What do athletes eat – athletics weekly

What do athletes eat? This is indeed a good question. If social media is anything to go by it seems it could be anything from green matcha smoothies to avocado eggs to pork pies. However, maybe the real question should be: what is an athlete’s attitude toward eating and how does this influence not only their choice but also their performance outcome?

When educating athletes, one of the most important places to start is that no food should technically be banned from their diet; while there may well be certain times within their schedule where they need to be more mindful and strict, food should never become so restrictive that it causes additional stress and anxiety. After all, an athlete has enough pressure and expectation to deal with.

There is a really fine line between eating sufficiently for optimal performance and sitting just below this with the expectation of improving body composition – the old school thinking of “being lighter equals faster” driving this behaviour.


However, it’s important to highlight that the body likes to maintain homeostasis. It has a strong protective feature in order to maintain balance.

When this is threatened, it has the ability to alter metabolism in order to maintain balance and prioritise movement. More importantly, the majority of athletes I have worked with across all sports who believe this mantra of “lighter is better” are usually already on the low end of their optimal range for weight, thus reducing it further often has a negative impact, especially longer term. How to stop the food fear factor

Ghrelin is our hunger hormone – levels rise after exercise or several hours after a meal, signifying that we need to refuel. When ghrelin is high, leptin levels are low. Both these hormones will return to normal levels when energy demands are met. However, if an athlete continually does not fuel adequately after a training session, intentionally or unintentionally, leptin levels stay low.

Chronically low leptin levels send a signal to the body to encourage energy preservation. So, while the athlete may think they are going to lose weight and improve body composition, indeed the reverse can actually happen. It’s important to highlight here that this is a simplified version to help explain why some athletes, even when they restrict intake, or increase training still don’t achieve the body composition and weight goals they would expect. How much to eat

In reality, studies have shown that athletes, especially runners and particularly female runners, eat a lot less than this. Translated into food, as a rule of thumb, this means having three meals a day, including a balance of complex carbohydrates, such as pasta, oats, rice or bread; a source of protein such as chicken, fish, lean cuts of red meat, eggs or tofu; essential fats in the form of oils, nuts or avocados; and a load of veg or salad to ensure an antioxidant load.

They should also include three snacks a day and these can vary in size and composition depending on the training load and intensity: higher carb options, such as crumpets, malt loaf and cereal bars can be eaten on on high volume training days and more protein-based options such as, Greek yoghurt, a small handful of nuts or mackerel pate with vegetables on lower volume, high intensity days (e.g. weight training days).

Oats and legumes both provide soluble fibre, whereas whole grains, fruit and vegetables provide insoluble fibre. Both are required for a healthy digestive system, but athletes need to be mindful not to overload their system with fruit and vegetables in favour of grains, oats and beans as this can result in reducing overall energy intake and increasing bloating and discomfort.

» Renee McGregor is a leading performance and eating disorder specialist dietitian with over 15 years’ experience working in nutrition. She works with elite athletes, coaches and sport science teams to provide nutritional strategies to enhance sport performance and manage eating disorders. She has delivered nutrition support to athletes over the last two Olympic and Paralympic cycles and other major international competitions, most recently the Commonwealth Games. See reneemcgregor.com