In my recent presentation, I shared a commonly used metaphor of fueling a car appropriately to emphasize the importance of each macronutrient in the athlete's diet as explained by Randy Bird, Sports Dietitian for UVA:
Each of the macronutrients are an important piece of the puzzle and uniquely contribute to successful fueling over the long haul. Let's break it down, shall we?
Carbs = Fuel for the Tank
Carbohydrates are the main fuel for physical activity. We store about 60-100 minutes of carbohydrate via muscle glycogen, THAT is IF we are replenishing those glycogen stores day to day. The higher the intensity of training, the more our body relies on carbohydrates.Drop the notion that carbs will lead to weight gain. Instead, fill up with complex carbs that are nutrient dense and a source of fiber with each meal and snack (my favorites include oats, sweet potatoes, quinoa, brown rice). Simple carbs in the form of fruit or fruit juice are important at times also, as they are more quickly digested and taken up into muscles for fuel/refuel. I personally love a good post workout smoothie, fruit & yogurt parfait or orange juice or tart cherry juice post-workout to refuel!
Protein = Recovery + Refuel
Most people know that protein is an important part of any diet to maintain lean body mass and build new muscle. After a hard training session, we create tiny tears in our muscle fibers that must be repaired. Protein plays an essential role in the repair process, as does adequate REST. What many people do not realize is that protein also plays a critical role in carbohydrate uptake into muscles to refuel glycogen stores post exercise. So pair those carbs with a little protein to maximize your refueling potential! Just remember, extra protein does not build muscle without the hard work to go behind it! For overall health, choose lean cuts of meat and try to include some plant-based proteins too!
Healthy Fats = Fight Inflammation + Immune Support
Healthy fats are a critical component in any diet to support immune health and hormone production, but they also function to fight inflammation. While exercise and training are GOOD, physical activity actually creates an inflammatory state in the body and releases free radicals (NOT good). Rest assured that this is a normal process in muscular adaption that in the long run and that adaption makes you faster and stronger. Healthy fats via omega-3 fatty acids (salmon, avocado, olive oil, nuts & seeds) are known to my for their heart health benefits, but did you know they are effective in reducing the inflammatory state of the body post-exercise? Healthy fats should be part of any athletes diet to boost immune health and protect the muscles against injury. Peanut butter, anyone?!
Fruits & Veggies = Maintenance
Fruits and veggies are an important source of nutrients, including the all-familiar antioxidant, which plays a key role in reducing free radicals created during exercise and supporting immune health. Intense training is taxing on the body and, just like providing regular maintenance to a car keeps it running smoothly, choosing quality fuel on a daily basis by including colorful produce in your diet is essential to keep your body functioning at its best!! Plus, a colorful plate is just plain FUN!
It takes a lot to keep a hard working athlete healthy. Adequate rest, stretching, injury prevention, strength conditioning and overall lifestyle balance are part of that equation. Fueling right on a daily basis is like the glue that holds all those pieces together! It boils down to quality in, quality out and eating enough to cover your match your daily caloric expenditure. And don't forget to indulge every once and a while too! Eating the foods we enjoy and that make us happy (though sometimes not the most nutrient dense) is an important aspect of balance! Indulging in moderation can be beneficial in keeping up with demanding calorie needs and for boosting mental health.
Fuel Right, Train Hard... and ENJOY the Weekend!
Kristen Chang is Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD) and triathlete residing in southwest Virginia with her husband and dogs. Follow along as she shares favorite fueling recipes, general wellness and sport nutrition tips and stories from her athletic endeavors.
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