Does an athlete need an adapted diet?

Updated: Jun 2, 2018

As a long distance runner, your body has specific dietary needs. The most important difference in the diet of an athlete vs non-athlete is that athletes need more energy. Especially endurance runners, need significantly more energy. Next to providing your body with the required energy, also the timing of when you provide your body with this energy is important.

The first requirement in human nutrition, whether you are a athlete or not, is to provide your body with energy; the metabolic fuels that provide you with energy are:

  • carbohydrates;

  • fats;

  • protein, and;

  • alcohol.

Proteins are not only providing the body with energy. It is needed throughout life as building nutrient and especially for muscle growth and recovery. In addition, there is a need for some essential fatty acids and for relatively small amounts of vitamins & minerals.

Even when completely at rest, there is a requirement for energy to maintain nerve and muscle tone, circulation and breathing, and metabolic homeostasis. This is called our basal metabolic rate (BMR).

The energy cost of different activities varies from activity to activity. Sedentary activities require significant less energy compared to sports, like running. Practically this means that on days no sport activities are planned, less energy has to be consumed.

Carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals must all be provided in the right amount & at the right time in order to provide your body with the required amount of energy and essential elements to get the optimal result from training.

The basics of an athletes diet are not different to the diet any other person. A healthy diet in which attention is paid to limiting the intake of unhealthy fats, sufficient intake of fibers and sufficient intake of complex carbohydrates is key.

Concretely this means that the diet must consist out of enough plant based products like whole grain cereals, potatoes, fruit, vegetables, ... and that the intake of animal products like meat and cheese should be limited. This does not animal products have to be excluded completely from the diet, they should just be represented in a well controlled portion size.

On training days, the energy intake must be increased. This is the sports nutrition part. Energy intake can easily been increased by increasing portion sizes and including additional snacks in the diet. On days with intense training's an athlete might consider to increase the use of simple carbohydrates, low fibre products (like white bread) to avoid discomfort during training. Additionally more salt intake might be considered to cover for losses during training.

If these basics are right, we can start looking into the use of sports-preparations to fine tune the dietary needs. Including isotonic drinks, energy gels and/or bars during intense long training's will help maintain a good training quality until the end of a training, becaue you provide your body with the energy it needs during training. A recovery meal, snack or drink after your training ensures efficient recovery of your muscles.

As cherry on the cake, an athlete might consider the use of supplements like vitamins & minerals, caffeine, creatine, ect. to increase performance. Athletes may benefit significantly from the consumption of supplements in case their basic diet is right. Unfortunately in reality we often see that supplements are consumed but basic diets are not taken care of as it should, which means that the effect of the supplement consumption will be limited.

In terms of timing, it is important to spread energy intake over 3 main meals and several snacks a day. Additionally, it is essential to consume the last main meal at least 2 hours before training. Consuming your last main meal closer to training cannot only lead to discomfort, it is useless as the body will not be able to use the energy from that meal during the training.

A right timing of your meals, will ensure enough energy for your body at the right time, avoid (huge) hunger, limit the impulse to make unhealthy choices and ensure enough energy for training & recovery

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