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Why Every Athlete Needs a Nutrition Training Plan

By Hana A. Feeney

As you create a plan for your athletic endeavors, are you also considering how your diet needs to adjust as your training changes? You don’t do the same workout day in and day out all year long and so you shouldn’t be eating the same way all year either.

instory fuelMost of us will have one or two ‘big events’ a year and a smattering of other fun, supportive events throughout the year. As your intensity and volume of training changes for each event, your diet should change too. These are three basic eating patterns to consider as you build your training base, increase the volume of your training, and then recover from events. 

High-Protein, Muscle-Building Diet
As you build your base of training, you should follow a relatively high-protein diet. Your volume of training isn’t high, but your intensity is, so stave off muscle fatigue and muscle soreness by making high-quality protein foods your dietary focus.

Consider though, that some protein rich foods are pro-inflammatory (red meat, cheese) and should be minimized while you emphasize anti-inflammatory protein rich foods (omega 3 rich eggs and wild salmon). For example:

  • Choose whole omega 3 enriched eggs for breakfast
  • Include grilled chicken or shrimp at lunch
  • Eat wild salmon or organic tofu at dinner
  • Snack on low-fat organic cottage cheese, plain organic yogurt or walnuts

Trying to gain muscle? The beginning of a new training cycle is the time to do it and you’ll need to emphasize pre-workout and recovery nutrition. Gaining muscle requires a commitment to a vigorous strength training program, coupled with a small increase in calories to build muscle. Avoid exercising on an empty stomach and get a small but significant boost in calories by:

  • Sipping on a carbohydrate-protein-creatine drink during the workout. Mix creatine monohydrate powder into a natural carbohydrate-protein drink, such as Xood.
  • Recovering from the workout with a carbohydrate-protein-quercetin drink. Quercetin is an antioxidant that helps to reduce inflammation and muscle soreness associated with exercise. Mix whey protein with a quercetin-rich drink like tart cherry juice.

High-Quality Carbohydrate Diet
As your training volume increases, your need for carbohydrate are high and incredibly essential. Without adequate carbohydrate intake, your carbohydrate stores (glycogen) will decrease and your performance will suffer. You won’t be able to reach your high-volume training goals (long rides, long runs, brick workouts, etc) and you will be at higher risk for overtraining syndrome.

Your antioxidant needs are also significant and when your diet isn’t up to par, your immune system suffers. Antioxidants help repair damage in the body and prevent the body from ‘rusting’ from the inside out. Eat plenty of carbohydrate-antioxidant rich foods, such as: berries, plums, peaches, papaya, mango, prunes, dried apricots, black beans, kidney beans, red lentils, sweet potatoes, butternut squash and quinoa. Other high-quality carbohydrate rich foods to include regularly are oats, wheat berries, millet, barley, hummus and plain yogurt.

Anti-inflammatory foods are also important during high-volume training. Training is a stressor to the body, which may create inflammation. Inflammation is felt as sore muscles and achy joints, and leads to slow recovery and increased risk for injuries. Emphasize anti-inflammatory meals that help to reduce muscle soreness, lower the risk for overtraining syndrome, and foster optimal recovery from exhaustive exercise, such as:

  • Flaked wild salmon mixed with canola mayo, curry power, dried apricots, black beans and cilantro
  • Ground flaxseeds mixed into oatmeal with walnuts and dried cherries
  • Organic tofu and diced sweet potatoes sautéed in canola oil with garlic and kale served over brown rice

Calorie Control
After a big event, you will likely take a bit of time off. You may not stop exercise entirely, but hopefully you will respect your body’s need for rest and tone down exercise intensity and duration. This is a time to be calorie conscious and make every calorie count. Your body needs all the nutrition that it can get after a hard training season.

Your calorie burn has been high and your appetite large; but all that changes now. You must be careful to avoid weight gain, and if weight loss is a goal, now’s the time to lose. Listen to your body; you should be satisfied with less compared to the height of training season. Make small adjustments to your everyday eating and eat slightly less than you normally would. Find unnecessary empty calories and eliminate them.

Focus on high-quality, unprocessed foods so that your body recovers well with adequate vitamin and mineral intake. If your diet is full of refined, packaged, and processed foods, calorie control may be in place but your body (and your training) will suffer from lack of proper nutrition. You may reach your weight goal, but you will be undernourished and your progress in your next exercise endeavor will suffer. Consider these whole-food swaps:

  • Instead of toast, eat oatmeal
  • Instead of crackers and cheese, eat fruit and cheese
  • Instead of pasta, eat a baked sweet potato
  • Instead of deli turkey, eat grilled chicken
  • Instead of fruit juice, eat whole fruit

As your workouts change throughout the year, consider how you might adjust your diet. Small dietary changes make a big difference in your enjoyment of exercise and your progress towards your exercise goals.

Hana A. Feeney, MS, RD, CSSD, works for Canyon Ranch, which pioneered the evolution of wellness lifestyle and has been an industry leader for 30 years. Lead by a team of expert physicians and other health and wellness specialists, Canyon Ranch operates the world’s most celebrated collection of life-enhancement properties with the goal to inspire people to make a commitment to healthy living.

This article originally appeared on — your source for event information, training plans, expert advice, and everything you need to connect with the sport you love.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.