Skip to content

    Eat Like An Athlete

    By Elizabeth Ward, MS, RD

    Workout Food

    During the last summer games, much was made of swimmer Michael Phelps’s calorie intake, which was reportedly in the neighborhood of 12,000 a day! It’s almost unbelievable, but Phelps and other athletes require that much energy and other nutrients to train for hours every day and to maintain and build muscle.

    What about us mere mortals who work out a lot less than Phelps and his fellow competitors? Tara Gidus, MS, RD, CSSD, a team dietitian for the Orlando Magic in Florida, helped me sort out everyday nutrition for exercise.

    Q. Do athletes need more protein?

    A. Protein helps you build and repair muscle tissue. Gidus says endurance and strength athletes and other serious exercisers need more protein as a percentage of their overall calorie intake – about 20% to 25%. For example, you would need 130 to 163 grams of protein on a 2,600 calorie diet, according to Gidus’ advice. Less active people can get by with 10 to 20% of their calories as protein. Learn more about protein here.

    Q. Which protein is best to build and preserve muscle?

    A. Whey protein garners a lot of attention as the “preferred” protein after exercise to help with muscle recovery and growth because it’s readily available to the body. A recent study from the University of Texas Medical Branch challenges that notion, however. It found that a combination of proteins from whey, soy, and casein works best for the body. This trio of proteins supplies the muscle with amino acids, the building blocks of body proteins such as muscle, for a longer period of time. Fruit smoothies made with whey protein powder, soy protein powder, and milk supplies all three protein types.

    Q. Should you eat before exercise?

    A. I don’t eat before I run in the early morning, but Gidus says I should.

    “If you don’t eat, you risk breaking down muscle for energy or running out of energy and hitting the wall, which is like your car running out of gas,” she tells me. “Eat something small before exercise to fill up the depleted glycogen (muscle energy) from overnight,” is her advice.

    Working out later in the day? Include a small snack from two hours to two minutes ahead of time.

    Q. Does caffeine enhance exercise performance?

    A. Caffeine is a stimulant, and, as such, is a double-edge sword.

    Caffeine has been shown to help with performance, but take care: certain amounts in the blood stream can disqualify athletes from competition.  As for the rest of us, coffee (or its caffeine equivalent) may provide a boost of energy that gives you a competitive edge. Coffee and tea are no longer considered to be dehydrating, so you can count them in your daily fluid intake.

    Q. Who needs sports drinks, and who does not?

    A. Gidus says you need a sports drink for exercise lasting more than 60 minutes. While research suggests that sports drinks can also boost performance when you work out for less than 60 minutes straight, plain water is just fine for hydration. If you sweat heavily, use sports drinks to replace sodium, but mind the calories. Sports drinks can add up to weight gain.

    Q. Do exercisers need more vitamins and minerals, and should they take supplements?

    A. As your caloric needs go up, your need for vitamins and minerals typically increases. Focus on eating nutrient-dense foods, such as lean meat, poultry, seafood, low-fat dairy foods, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables for the extra calories, not low-nutrient foods, such as chips, crackers and cookies, to help you get the vitamins and minerals you need.

    “While I favor food first, I am not opposed to a general daily multivitamin to help fill in small nutrient gaps and make sure an active person is meeting many of their nutrient needs in addition to the nutrients food provides,” Gidus says.

    Q. What’s the best way to refuel after exercise?

    A. You need to replace fluid, carbohydrate, and protein losses after exercise but don’t overdo it: What you eat should fit into your overall daily calorie budget, whether you are trying to lose or maintain your body weight.

    You may think you’re burning more calories than you are when working out, and that can lead to problems. “Many marathon runners I work with gain weight while training for a marathon because they overcompensate for the calories they burn,” Gidus says.

    The best way to refuel is to eat foods rich in carbohydrate, including bananas, cereal, and pasta within 30 minutes after exercise, and aim to eat some protein within 2 hours afterwards. It may be easier, and it’s certainly healthy, to combine protein and carbohydrate foods to eat just after exercise. Examples include low-fat chocolate milk, fruit smoothies, cereal such as Special-K Protein Plus and milk, and eggs, with whole grain toast.

    Photo: iStockphoto

    The opinions expressed in WebMD Second Opinion are solely those of the User, who may or may not have medical or scientific training. These opinions do not represent the opinions of WebMD. Second Opinion are... Expand

    URAC Seal TRUSTe TAG Registered Seal HONcode Seal AdChoices