An Athlete’s Guide to Eating Healthy

By Amy Gastright '21

October 2018 Issue

      The score is tied late in the game, and everything is riding on these last few minutes. As an athlete, the pressure is on, now more than ever, to perform in the best way possible. And then you feel it. Your muscles are getting heavy, your legs are burning, and sweat is rolling off of you. It’s an athlete’s greatest fear: “bonking,” or a sudden fatigue or loss of energy, when it’s most important to put in your best effort.

      How can an athlete prevent this? What can athletes do before the big game to keep their energy level up? Members of the Saint Stephen’s & Saint Agnes School community, and world-class, professional athletes all agree that nutrition is one key to improving performance.

      My student insight came from Ashley West, a junior here at SSSAS, who swims, plays tennis and lacrosse. In an interview, she said that “on competition day… I eat a lot of carbohydrates like bread and pasta because that’s what gives me energy… that’s what gets me ready to go, because it’s not super heavy.” She also advocates for eating healthy fats, saying that “yes, fats are your friend… because they’re really important for energy.”

      In addition, I spoke briefly with Lucas Bires, a senior who plays soccer, baseball, and runs track. He said that “on training day [I’ll] probably go for a lot more carbs and protein, usually some milk and then a lot of water on game days.”

      A different perspective came from Mrs. Bays, who has been teaching Health and Human Sexuality here at SSSAS for eleven years. During our interview, she spoke avidly about the importance of each person’s unique dietary and nutritional needs. When asked about the optimal diet for someone who does not play many sports, and rather focuses mostly on academics, she said, “All of our bodies are very different, and so when you’re looking at nutrition we really have to look at what makes us feel best, and connecting enough with our bodies to know what allows not only peak performance in athletics, if you’re an athlete, but also mental clarity, and energy, vitality, happiness, and also just feeling good about the food that we’re eating and feeling good about our bodies.”

      Though she certainly advocated for personal nutritional regulation, she also said that “food is our fuel, it’s our energy, and it allows us to thrive and function, and so first and foremost you have to make sure you’re getting enough of it.” Elaborating further, she mentioned that nutritionists advocate for five balanced meals a day with extremely high levels of nutrients and vitamins rather than three. She also mentioned the importance of “a rainbow of colors on your plate,” or eating different types of foods, like fruits and vegetables with high levels of nutrients.

      The thing she said that stuck out to me the most during our fifteen minute interview, however, was when she said that “your body should be your leader.” In other words, it is vital for each person to personalize their diets to what makes them feel best, even if that means straying slightly from the typical guidelines.

      Professional athletes competing all over the world have all sorts of tips and tricks for improving athletic performance, but there are a few they swear by.

      Many athletes support eating many small meals over three big ones. This is because for optimal performance, it is best not to be too loaded down by overeating, and it is extremely important not to be undernourished either.

      Rebecca Soni, six-time Olympic medalist in swimming, told ESPN that she advocates for “eating lighter meals more often.” She says that as a serious athlete, she is “endlessly hungry,” and that “[she] could eat a big meal and be hungry within an hour. Instead of eating a lot during one sitting, [she] learned to eat small and eat often. You should feel like you could go for a run after a meal.”

      According to ESPN’s article that delved into the monstrous diet of Russell Wilson, the NFL quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks, Wilson swears that by eating nine meals a day, he wakes up each morning feeling stronger, and with energy that lasts him the whole day.

      A different ESPN article, one that took some nutritional advice from the world’s top athletes gave further insight. A tip from Gwen Jorgensen, an Olympic gold medalist in the triathlon helps prevent that “bonk,” or sudden loss of energy late into the competition, is to front load your meals. In other words, eat a heavy breakfast and lunch, with a light dinner. According to Jorgensen, “I used to struggle with a decrease in performance late in the day, and I’d feel hungry in the afternoon… [but] this keeps me energized all the way through my mid-morning and early evening sessions.”

      Possibly more important than the when of eating are the choices we make about what to put into our bodies. Contrary to FDA recommendations for an average person, a study from the University of Nevada states athletes need to take in a lot more calories than 2,000 per day. In fact, an athlete practicing 90 minutes or more per day needs to consume at least 23 calories for every pound of body weight. For the average high schooler, who weighs around 120-150 pounds, that’s 3,000 calories or more!

      A high-calorie diet does not mean that an athlete can load up on their favorite junk foods. It is vital that athletes get varied nutrients, which depends on the type of sport one plays. Athletes playing full body workout sports such as swimming, rowing, running, cycling, and basketball need long-lasting, slow-burning energy. According to Fox News, this means complex-carbohydrates, which can be found in foods heavy in grains like whole wheat bread and pasta, brown rice, potatoes and lentils. Additionally, it is important to eat some sort of carbohydrates during breakfast, when the body’s glycogen levels are the lowest. Glycogen, which can be found in most carbohydrates, is the best form of energy for the brain, particularly during anaerobic workouts (The Global Diabetes Community).

      For endurance sports, like soccer, cross country, lacrosse, and hockey, athletes need larger amounts of proportional and balanced nutrition. This means complex carbohydrates, heart-healthy fats like nuts, fish and avocado, and lean proteins like beans, egg whites, pork and poultry. As a general rule, all athletes need about .5-1 grams of protein for every pound of body weight per day. One of the most important things for any athlete is to hydrate as much as possible. During every minute of the day, people are losing water. Drinking water throughout the day, not just during competition, is crucial to a strong athletic performance (Olympic vs. Average Joe Athlete Diets, Fox News).

      As an avid swimmer and softball player, I have spent my fair share of time experimenting with my diet. What I have found is that athletes, more than anyone else, need to focus on eating enough protein and carbohydrates, along with varied fruits and vegetables. Personally, I try to eat a large breakfast with milk for calcium, some sort of fruit for vitamin C and a lot of carbs. In addition, drinking a healthy protein shake or a bottle of chocolate milk after my early morning workout in the pool reduces recovery time. I try to eat healthy snacks all throughout the day, often carrying my bright orange lunch bag to class, or snagging an apple on the way out of chapel. I try to stay away from overly sugary snacks. But most importantly, I keep a water bottle in my backpack so that I am reminded to keep hydrating. All of this being said, every athlete is different, and each one should experiment until they find a nutrition plan that works for them.