The Athlete’s Kitchen: Taking Your Diet to the Next Level

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Some athletes are still on the “see-food diet.” They see food and they eat it. Others are a bit more mindful about how they nourish their bodies; they put thought into selecting high-quality foods that invest in good health, quick healing and top performance. They commonly report they have taken their diets to the next level. For some disciplined and dedicated athletes, the next level is a perfect diet with no sugar, no processed foods, no desserts and no “fun foods.”

While aspiring to eat quality foods is certainly a step in the right direction, eating too healthfully can sometimes create problems if the food policy becomes a bit too zealous. Is birthday cake really a bad-for-you food? (I don’t think so.) Is gorging on vegetables really best for your body? (Not if your hands acquire an orange tinge from having eaten too many carrots, or if you experience recurrent diarrhea due to an excessively high-fiber diet.)

Perhaps a better goal than a perfect diet is an excellent diet. An excellent diet might be more balanced, enjoyable and sustainable. Even birthday cake with refined sugar and saturated fat can fit into an excellent diet. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines allow for the inclusion of small amounts of so-called “imperfect” foods in your food plan:

Ten percent of calories can come from refined sugar. That’s about 250 to 350 calories (60 to 90 grams) of sugar (carbohydrate) for most female and male athletes, respectively. This sugar fuels your muscles. Sports drinks and gels count as refined sugar.

Ten percent of calories can come from saturated fat that can clog arteries and is associated with heart disease. For an athlete who requires about 2,500 to 3,500 calories a day, consuming 250 to 350 calories (about 30 to 40 grams) of saturated fat per day, if desired, can fit within the saturated fat budget. This means, from time to time, you can enjoy without guilt some “bad foods” such as bacon and chips. One slice of bacon has about one gram saturated fat; a small bag of potato chips, about three grams.


Certainly there are healthier foods to eat than bacon and chips, but you want to look at your whole day’s food intake- not just a single item- to determine the overall quality of your sports diet. If 85 percent to 95 percent of your food choices are high quality, a little bacon or a few chips will not ruin your health forever.


Some athletes deal with “unhealthy” foods by setting aside one day a week to be their cheat day. This well-intentioned plan can easily backfire. Most people don’t overeat/splurge until they have first been denied or deprived of a favorite food. Hence, when the perfect diet starts on Monday, people can do a heck of a lot of “last chance” eating the days before starting their restrictive food plan.

Rather than a Sunday splurge, let’s say on bacon, you might want to enjoy just a few slices of bacon throughout the week. This can curb cravings and dissipate the urge to splurge on Sundays. There can be a “diet portion” of any food.

Going to the next level

For athletes who want to take their diets to the next level with a sustainable plan, I offer these suggestions:

-Evenly distribute your calories throughout the day. Most active women need about 2,400-2,800 calories a day; active men may need 2,800-3,600 calories a day. This number varies according to how much you weigh, how fidgety you are, and how much you exercise. That’s why meeting with a professional sports dietitian can help you determine a reliable estimate. To find a local sports dietitian, use the referral network at http://www.SCANdpg.org.

-Most “bad” food decisions happen at night, after your body has been underfueled during the day. If you are “starving” before dinner, add a second lunch to curb your evening (over)eating. You will easily save yourself from a lot of junk food at night. Trust me.

-If your body requires 2,400 to 2,800 calories per day, this divides into 4 food buckets with ~600-700 calories every four hours. For example: 7:00 a.m., breakfast; 11:00, early lunch; 3:00 p.m., later lunch; and 7:00, dinner. Adjust the times to suit your schedule and divide the calories, if desired, into smaller snacks within that four-hour window.

-Your breakfast food bucket should be the same size as your dinner bucket; this likely means you’ll be eating a smaller dinner and a bigger breakfast. If you train in the morning, you may want to eat part of your breakfast calories before you exercise and the rest afterwards.

