercise||2.5 to 3||5-7|
|1-3 h endurance exercise||2.5 to 4.5||6-10|
|>4-5 h extreme exercise||3.5 to 5.5||8-12|
For a 150-lb athlete who trains hard 1 hour a day and remains somewhat active the rest of the day, the target intake should be 375 to 450 grams carb/day. That’s at least 90 g (360 calories) carb per meal and 50 g (200 cals) carb at each of two snacks. This is more carbs than in the ever-popular (low-carb) breakfast protein shake with a few berries, a lunchtime spinach salad, and a dinner with a pile of broccoli but no rice. Here’s what 375 grams of carbohydrate looks like (without the protein and fat that balances the diet):
Breakfast: 1 cup dry oats (50g) + 1 banana (25g) + 1 T honey (15g)
Lunch: 2 slices whole wheat bread (46g) + 1 can Progresso lentil soup (60g)
Snack: 1/3 cup raisins (40g) + 1 Tbsp dark chocolate chips (10)
Dinner: 1.5 c cooked brown rice (65g) + 14-oz bag frozen broccoli (20g)
Snack: 8 ounces vanilla Greek yogurt (20) + 1 Nature Valley Granola Bar (30)
While I am sure many of you are rolling your eyes right now and thinking, “I could never eat that many carbs without getting fat,” this is an appropriate carb intake, believe it or not, and these 1,500 carb-calories can fit into your day’s 2,500+ calorie budget. I invite you to be curious and experiment. How much better can you train with an appropriate carb intake?
- Carbohydrates are not fattening. Despite popular belief, carbohydrates are not inherently fattening. Excess calories at the end of the day are fattening. Excess calories of carbs (bread, bagels, pasta) are actually less fattening than are excess calories of fat (butter, salad oil, cheese). That’s because converting excess calories of carbohydrate into body fat requires more energy than does converting excess calories of dietary fat into body fat.
- Avoiding carbs can lead to food binges. By routinely including carbs in your daily sports diet, you take the power away from them and will be less likely to binge. That is, if you “cut out carbs” but then succumb to eating the entire breadbasket and the mountain of pasta when at a restaurant, you are doing what I call last chance eating. You know, last chance to eat bread and pasta so I’d better stuff them in today because my no-carb diet restarts tomorrow. (Ugh.)
- Quality carbs (fruits, vegetables, grains and beans) promote a healthy microbiome, which reduces the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Fiber-rich carbs feed the zillions of microbes that live in your gut. These microbes have an incredible influence on your mood, weight, immune system, and overall health. Every major medical association recommends we consume a strong intake of fruits, veggies and whole grains. Do athletes on a low carb diet miss out on these health benefits? TBD.
- Carbohydrate adds pleasure to your sports diet. Is something wrong with eating some yummy foods, like pasta and bagels? How about chocolate milk for a fun recovery food? Given that 10% of daily calories can come from refined added sugars, most athletes have about 240-300 calories (60 to 75g) of added sugar a day in their calorie budget. You can easily ingest that sugar via sport drinks, gels, and sweetened protein shakes. You can also enjoy one or two cookies or a slice of birthday cake—guilt-free.
Carb abuse is the bigger problem than carbs in moderation. The easiest way to prevent carb abuse is to eat satiating breakfasts and lunches (with carbs + protein) that fill your tummy, prevent afternoon hunger, and curb cravings for sugary sweets later in the day. Preventing hunger minimizes the cravings that give carbs a bad name in the first place. Give it a try?
Nancy Clark, MS, RD counsels both casual and competitive athletes at her office in Newton, MA (617-795-1875). Her best selling Sports Nutrition Guidebook and food guides for marathoners, cyclists and soccer players offer additional information. They are available at www.NancyClarkRD.com. For her popular online workshop, see www.NutritionSportsExerciseCEUs.com.