With Sydney and other parts of Australia back in lockdown, the Olympics has been a welcome break in our lounge rooms. Watching athletes live out their dreams and compete on the world stage is so exciting and inspiring. One thing we’ve also loved is hearing athletes mention their nutrition as being a key component of their routine when they discuss their Olympics training in their post-event interviews. For us, it’s no surprise that nutrition plays such an important role in performance, but for those watching at home you might be wondering what these elite athletes eat and why nutrition so important to them? Our team is lucky to work with athletes of all levels on a daily basis, including some of those competing in Tokyo right now.

 

Why is nutrition important for athletes?

We could give you one hundred and one reasons why nutrition is important for athletes who want to succeed, but we will try to keep this short! Food provides the fuel that our body uses to keep us alive and functioning on a daily basis, and becomes even more important when athletes are pushing their bodies to succeed. Exercise places an increased amount of stress on the body and utilises more energy and nutrients, which need to be provided through food. Eating for athletes is not just about eating well, it is also about being strategic with timing and amounts of foods and nutrients, particularly around competition times, to provide the body with optimal fuel for performance and for recovery. Good nutrition strategies can also help athletes to recover from training sessions and competition, reduce injury risk, recover from injuries, support immune health and more. A healthy athlete is an athlete that performs!

What do athletes eat?

Like anyone, an athlete’s nutrition should be individualised for them as no two people are the same, so nutrient requirements differ from athlete to athlete. Here are our four top (general) rules for performance nutrition just to get you started: 

  1. Fuel for the work you are going to do
    • This is a mantra we have here at Health and Performance Collective that helps athletes to understand how to fuel their body for changing needs on a day-to-day basis. Carbohydrates are the key energy source used during exercise to fuel working muscles and body systems, and should be prioritised before training and competition to ensure the body is fuelled for performance. Poor fuelling is like trying to drive a car without the petrol – how can we expect our engine to run without adequate fuel! On lighter training days and rest days, when energy output is lower, carbohydrates aren’t as much a priority as protein, healthy fats and micronutrients that help the body to recover and stay healthy between sessions. 
  1. Distribute protein intake across all meals and snacks 
    • Protein is an essential component in the diet, particularly due to its role in recovery post-exercise to help muscle repair and building. Many athletes have higher protein requirements than the general population due to their high energy outputs and training loads. Ensuring that protein needs are met is easier when athletes focus on incorporating protein at each meal and snack, rather than trying to fit it all in at the end of the day. This method has also been shown to be more effective for building muscle mass than having fewer portions across the day. Protein requirements can be met through food first as supplements should only be used with caution by athletes to reduce their risk of inadvertent doping. 
  1. Don’t forget the micronutrients
    • Micronutrients refers to vitamins, minerals and antioxidants in the food we eat. These are needed in smaller amounts in the body than carbohydrates, protein and fats, but are still essential to help the body’s systems to function optimally and support overall health. Micronutrients are present in whole foods, so athletes are recommended to eat a variety of wholegrains, fruits, vegetables, dairy foods (or alternatives), quality proteins and healthy fats to ensure an adequate variety of micronutrients. During periods of high intensity and duration training sessions or competitions, athletes might be at higher risk of micronutrient depletion so should be careful attention to these healthy foods during these timeframes to ensure ongoing optimal performance. 
  1. Food first approach – nail the foundations first 
    • Although it can often be tempting, there is no single food or supplement that is going to provide an athletic edge over someone else. Instead, ensuring that the foundations of the diet are met first, then being strategic about timing and portions of nutrients to drive performance, before thinking about adding in supplements is going to help an athlete to ensure their eating is optimised for performance. Additionally, supplements come with an extra level of risk for athletes due to the risk of inadvertent doping, so always need to be approached with caution, and should consult with a Sports Dietitian first before use. 

An athlete’s day on a plate

To give you even more of an idea of what athletes eat, Jess Spendlove has been lucky enough to work with 100m sprinter Rohan Browning who made all of Australia proud with his efforts in the Olympics! She put together a post on Instagram outlining a typical day on a plate on one of his training days. As discussed, athlete nutrition needs are individual to their unique energy requirements, training loads, body composition goals and performance goals. Use this as inspiration but it is always best to seek individualised advice! For more examples of what athletes eat, check out the Health & Performance Collective Instagram page for posts like this one.