Are you getting enough quality nutrition?
— By Casey Jones
With over 20 years in the industry and hundreds of athletes coached, Angela Dufour knows nutrition. A successful dietitian and coach, Dufour runs Nutrition In Action where she guides elite and recreational athletes alike with their diet goals. She was recently named to the Canadian Olympic Committee’s staff as a sport dietitian for the 2018 Winter Olympics. We were fortunate enough to chat with Dufour to get an inside look at the best nutrition tips for athletes.
1. Ensure you’re eating enough for your individual needs
“Normally what I find regardless if an athlete is power or endurance — is that they are not eating enough quality nutrition.” says Dufour. While it’s vital to run a caloric deficit to lose weight, many competitive athletes are not eating enough for the amount that they are moving, according to what Dufour has seen over the years.
If you’re training hard and have an active lifestyle, make sure you’re getting enough calories from quality foods. Find out your caloric needs with a calculator such as this.
2. Pair protein intake with carbohydrates post-workout
A popular post-workout option for many athletes is a whey protein shake. While the protein is beneficial for muscle building and recovery, carbohydrates are also needed to replace sugar stores in muscle cells and expedite recovery.
Some ‘low-carbers’ are scared of post-workout carbohydrates, but Dufour insists “athletes need carbs too for protein to be maximally effective!” Good carbohydrate sources post-workout include those that are fast-digesting like rice, dextrose, and maltodextrin. Although fruit sugars are digested more slowly by the body, they will also suffice.
- Endurance athletes: 4:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio with 15-20 grams of protein post-training
- Power athletes: 3:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio with 30-40 grams of protein post-workout
3. Dial in your macros!
In an attempt to find the best dietary balance, many athletes use macronutrient percentages of total daily calories to calculate how much carbs, protein, and fat they should intake a day. However this option is not unique to each individual and it should be, Dufour says.
She suggests you base your macronutrient intake on kilograms of body weight:
Carbohydrates: 6-10 g/kg. Endurance athletes preparing for competition may be in the higher end of this range.
Protein: 1.2-1.4 g/kg. This range is very generalized and should be tailored to your goals. Power athletes looking to increase muscle mass may go up to 1.6 g/kg of protein per day.
Fat: 0.8-1 g/kg day. Endurance athletes use fat more effectively than power/strength athletes, especially during long races. Good options for fat intake include unsaturated sources like olive oil, animal fats, nuts, and omega-3.
These guidelines should can still be tweaked based on goals, and should be calculated based on lean mass or your goal weight if trying to shed some pounds.
4. Don’t forget about micronutrients
“Modelling an athlete’s blood profile before, during, and after training would be ideal for micronutrient supplementation,” says Dufour. Although the practice is not yet mainstream, companies like InsideTracker work with professional athletes to characterize their blood profiles for proper supplementation.
For the rest of us, Dufour suggests a preventative instead of a reactive approach. She suggests that vitamin D should be supplemented year round, in addition to Omega-3s.
Vitamin D is vital for bone health, muscle rebuilding, and immune function. Omega-3s are also useful as an anti-inflammatory and for recovery. Although not scientifically proven, many athletes find that Omega-3 helps combat muscle soreness after training. Products like NutraSea allow you to get both in a single dose.
5. Meal timing is key!
“Some athletes can eat a full meal an hour before a competition, while others can’t stomach anything 3 hours prior to a game — it is really individual!”
Tolerance to food before competition or training is highly individual and depends on factors like the gut microbiome, pre-game anxiety, and the types of food you’re eating.
Angela Dufour’s meal-timing tips:
- 3+ hours before - Pre-game/event meal: A bit of lean protein, carbs, fluids, and fats. You can be a little more generous with fat here. Chicken, rice or pasta, and veggies with olive oil would be a good option.
- 1-2 hours before: Very little protein, high quality carbs. This is the time to break out the quality sources of carbohydrates like whole grains, fruit, or other carb-laden snack to get ready for competition.
6. Your pre-event meal is more important than the one the night before
“Carb-loading the night before an event is not going to make up for the lack of nutrition during the week of a game,” Dufour says. “You don’t always have to have a ‘pasta party’ the night before — rice or quinoa with chicken will be fine.”
As long as your nutrition is well-planned leading up to competition or a race, you will only need 1-3 servings of carbs leading up to an event. An excess of pasta or other carbs in the body retains water and may make you feel unwell during training — a good tip to not pasta load!
7. Cutting weight ≠ cutting calories
“Telling an athlete to eat more when they’re trying to lose weight doesn’t usually sit well — but sometimes it is a reality,” Dufour says.
Although it's true a caloric deficit causes weight loss, chronic calorie deficiencies can cause physical and mental stress to an athlete who is training hard. Dufour talks about an elite athlete who experienced a relative energy deficiency, increases in fat percentage, and lack of training adaptations as a result of not eating enough. After increasing her caloric intake, the athlete improved her hormone regulation and metabolism, and found it easier to drop weight.
If this doesn’t sound like you, Dufour still has some fat loss tips:
- Cut your carbohydrate intake from 6-10 g/kg to 2-3g/kg.
- Ensure that you are still doing cardiovascular exercise but nothing too intense — the lack of carbs means that high-intensity exercise will be more difficult to fuel.
- Reduce strength training and bias towards cardiovascular exercise.
8. Intermittent fasting may be a good option for you — but not for everyone
Intermittent fasting (IF) is the practice of eating only during a specific window of time — usually a period of 6 to 8 hours in the afternoon, and skipping breakfast. This helps cut calories, and proponents of IF say that it helps the body burn fat more efficiently.
Dufour says “It’s absolutely worth a try — not just for weight reduction, but to elicit a short-term training response that you’re not getting. This could be part of a training protocol, but shouldn’t be a long-term option, especially for endurance athletes.”
9. Know your supplements
We recently covered the science behind popular sports supplements, but Dufour had the following to add:
— Whey protein and creatine are good options. “Consider the quality of the protein that you’re consuming — all are not created equal! Whey, casein, and A1 are good choices.”
— Sodium bicarbonate may assist with sport performance
— Supplement with nitrates and beetroot (juice, extracts) to improve blood flow and exercise performance (400 mg of nitrates)
— Iron supplementation may be beneficial for some individuals — specifically those training at high-altitudes
— “The potential for caffeine is huge. Focus on timing and dosing of your caffeine — this is a big area of research that we haven't yet tapped into enough.”
— BCAAs: “Many of my athletes feel a perceived benefit from BCAA supplementation that may not be actually true. There is some science that says including protein in the last half of the workout may help — it could benefit, but will it make a difference if they’re eating properly? This is unlikely.” She also adds that superdosing on these amino acids may be offsetting the absorption of other vital amino acids in the cut, so its important to not have too many BCAAs.
10. Drink drink drink!
“I often call water the forgotten nutrient,” Dufour says. “We can see 1-2% reductions in performance when an athlete is dehydrated. Even for skill-based sports, this lack of fluid intake is as detrimental as a lack of carb intake in terms of improving coordination and focus.”
Hydration during training should be individualized based on intensity, heat, and athlete, so a blanket statement can’t be made, Dufour says. However during intense training, athletes should be drinking every 15-20 minutes. During longer bouts of training, carbs and electrolytes should also be consumed.
Casey Jones is a master's in science student at Dalhousie University, where he studies the link between the human microbiome and pediatric Crohn’s disease in Nova Scotians.