Sunday, September 7, 2008

Nutrition Issues in Underperforming Athletes - by Nancy Clark MS RD CSSD

“Nutrition is my missing link. I have my training down, but
my eating needs help.” Time and again, my clients express this
concern when they fail to get desired results from their
workouts. These busy people, who range from casual exer-
cisers to competitive athletes, are eating at the wrong times,
choosing the wrong balance of carbohydrates, protein and
fat, drinking too little fluids, and consuming adequate iron.
The question arises: How much better could these athletes per-
form?The answer is: Lots better! The following article high-
lights some common missing food links, and provides solu-
tions that can help you to avoid these pitfalls.

Missing link #1: Respect for the power of food

“You know, Nancy, too many athletes show up for training but
they don't show up for meals. They might as well not show up for
training...” These words, spoken by a winning Boston
College hockey coach, are true, indeed. Instead of rushing to
practice only to show up poorly fueled, you'd be better off
taking 10 minutes from your training to fuel properly and be
able to get more from your workout. Plan ahead!

Missing link #2: Eating enough during the daytime

The same athletes who show up underfueled for training
are generally the ones who undereat nourishing meals by
day, only to overeat “junk” by night. This pattern fails to
support an optimal sports diet—nor long term health.
Why do so many athletes undereat by day? Some claim
they are “too busy.” Wrong. If they can find time to train,
they can find time to fuel for training. Other athletes are pur-
posefully restricting their food intake at breakfast and lunch
with hopes of losing weight. In a survey of 425 female colle-
giate athletes, the majority wanted to lose 5 pounds. 43% of
the women reported feeling terrified of becoming over-
weight; 22% were extremely preoccupied with food and
weight. This fear that “food is fattening” certainly deters
many athletes from fueling optimally.(Beals, Intl J Sport Nutr,’02)
If you are weight-conscious, pay attention to when you eat.
Fuel adequately during the day, so you have energy to exer-
cise. You will then be less hungry at the end of the day and
be better able to “diet” at night (that is, eat less dinner or
evening snacks). After dinner, get out of the kitchen, brush
your teeth, go to bed early, and lose weight when you are
sleepinginstead of when you are trying to exercise.
Note: If you want to lose weight, you should not severely
undereat. Rather, create just a small 100- to 200-calorie
deficit. Little changes at the end of the day—like eating just
2 to 4 fewer Oreos—can knock off 100 to 200 calories a day
and theoretically lead to 10 to 20 pounds of fat loss a year.

MISSING LINK #3: Eating the right amount of calories at
evenly sized, evenly scheduled meals.

Too many athletes eat in a crescendo, with the biggest meal
in the evening. The better plan is to divide your calories
evenly throughout the day, eating every 4 hours, so you are
always in the process of fueling-up or re-fueling. Example of
a fueling plan for an active woman (or a dieting man):
Breakfast 7-8:00 AM 600 calories
Lunch 11-12 noon 600
Second Lunch 3-4:00 PM 500
Workout 5-6:30 PM -600
Dinner 7-8:00 PM 700
If you have trouble listening to bodily cues that regulate a
proper food intake, you might want to meet with a sports
dietitian who can help you estimate your calorie needs and
translate that calorie information into a food plan for a bal-
anced sports diet. To find a local sports dietitian, use the
referral network at

MISSING LINK #4: Eating an appropriate amount of fat.

Athletes who eat too muchfat displace the carbs they need
to optimally fuel their muscles. That is, if you fill up on
cheese and oil in the fettuccini alfredo, you are not filling up
on the carb-rich pasta. You’ll end up with “dead legs.”
Athletes who eat too littlefat fail to replenish the fat stored
within the muscles that supports endurance performance. A
study with runners who ate a very low (16%) fat diet for a
month reports they had 14% less endurance compared to
when they ate a moderate (31% fat) diet. Their self-selected
diets were supposed to offer equal calories, but the runners
with the moderate-fat diet actually ate not only more fat but
also more calories. The extra calories did not make them fat-
ter, however. The runners had been undereating on the low
fat diet and conserving energy, and less able to perform well.
Conclusion: Including some (healthful) dietary fat in addi-
tion to adequate carbs and calories offers important fuel that
gets stored within the muscles and can improve endurance
performance. (Horvath J Am Coll Nutr ’00)

MISSING LINK #5: Fueling before you exercise

If you think you have “no time” to eat before your work-
out, think again. Eating 100 to 300 calories of a pre-exercise
snack even 5 minutes prior to exerciseenhances performance,
assuming: 1) you will be exercising at a pace you can main-
tain for more than 30 minutes and 2) you can tolerate food.
How much difference does this pre-exercise fuel make?
Lots! In a study where the subjects ate dinner, and then the
next morning exercised to exhaustion, they lasted 109 min-
utes with no breakfast, 136 minutes with breakfast (400 cals).
That’s quite an improvement! (Schabort, 1999)
In another study, athletes biked hard for 45 minutes, and
then sprinted as hard as they could for 15 minutes. When
they ate a 180-270 calorie snack just five minutes before they
exercised, they improved 10% in the last 15 minutes. They
improved 20%when they had eaten a meal four hours prior
to the exercise, then a snack 5 minutes pre-exercise. This
means: Eat breakfast and lunch, plus a pre-exercise snack
and you’ll have a stellar workout! (Neufer, 1987)
Even if you are working out for less than an hour, you
should still eat a pre-exercise snack and drink water.
Athletes who ate no breakfast, biked hard for 50 minutes
and then sprinted for 10 minutes to the finish were able to
sprint 6% harder when they consumed adequate water vs.
minimal water, 6% harder with adequate carbs vs. no carbs
and minimal water, and 12% harder with a sports drink
(adequate carbs + water). (Below, 1995). Fueling works!
One way to organize your pre-exercise fueling is to plan
to eat part of the upcoming meal prior to your workout. For
example, if you exercise in the morning, enjoy a banana
before your workout, and then afterwards refuel with the
rest of your breakfast, such as a bagel and a yogurt. If you
exercise at lunch, eat half a sandwich before you workout
and then enjoy the rest of your lunch afterwards. For after-
noon or afterwork sessions, enjoy a granola bar or some gra-
ham crackers pre-exercise, then refuel with chocolate milk.
Whatever you do, don’t let nutrition be your missing link.
Pay attention to what, when and how much you eat. You
will always win with good nutrition!

Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD (Board Certified Specialist in Sports
Dietetics) offers private consultations to casual and competitive ath-
letes in her practice at Healthworks, the premier fitness center in
Chestnut Hill MA(617-383-6100). Her Sports Nutrition Guidebook (2008),
Food Guide for Marathoners, and Cyclist’s Food Guide are available via See also

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