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8 Tips for training and eating like an athlete

The Summer Games are in their final leg, and we’ve been staring at ripped bodies and athletic specimens for a few weeks now, so we wanted to know how these men and women get competition-ready.

SheKnows talks to Sheila Kealey
Sheila Kealey

Multi-sport athlete Sheila Kealey filled us in on some tips for working out and eating like a competitor, so if you are feeling inspired, start your training today.

SheKnows: What should you eat when you need to lose weight?

Sheila: Although there are a tremendous amount of compelling fads for losing weight, the boring fact is that it’s simply a matter of eating fewer calories (and moving more for those who already don’t get enough exercise). Including plenty of nutrient-dense foods (foods with a lot of nutrients for their calories) is always a good bet. A good example is vegetables, which are relatively low in calories but offer tremendous nutrition, plus the fibre helps fill you up. Of course your body needs more than vegetables, so be sure to include lean sources of protein, whole grains and healthy fats (fats are high in calories, but still important).

An important point is not to restrict your calories too much around physical activity. You’ll be less motivated for your workouts, likely have less endurance, and your athletic performance and recovery will suffer. It’s better to choose smaller portions for meals/snacks or skip the second dessert, and eat the right foods during or right after your activity.

SheKnows: What should you eat before and after a workout?

Sheila: Before a workout, carbohydrate-rich foods or beverages that you digest well are your best bet. It’s also important to eat after a workout, since it will help maximize your training gains, speed up the recovery process and enhance subsequent performance. Long workouts can deplete your muscles of glycogen (stored carbohydrate), which is your body’s preferred fuel during exercise, so you’ll want to replenish that by consuming a high-carbohydrate food or beverage. Some studies suggest that including some protein with high-carbohydrate foods will enhance muscle repair processes and speed glycogen replacement. Good choices include chocolate milk, a bowl of whole-grain cereal and milk, or try a high-protein bar like CLIF Builder’s Bar.

SheKnows: Are there any foods every athlete should have every day?

Sheila: I don’t think so. I believe the sum of your overall diet is more important than specific foods, and think a variety of different foods is what’s best for health. If you’re eating a variety of healthful foods, you’re more likely to benefit from a greater variety of nutrients, including important protective compounds and vitamins and minerals.

If you eat apples and bananas every day for your fruit, you’d certainly benefit by including other fruits like oranges, berries and kiwis, which offer different nutrients that are important for health. Aim to eat a variety of different colours of fruits and vegetables, which ensures that you’re getting a good assortment of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, antioxidants and other nutrients. It’s also good to vary your carbohydrate and protein sources. If you’re stuck on rice and pasta, try barley or quinoa. Also, many people eat the same breakfast every day; if you always have a bowl of cereal, consider switching it up and eating an omelet with vegetables or a fruit and yogourt smoothie on some days.

SheKnows: How do athletes eat well while travelling?

Sheila: Travelling can be challenging for many athletes, since it’s usually harder to eat a nutritious diet when away from home. So it pays to plan ahead, since it will help athletic performance, promote recovery and keep their immune system in fighting shape.

Think of your race-day nutrition when you’re packing, and include what you need for pre-, during and post-race nutrition, since you might not find what you need at your race venue. Although you can often satisfy these needs with real foods, convenience is a priority when travelling, and it’s a good time to have commercial sports drinks, bars and gels and recovery products on hand. I like CLIF Bar products (bars, blocks and gels.)

Since a great proportion of the day’s caloric needs are satisfied at the supper table, make sure this meal contains the nutrients your body needs to recover, stay healthy and help fuel your workouts. This can be more challenging when travelling, since you might be eating out, so choose your menu items with health and performance in mind.

SheKnows: Does age affect how much you should train and what you should be eating? How?

Sheila: I try to think of age as simply a number, and if anything I think having more experience has helped improve my performance, because I train smarter and know when to rest. I think a lot of what people attribute to aging is simply disuse (they stop training hard!). I have a great endurance base, so to race fast, it’s important for me to include key high-intensity workouts in my plan (thankfully these are more time-efficient than longer endurance workouts). I do include more shorter sprints and short all-out interval sessions now than I did when I was younger, and it’s helped.

In terms of eating, as well as having a healthful daily diet, I’m more careful about what I eat before, during and after training so my body’s at its best for workouts and can recover well after.

SheKnows: What’s the best way to stay motivated after a loss? If an athlete doesn’t perform as well as they had hoped, how do they keep the drive to do it again?

Sheila: Although good performances build confidence, which is important, you learn a lot more about how to improve from poor performances than great ones. It’s critical to view disappointing races as opportunities to refine technique, training or racing strategies. This can all be quite motivating.

SheKnows: What’s the best food for fuel?

Sheila: When I have a long-distance workout, I like CLIF bars, which are great for sustaining energy. For longer hikes or lower-intensity workouts when I feel I need a bit of protein or fat, I might take along dried nuts and fruits or a CLIF Builder’s Bar.

SheKnows: Any other nutrition advice you can give our readers, either for an athlete or just a normal, healthy person?

Sheila: Eat mostly whole (minimally processed) foods, aim for quality rather than quantity and slow down and savour the flavour.

Sheila is an avid runner, cyclist and triathlete and enjoys promoting physical activity to youth through coaching. Sheila has a master’s degree in public health (health promotion) and works with researchers investigating how diet influences health and disease. Sheila has co-authored the cookbook and nutrition guide Food for Thought: Healing Foods to Savor. A side interest is sports nutrition, which she writes about on this site. Sheila also maintains a twitter account, where she tweets about nutrition, physical activity, sports science and tasty, nourishing foods.

Image credit: XC Ottawa

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