Elite athletes are known for being exceptionally hard workers with gruelling training schedules. And those who want to rise to or are at the top of their game must pay attention to all aspects of life that play a part in or could affect their performances. Sleep, psychology, stress, rest, hydration and, of course, eating habits are closely related to the ability to train and perform at your best.

So what should you eat? Healthy food choices for athletes are the same as those for an average person; fresh fruit and vegetables, low-fat dairy, whole grains, heart-healthy fats and lean proteins provide necessary vitamins, minerals and fiber for optimal body function.

The difference for high-level athletes is that they need to eat more. Calorie needs increase substantially as training volume and intensity increases. Consuming too few calories can have severe consequences, including chronic fatigue, loss of muscle and bone mass, increased injury risk, weakened immune system, stress fractures, nutrient deficiencies and hormonal dysfunction. These consequences can have short- and long-term effects on growth, development and over-all health.

Elite athletes don’t just make good food choices; they practice good food behavior. Their routines include planning meals, packing lunches and snacks and making regular grocery shopping runs to ensure that their chosen fuel is always on hand. This also ensures that they do not skip meals, and practice consistent daily eating patterns.

They also adhere to strict nutrition routines before important events. Elite athletes do not make random food choices or rely on what hotels and competition venues provide. Many athletes travel with suitcases that contain only their chosen snacks.

Athletes also need to pay special attention to the balance of their macronutrients, carbohydrates, protein and fats.

Consuming these nutrients in the right amount at the right time ensures that fuel is available for working muscles and that recovery occurs quickly enough to prepare for the next workout session.

Carbohydrates serve as the main muscle fuel during exercise, while protein helps facilitate muscle repair and synthesis of new tissue. Fats facilitate nutrient absorption and hormone production, and help decrease the inflammation that intense training causes.

Fat, however, takes longer to digest than other nutrients, which can lead to gastrointestinal discomfort and slower delivery of nutrients to working muscles. Therefore, athletes should minimize fat intake at pre-workout and pre-competition meals and snacks.

Pre-workout food should be rich in energizing carbohydrates, and ingested approximately one hour before activity. Post-workout food should contain approximately 20 grams of high-quality protein and be consumed 30 minutes or less after activity. Attention to pre- and post-workout food can compensate for long gaps in the day without eating. This common mistake can lead to low energy and weight gain.

It’s beneficial for athletes to have a solid breakfast every day and avoid fasting periods longer than three to four hours.

Proper eating enhances athletic performance and overall health. Finding the proper foods and patterns that work for you takes a little extra time and effort, but it is worth it.

Carrie Aprik

Carrie Aprik is a registered dietitian for Division 1 athletes at Oakland University and is a board-certified specialist in sports dietetics. She can be contacted at nutrition4motion@gmail.com.