Eight top athletes share their nutrition tricks for a high-performing new year
January is nothing if not full of diet advice. But when it comes to the life of an athlete, simply watching calories or losing weight doesn’t cut it. So we asked eight world class competitors to share the best advice they ever got about eating not just to stay in shape, but to perform at the top of their sport. Here’s what they said.
Front-load your meals for the day
Gwen Jorgensen, Olympic gold medalist, triathlon
I used to struggle with a decrease in performance late in the day, and I’d feel hungry in the afternoon, so my nutritionist suggested I front-load my meals. That means making my first two meals more calorie-dense, and making dinner a lighter meal.
For breakfast, I will often have a large bowl of oatmeal with peanut butter, coconut butter and fruit, and then put two eggs on top. I’ll fuel with a Red Bull during my morning workout, and afterward I’ll have a full fat yogurt with nuts and berries. Lunch is usually red meat with rice, veggies and cheese. This keeps me energized all the way through my mid-morning and early evening sessions.
Your body’s talking — listen
Rebekkah Brunson, five-time WNBA champion
Throughout the years I have received plenty of advice on nutrition: some of it good, and some of it just plain silly. I have tried different diets and cleanses, eating only protein and veggies, drinking only juices, parting ways with sugars and carbs altogether. Some ways have been more successful than others. As I have gotten older I find that some things work better for others and what is great for you may not be great for me.
What’s really worked for me? Learning to listen to my body. Your body lets you know what is working and what isn’t. We sometimes ignore the signs because we enjoy certain things, but the signs are there. If you still feel hungry after eating, it may be because you’re not getting the nutrients you need so your body is still asking you to feed it. If you’re feeling tired or heavy after eating two servings of pasta or a piece of cake, it may be that you need to work on moderation.
For me, I try to get all of the nutrition I need without feeling hungry or tired. That means limiting carbs and eating more protein and vegetables, which leaves me feeling energetic and ready to perform. I am also not afraid to treat myself. I don’t want to feel like life is a constant diet. If I really want something that I wouldn’t consider healthy, I will eat it. But I understand those things won’t necessarily leave me ready to perform, so I eat them in moderation.
Eat your (fruits and) veggies
Tori Bowie, world champion sprinter
When it comes to nutrition I keep it extremely simple. On a day-to-day basis I try to get most of my nutrients based upon the food pyramid — emphasizing the produce. Whether it’s fruit in a juiced smoothie or snacking on chopped cucumbers, I’ve found that both fruit and vegetables are great sources to staying hydrated. My strength coach makes it his duty to remind us of that often.
Eat small and eat often
Rebecca Soni, six-time Olympic medalist in swimming
Swimmers are endlessly hungry. I could eat a big meal and be hungry within an hour. Instead of eating a lot during one sitting, I learned to eat small and eat often. You should feel like you could go for a run after a meal.
I also focus on clean foods to help keep my recovery time quick, and keep me feeling good. By eating lighter meals more often, I started feeling better in my workouts and throughout the day. It’s not just about eating well to prepare for competition, but eating well while training, and then maintaining that through a competition.
Emma Coburn, steeplechase world champion
The best piece of advice I’ve received about eating is that eating right after a workout is very important. There is a short window, 30-60 minutes after a workout, where your body can restore the glycogen in your muscles.
Eating right after a workout will help your muscles recover and prepare you for the next day’s workout. I always bring a bar, a banana or a smoothie with me to have as soon as my workout ends.
Keep everything in moderation
Elana Meyers Taylor, Olympic silver medalist in bobsled
About eight years ago, my then coach Dan Pfaff said this: Everything in moderation. He believes nutrition is about eating the proper foods but not restricting yourself too much.
It took me years to finally get it. I’ve been on every diet possible and am now working with a nutrition coaching company called Working Against Gravity. I’m leaner than I’ve ever been, and all I do with them is count my macros — which is counting carbs, proteins, and fats, and balancing them to meet my training needs. Everything in moderation. If only I understood that eight years ago when Dan told me!
Treat yourself to the best
Alysia Montaño, seven-time U.S. champion in track and field
Think of your body as a machine that needs to be well-oiled and well-fed. If you think about a premium vehicle, you give it premium fuel. I think of myself as the best car out there. I’m not going subpar because I want my vehicle to operate in a manner that’s elite.
It’s a personal decision, but for me if I have a choice between conventional fruits and vegetables or organic, I’m going with the organic. I want the best of the best in everything I put in my body.
I also try to make sure my food is working for me. If I’m going to make pizza for myself I’ll use oat or quinoa flour that’s really packed with protein. I’ll put yogurt in my oatmeal and toss in some nuts for a breakfast that will stick in my belly and get me through my workout. I’ll add tart cherries to help with inflammation. I don’t have a diet with a name — I’m not paleo or vegan. I eat food and I eat real food. It’s all about balance. I go for unprocessed when I can, obviously, but I hang out with friends from time to time and get pizza or go to a ball game and get a hot dog.
Eat for what you’re doing today
Elena Hight, Olympic snowboarder and X Games gold medalist
The nutritionists at Clif Bar taught me that fueling for exercise, training and competition is different than fueling for life. I used to eat pretty much the same types of foods and portions of macronutrients no matter what my day consisted of. Now I base my meals, snacks and recovery foods on the type of exercise I am doing, how intense it is, and what I am expecting out of my body after eating. I have found that this outlook has given me way more energy and helped me fuel in a smarter, more sustainable way.