Sports Nutrition: Elite vs. Recreational Athletes

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Nancy, do you offer different nutrition recommendations for elite athletes as compared to recreational exercisers? I am highly competitive, work out intensely, and often wonder if I am eating to be the best athlete that I can be.

Answer: My nutrition recommendations are based on the assumption we all want to get the most benefits from our workouts so we can perform the best we can, given the effort we are willing to invest. The following describes the different recommendations I might make for serious athletes, as compared to recreational exercisers.

Keep in mind, each athlete / exerciser is unique and I do not use a one-diet-fits-all approach. Rather, I encourage my clients to be curious and experiment with a variety of foods and fueling practices, and learn what works best for his or her body. Maybe some athletes do perform better with more fat than carbs, or more beef than beans? Sports nutrition is a new science. In ten years, with the coming of personalized sports nutrition based on genetics, sports dietitians will likely be able to help athletes even more. Til then, here are my science-based recommendations.

Carbohydrate requirements

Carbohydrate needs vary according to how hard and how long you exercise. In this protein- and fat-praising era, the biggest deficiency I see among sportsactive people is carbohydrate. Your goal is to consume adequate “quality carbs” (grains, fruits and veggies) to fuel your muscles and prevent “dead legs.” Elite athletes who burn a lot of calories often find it hard to consume adequate carbohydrate without balancing in some sugary “fun foods.” (up to 10% of calories. These are the carb guidelines:

Amount of exercise/daygram carb/lb. body wt.gram carb/kg body wt.
1 hour moderate exercise 2.5 to 3 5 to 7
1-3 h endurance exercise2.5 to 4.5 6 to 10
>4-5 h extreme exercise 3.5 to 5.5 8 to 12

For a 140-lb recreational exerciser who trains moderately hard for an hour a day, this might be 350 g carbs (1,400 calories) For the competitive athlete who works out harder and longer, this might be 630 g carb (2,500 calories) a day. Divide that into 3 meals (400-800 calories from carbs/meal) and 2 snacks (100-200 calories from carbs/snack). Start reading food labels to see how well you do! You'll discover a chicken Caesar salad for lunch doesn't hit the target.

Protein requirements

A competitive athlete who has fully developed musculature might actually utilize less protein than a novice exerciser who is building new muscle. The small difference in protein needs tends to be moot, however, given that most athletes consume more protein than they need (assuming they are not restricting calories, in which case protein needs increase while food intake decreases. Some of the protein consumed to build muscle gets diverted to fuel muscles instead of build and repair muscles.

 Protein needs/lb. body wt.Protein/kg body wt.
Recreational exerciser0.6-1.0 g1.2-2.0 g/kg
Competitive athlete0.6-0.8 g 1.2-1.7 g/kg 

Note: If you are significantly over-fat, your protein needs should be estimated using an adjusted body weight. This weight might be halfway between your goal weight and your current weight. For example, if you weigh 200 pounds but 160 is a better weight, base you protein needs on 180 pounds.

Competitive athletes can easily meet their protein requirement by targeting about 20 to 30 grams of protein per meal and 10-20 grams/snack. No need for supplements! The protein in real foods is more effective than from supplements, because natural foods offer a complex matrix of nutrients that interact in a synergistic effect.

Fluids

Competitive athletes can lose a lot of sweat when exercising for hours on end. But so can recreational exercisers who are out of shape and pushing themselves hard. That's why everyone who sweats heavily wants to learn his or her sweat rate. You can learn this by weighing yourself (without clothing) before an after you exercise for an hour at XX pace and in XX degrees of heat or cold. For each pound lost, you are in deficit of 16-ounces of fluid. Drink enough during exercise to minimize this deficit, and throughout the day, your goal is be able to void light-colored urine every 2 to 4 hours. (No need to pee every 1/2-hour; that's excessive.

