Diet is an important aspect of performance in all sports, while Nutrition is a field plagued with poor—or even false—information. The crossroads of the two is where many athletes find themselves, especially since questionable information (in the field of nutrition) is often presented as “research,” but is just as likely to be marketing-speak masquerading as facts. There’s a lot of money in the supplement industry; an industry that is is loosely regulated, at best. Sports supplements run the gamut from pre-workout mixes used by weightlifters and bodybuilders to sports drinks that are found in every convenience store. This becomes even more muddied when companies like Gatorade actually have some of the best sports science research programs in the world focused on sports nutrition.
In my role as a coach, clients often ask me questions about diet and food. I’m not a dietician, so I often refer them to someone more qualified than me to answer such questions. Even so, I’ve looked into food/diet topics quite a bit to identify resources for those clients who don’t want to take the step of working with a dietician. I also teach Human Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism and Nutrition at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. Through these experiences I have found a philosophy on nutrition as a coach. It’s this: eat a well-balanced diet of real foods with as little processing as possible.
Carbohydrates, Proteins, and Micronutrients
A well-balanced diet includes a mixture of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, the ratio among these depending upon the individual and their training phase. Nutrition, like training, should be periodized so that it can match the needs of the day’s training.
Generally speaking, endurance athletes need lots of carbohydrates. There is a big push for protein in so many products, but carbohydrates are the backbone of an endurance athlete’s diet.
Protein is important—and necessary for recovery and rebuilding after training degrades bodily structures—but carbohydrates are what fuel endurance performance.
Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals. These also need to be included in the diet. For the most part they are not an issue since most foods contain at least some level of micronutrients. Two that are most often an issue can be too much salt (found in processed foods) and iron deficiencies. If you are feeling inexplicably fatigued for more than a week, it’s a good idea to check your iron levels: specifically, serum ferratin.
The dietary needs of any athlete also bring into focus the challenges of following a dietary discipline that does not readily include one, or more, of the proscribed dietary elements (carbohydrate, protein, micronutrient). When looking at specific styles of eating, we often think of those who eat meat and those who don’t. It is often far more nuanced that this, but the vegetarian diet comes under scrutiny far more often that any other. For athletes, it really is a question of how much protein they need, and where does that protein come from? Below are examples some of the different vegetarian diets:
Pescatarian: excludes all meat except fish from their diet. May include eggs and dairy products.
Lacto-ovo-vegetarian: includes eggs and dairy products.
Ovo-vegetarian: includes eggs but not dairy products.
Lacto-vegetarian: includes milk or diary products but not eggs or animal foods.
Vegetarian: avoids all flesh foods; may or may not consume eggs or dairy products.
Vegan: Excludes all animal products including eggs and dairy. May also exclude honey.
Those who choose not to eat meat are often asked how they get enough protein. Meat is strongly associated with protein intake since meat products are complete proteins. This means that they have all the essential amino acids required by the human body. Very few non-meat sources of protein are complete proteins. The “superfood” quinoa is a complete protein, part of the reasons for this designation. Vegetables, legumes and grains not being complete proteins only means that one has to be intentional about finding complimentary proteins. An excellent example of this is the rice-and-bean combination. When consumed together, rice and beans provide all the essential amino acids. Other combinations that provide all the essential amino acids (without meat) include brown rice, green peas and corn; peanut butter, whole wheat bread, and raw veggies; hummus with whole wheat bread.
Collegiate cross-country skier, ultra runner, and vegetarian Chris Rubesch commented on the situation: “As a vegetarian athlete, I have to take more care with my diet to ensure I am getting complete nutrition coverage,” he said. “It’s not difficult to be a vegetarian endurance athlete, but it takes intentionality. Just like my coach and I ensure each workout has a purpose and is meeting a need, I make sure each meal is meeting all my nutritional needs.”
Eating with purpose is an important idea. Be intentional, and think of your nutrition as the fuel it is. We put high performance gasoline in good engines, athletes should do the same.
Owner and operator of Superior Performance, Jason Kask is a coach certified through United States Ski and Snowboard, and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).