-Include in each food bucket at least three of these four types of foods:
1. Grain-based foods (about 150-250 calories/bucket), to fuel your muscles. Easy whole grains: whole wheat bread, oatmeal, baked corn chips
2. Protein-based foods (about 250 calories/bucket), to build and repair your muscles. Easy ready-made options include rotisserie chicken, deli turkey, hummus, tuna pouches, tofu, hard-boiled eggs and nuts.
3. Fruits and veggies (about 100-200 calories/bucket) for vitamins and minerals. Choose a variety of colorful fruits: strawberries, cherries, oranges, peaches, bananas, and blueberries. Also choose colorful veggies: dark green broccoli, peppers, spinach; orange carrots, sweet potato; red tomato, etc.
4. Dairy/calcium-rich foods (about 100 calories/bucket) for bones and maintaining low blood pressure: Lowfat (soy) milk, (Greek) yogurt, cheeseÑbut please not rice or almond milk. They are equivalent to juice with very little protein or nutritional merit.

By filling up on quality foods at breakfast, lunch #1, and lunch #2, you will crave less “junk food” at night and may not even miss it. Your diet will easily rise to the next level, no sweat.

Recovery Modalities for Training

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In the search to maximize training and improvement performance, many are now looking at what is done during recovery as a component of the entire training/performance routine. Many recovery modalities have been touted as the answer to post-exercise fatigue and reduced performance. There are three potential benefits that may be considered: immediate recovery (right after the activity), short-term (between sets) and recovery between training bouts. We will focus on training recovery, as this is the most common question from athletes and those participating in recreational competition. Some of the modalities that have been used include vibration, whole body immersion (usually cold water or contrast; cold then warm, alternating), compression garments, massage, electrical stimulation, heat or stretching or pharmacologic measures, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs).

In general, most of these modalities provide little, if any, benefit to recovery. Whole body cryotherapy (cooling) reduced strength loss at one hour post activity, with less pain than a passive recovery group, but by 24 hours there was no difference in strength or pain between recovery modes. Similarly, another study noted that athletes said their legs felt “lighter” at 24 hours when having used active recovery and cold immersion, but physical tests between groups showed no difference. Alternating cold and warm water immersion (contrast water therapy) showed the greatest decreases in soreness, but, as with the others, there were no differences in specific components, such as strength or range of motion.

Electrical stimulation (e-stim) is being marketed for pain reduction, and while advertisements may identify other benefits, the research suggests otherwise. E-stim does not seem to aid “restoration” of traits that are usually altered following intense activity, such as strength or fatigue. Cooling was shown to have a positive effect on aerobic activity. However, it has been noted that the results are variable and partially dependent upon the length of cooling and individual responses to the modality. While the prolonged use of NSAIDs is not recommended due to the potential for gastric issues, most of the recovery modalities do not have major negative effects when used appropriately.


Important components of recovery should include some relative rest, proper diet and rehydration. Diet and rehydration are especially necessary for longer activities and those in which the athlete is subject to high temperatures. In such cases, diet and hydration may help to restore energy resources to the muscle as well as restoration of electrolytes.


The evidence for physical benefits from recovery modalities is limited. However, many of the modalities appear to be useful for reduction of pain/muscle soreness. The noted reductions in pain/soreness may be temporary, but some have noted that this effect may allow an athlete to complete subsequent training, even if at a lower intensity. Furthermore, the psychological effect of any technique may be enough to promote improved performance or the ability to train at a desired level following previous intense bouts of training. Thus, the final decision regarding the use of a recovery modality will be based on your personal preference and the desired outcome. If pain/soreness reduction is important, then you may want to try a recovery modality. If the ability to do harder workouts in succession is the goal, a recovery modality will probably not help.

What Is Periodization?

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Periodization is a programming tool where individuals, typically athletes, implement training cycles that take several things into consideration including when peak performance is needed. Periodization is an organized and purposeful approach to training that considers both the physical and physiological adaptations that need to occur while reducing the risk of overtraining. Any individual training for an event will benefit from using a periodized approach.

Training cycles

Periodization can be broken down into specific training cycles including a macrocycle, mesocycles and microcycles. A macrocycle can last several months to a year and concludes with the competition or competitive phase. Mesocycles are several weeks long and are usually tightly linked to whether the athlete is in their off-season, pre-season or in-season, and the training focus will adjust accordingly. Finally, microcyles make up the mesocycles and they are from several days to two weeks in length, with most microcycles being one week. Mesocycles that are in the off-season will generally focus on activities that are not specific to the sport, while mesocycles in the pre-season adjust their focus toward activities that are more sport-specific.

