Athletes, let your food choices fuel you

Written by Lindzie O’Reilly, MAN, RD, On-campus dietitian at the University of Guelph and private practice dietitian at The Wellness Collaborative

The 2018 Olympics in Pyeong Chang provided countless examples of exceptional athletes who demonstrated incredible feats of physical and mental strength. Athletes, whether Olympic caliber or recreational, are competitive by nature. They train hard, and they want to take advantage of every possible opportunity to improve their game.

We need many factors to perform our best - intense physical and mental training, a positive support network, a love for the sport, adequate sleep, and adequate nutrition, just to name a few. If we want our bodies to perform their best, we need to treat them well, fuel them, and allow them to recover.

Unfortunately, when pressure is high, it’s easy for us to become short sighted. We wish so badly to succeed, that we grasp at opportunities that may seem helpful, but that may actually harm our long-term chances of success in our sport.

Each time the Olympics come around, a few brave athletes find the courage to speak up about the pressures and influences they face. This year, Adam Rippon, a figure skater, spoke honestly about his struggles with body image and dietary restriction . For Adam, it was an injury that caused him to rethink his approach to food. For other athletes, extreme training and nutrition practices lead to burnout and a loss of love for their sport.

Adam’s story served as a reminder for me of the importance of specialized support. It’s commonplace for athletes to work with specialized coaches and trainers that are highly qualified to give advice around training schedules. It’s equally important for coaches, trainers, and athletes to recognize facets, like nutrition, that are outside of a coach’s scope of practice. It’s important for athletes to seek specialized nutrition advice from a qualified professional. Treating your body well, rather than punishing it, is truly the best recipe for success. If you’re unsure where to start, take a look at the booklet created by the Waterloo Wellington Eating Disorders Coalition with information and resources for coaches and trainers.

When you’re immersed in a sport, it can be easy to lose perspective and to fail to recognize when you may be jeopardizing your physical and mental well-being. Coaches, trainers, family members, and friends spend a lot of time with athletes. They are typically the people that know an athlete best. They are often the first to notice warning signs such as changes in mood, behaviour or athletic performance that may indicate a cause for concern. While this is certainly not an exhaustive list, here are a few warning signs that an athlete’s approach to their sport may not be honouring their health and well-being:

1.       Equating weight or body fat percentage with performance. There are so many factors that determine athletic performance. Physical fitness, technique, experience, and the ability to deal with the mental demands of a sport are just a few. Weight and body fat percentage alone have very little influence on sport performance. In fact, if an athlete is fighting to achieve a weight or size that is unnatural for them, their performance is likely to decline and their risk of injury is likely to increase.

2.       Avoiding eating in front of friends, family members, or team mates. Athletes needs to eat a wide range of foods often during the day. If they are going long periods of time without eating, or feel uncomfortable eating in social situations, this is a cause for concern.

3.       Labelling foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, or making blanket statements that tie certain foods to a certain level of performance. We eat for many reasons, and there are no foods that we need to avoid completely. While eating cookies for every meal of every day or eating meals comprised solely of carbohydrates is not balanced, never letting yourself eat cookies, or removing carbohydrates from your meals is not balanced either. Completely cutting out certain foods or food groups in an effort to increase performance gives those foods more power than they deserve, is damaging to one’s relationship with food, and can increase cravings or feelings of being out of control around food.

4.       Trading off food and activity by eating less on rest days or low volume training days. Our bodies need a similar amount of fuel on training days as they do on rest days. Rest days provide the body with an opportunity to recover and repair from training, and to prepare for upcoming training.

5.       Guilt surrounding training volume. It’s important to listen to your body and allow this to determine the length and intensity of training sessions. It’s normal to have more energy on some days than on others. Striving to complete a certain amount of reps, sets, or a certain distance regardless of how you feel increases risk of injury and is counterproductive to training.

As an athlete, the drive to succeed and the pressure to perform are high. It’s important to surround yourself with a positive and educated support team that can help you perform your best, while also prioritizing your physical and mental well-being. If you feel like you need more support on your team, please take a look under the “Services” tab on this website for a list of great resources in our community.