Many American households, have got their TV tuned to one thing since August 5: the Olympic Games in Rio. It’s always fun to watch the athletes really going for it and there has been plenty to keep us tuned in, like the colorful rivalry between American swimmer Michael Phelps and his South African foe, Chad le Clos.
Fueling for Fitness
While the athletes always make everything look effortless, so much goes into their training in order to prepare them for competition. Not only does it take hours of exercise to hone their muscles, improve their speed and sharpen their mental focus , they also spend a lot of time fueling up before practice and eating to properly recover so they can train again the next day. Diet is a key part of an athlete’s training program.
The U.S. women’s soccer team was unfortunately knocked out of the competition by Sweden last week. But Julie Johnston, a pro soccer player for the Chicago Red Stars and a defender for the U.S. women’s national team trained hard to get to Rio. I had a chance to speak with Johnston leading up to the games and was impressed with the focus she places on eating healthy. In fact, she looks at it as her secret weapon. “You’re trying to find your edge in the sport and obviously, nutrition is one of them,” she says.
With about four hours of daily training, Johnston likes to fuel up with a big breakfast that consists of eggs and toast or cereal, then she eats fruit closer to game time. Immediately after a game, her strength and conditioning coach serves the team smoothies with protein powder to help the athletes refuel quickly and get muscle repair underway. Following the smoothie, Johnston eats diced fresh mango to re-energize and get her appetite back before eating a full meal later on. Prior to Rio, she also worked on upping her hydration by adding electrolyte packets to her water bottles. She also focuses on foods with anti-inflammatory properties, such as turmeric.
Energy to Burn
Bob Seebohar is a sports dietitian who works with Olympic-level and recreational athletes of all ages, abilities and sports through eNRG Performance. I picked Seebohar’s brain to get a glimpse into what really goes into an athlete’s body before and after those important training sessions.
According to Seebohar, a typical pre-training meal is about two to three hours before the workout or event and contains a mix of carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats to maintain steady blood sugar levels. For example:
- Granola with yogurt and fruit
- Oatmeal with fruit, nuts and a scoop of almond butter
- Toast and eggs
- Smoothies and purees are ideal, especially closer to an event, as they are digested more quickly than solid food
Hydration – It’s Not Just About the Water
While carbs are necessary fuel for energy and protein is paramount for muscle growth and repair, the role of hydration is something that can’t be underestimated. In fact, when some professional athletes are in training camp, they have to submit a daily urine sample to monitor their hydration status.
Loss of electrolytes in sweat can lead to cramping during events. Dehydration can also impede recovery and make athletes feel more sluggish and sore after training or competition. Sodium is the major electrolyte lost in sweat. Others include potassium, magnesium and calcium.
Electrolytes are charged particles that bind to water in our cells, which helps our bodies retain water. They also help move water into the blood and cells through osmosis. While we usually hate the thought of retaining water, it’s important to do so after intense exercise to help with rehydration. If athletes only replace the water they’ve lost, but not the sodium, the water will simply pass through their body without being absorbed. Athletes can add electrolyte packets to their water bottles, but generally you can replace the sodium you lose in your workouts simply through the meal you eat following exercise. Products like Clif Hydration Electrolyte mix can also be helpful, especially in the crazy hot and humid weather we’ve experienced this summer.
Refueling, ideally within a 30-minute window post exercise, is incredibly important for athletes, especially when they have back-to-back events. Carbohydrates are needed to replenish glycogen stores and protein is necessary to help repair the small muscle tears that happen during exercise. Antioxidant-rich foods are helpful to combat the oxidative stress that occurs from intense activity.
While you don’t need to pay as much attention to each pre-workout snack as U.S. gymnast Simone Biles, it’s smart to think about your fuel and hydration to maximize your performance during workouts. And it’s not as complicated as you might think. As Seebohar says, “Many recreational athletes think that Olympians follow different nutritional plans. At the end of the day, they are usually just better at planning, preparing and implementing their food plan to align [with their training schedule].” After all, even mere humans like us like to go a little bit faster and feel just a smidge stronger, too.