Electrolytes

Most recreational exercisers don't exercise long enough to have to worry about replacing electrolytes (generally called minerals: potassium, sodium, magnesium, calcium). Food is loaded with electrolytes. If you want some potassium, eat a banana. If you want some sodium, shake salt on your oatmeal or pasta. Choose (chocolate) milk over Gatorade for an electrolyte-filled recovery drink.

Highly competitive endurance athletes who are exercising for more than three hours in the heat can benefit from supplemental sodium if they are not eating electrolyte-containing food (PB&J sandwich, energy bar, etc.) while exercising. They want to add extra salt to their pre-exercise food (helps retain water and delay dehydration) and consume salted foods/fluids during extended workouts. Popular choices include endurance sports drinks, broth, jerky, salt, and commercial salt replacers. If you are craving salt, consume salt! Afterwards, most sweaty athletes intuitively seek salty chips, soup, pickles, pasta sauce, or simply sprinkle lots of salt on their recovery meal.

Pre-exercise

Fueling up before your workout adds pleasure to the workout as well as enhances your ability to perform at your best. Recreational exercisers, in particular, want to know they should appropriately eat 200 to 400 calories within the hour before they workout. They need to teach their intestinal tract to tolerate this fuel. They'll stick with the exercise program much more when they have the energy to enjoy the workout! Here are the pre-exercise fueling guidelines:

Competitive athletes also benefit from fueling up pre-exercise. That said, “training low” (exercising on empty) once a week or so can trigger adaptations that might help pull them through the end of a competitive event when they are “gassed” and “running on fumes.”

Recovery

Are “old fashioned” orange sections OK after a highly competitive soccer game? Or are they just for kids who play recreationally?

Recreational exercisers who workout three or four times a week are unlikely to deplete their muscles of glycogen, and if they do, they have another 24 to 48 hours to replenish them. Muscles stay in muscle-building mode for the next 24 to 48 hours after a weight-lifting session. Recovery nutrition can easily be handled by backing the workout into a meal.
Competitive athletes, in comparison, want to rapidly refuel, particularly if they will be exercising within the next 6 hours, be it in a tournament situation or a simply doing a second workout that day. The sooner they eat, the sooner they replenish depleted glycogen and water. That said, once a week or so, highly competitive athletes might want to purposefully avoid refueling with carbohydrate so they train depleted the next (low quality) workout session. Doing so can trigger metabolic adaptations that can be helpful at the end of a competition.

Weight

Recreational exercisers commonly train with a goal of losing undesired body fat. If exercise contributes to creating a calorie deficit for the day, the person will lose weight. However, some recreational exercisers report exercise makes them hungry, so they end up eating enough to stay in energy balance (and maintain weight). Or, they become more sedentary the rest of the day. (“I worked out today and now I feel like reading a good book instead of cleaning the house. I'll clean tomorrow…”) Competitive athletes who struggle with weight need to assess the cost of losing a few pounds of fat (poorly fueled muscles?) vs. the benefit of being lighter. The desired number on the scale may not be easily attained if the athlete is already far leaner than others in the genetic family. how to best lose weight deserves a personalized conversation with a sports dietitian.

Vitamins

Vitamins get re-used, like spark plugs in a car. Hence, exercise does not leave athletes “depleted” nor in need of vitamin supplements. Whether you are a recreational exerciser or a competitive athlete, you want to look to food as your primary source of nutrients. The good news is, the more you exercise, the hungrier you get and the more vitamins and minerals (electrolytes) you consume. For example, one stalk of cooked broccoli offers 100% of the vitamin C you need for the day. Most hungry exercisers devour two or three stalks of broccoli, no problem.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. Vegans can benefit from B-12, D and iron. Females who do not eat red meat might benefit from supplemental iron. A sports dietitian can give you a “nutrition check-up” to help you learn how to consume the nutrients you need from quality foods. You can then figure out if you want to buy supplements for “health insurance” (and expensive urine).

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