Periodization and the use of the training cycles allow individuals to successfully move from general activities that are not specific to the competition to more sport-specific activities as the competitive event approaches. The goal is for someone to achieve peak performance at the time of the most important competition and the window to maintain peak performance is narrow. Periodization, by nature, does not adhere to a strict linear approach. Both training volume and intensity should be monitored and manipulated so that proper recovery can occur following mesocycles and/or microcycles. With recovery and adjustments to volume and intensity throughout a training cycle, adaptations will occur and the risk of overtraining remains low. Click here to download an example of a periodization schedule.

Tapering

Tapering is a tool that is used to help athletes recover and/or prepare for major competitions. It is the systematic reduction in training prior to a competition, or it can be a planned microcycle that is focused on recovery. When tapering prior to a competition, it is not uncommon to keep the intensity high, but greatly reduce the duration of training sessions. While tapering can enhance performance, care must be taken to not have detraining occur. Detraining is when the training stimulus is reduced to the point that positive adaptations are no longer occurring and the stimulus is not enough to maintain previous adaptations.

Periodization for year-round sports

For individuals who are involved in year-round competitions, such as triathlons, periodization can be challenging. One strategy is to look at all upcoming competitions and rank them by importance in terms of peak performance. Less important events can serve as a higher intensity training day, and training cycles can be built around competitions where peak performance is desired.

Regardless of whether it’s a competitive athlete or someone who wants to compete in a local road race, thoughtful and purposeful periodization of training will provide the best approach to achieve the desired peak performance on the day of the most important competitions.

Mental Preparation for Competition

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While race day or game day itself is often exciting, unpredictable and public, the training that prepares us for the big day can be anything but. The grueling, tedious and monotonous nature of preparation, typically done away from public view, can make sticking with a training program difficult. In this article, we consider the mental challenges of adherence and tips to get through training as well as the big race or game.

What hinders lots of athletes, whether recreational or highly competitive as they prepare for competition is the repetitiveness of training. Running the same routes and performing the same drills every day, after a while, can strip us of our motivation to continue. While repetition is key to mastery of a skill, new trails, new routes, or new routines can be the ticket when the excitement of training begins to dwindle. An older man approaching the 50th wedding anniversary with his wife recently shared to me his secret to marital success: “Keep her guessing. Keep her on her toes.

One day, return home from work with a rose, or a nice shirt, or a piece of jewelry or a loving embrace. Never fall into a long-term routine. The possibility of surprise fortifies the relationship and keeps it lasting.” The human body and mind both respond favorably to variation; life requires some change to keep someone alert, fresh and interested. Surprising your muscles and your mind with change prevents you from simply going through the motions and brings more mindfulness to the movements of the training. Examples include:

– running stairs instead of hills
– playing pick-up basketball instead of your regular agility training
– working on less familiar or less practiced parts of your game
– testing out kettlebells rather than the usual dumbbells at the gym

Mixing it up can be in response to a lull in motivation (“I’m getting bored, it’s time for a change”) or as a way to eliminate the possibility of the lull setting in. Find what works for you.

We tend to forget that there is a way to enhance training for competition without having to physically move our bodies. When a scene is imagined vividly and accurately, our brains essentially get tricked into believing we’re doing it for real, since physical and mental rehearsal alike activate very similar parts of the brain. Not only is it helpful to create pictures of success in our mind (i.e., watching ourselves kicking the game-winning field goal, or crossing the finish line in record time), but it’s just as important to picture overcoming the obstacles that may get in the way of success. Examples include:

– imagining how you will adjust your race strategy to torrential rain on the big day
– seeing yourself letting go of a poor golf hole and sticking with your normal routines on the next hole, rather than rushing and making impulsive decisions as you may usually do
– picturing playing intense and focused defense after missing a clutch free throw on offense

Remember, you never want to arrive anywhere on the course or field where you haven’t already been for at least a few moments in your mind.