How to Eat Like an Athlete

Health Professional, Medical Reviewer

Athletes spend months preparing for races, meets, and other events — including endurance competitions — through daily workouts and training. But how do athletes competing at the highest levels prepare their bodies for an event from a nutritional standpoint? I sat down with Dave Orlik, Road Runners Club of America coach, and competitive triathlete from Columbia, MD, to find out.

Health Central: What advice do you have for someone who is preparing for a competitive athletic event?

Dave: Whether it’s an Ironman, marathon, or just a 5K, how we prepare our body — our machine — is important. Part of that, as you know, involves what we put in our bodies. I have two important tips for someone preparing for an event. First and foremost, make sure you start with a full tank. You wouldn't embark on a road trip without filling your car's tank with gasoline. Why would you expect to complete a long event when, nutritionally speaking, your body is only half full? There is a misconception that having a spaghetti dinner the night before a marathon is all you need. But the body can only digest so much glucose at once. It takes approximately three days to properly "fill up your tank." Don’t wait until the night before the event and gorge on carbs.

HC: How do you prepare your body during race week? What foods do you think are most important to consume to give you a competitive edge?

Dave: There are so many things we need to do all along our journey to our event, though most of us fall short. These include things like avoiding sugar, eating clean, and avoiding chemicals in our food. But race week is critical. I start the week by eating clean and consuming mostly lean protein. I choose foods such as organic turkey, chicken, and vegetables. Throughout the week, I then move to carbs, increasing the glycemic index of my foods as race day nears. I start with sweet potatoes, then move to white potatoes, white rice, and pasta.

The second most important way to prepare your body during race week is through hydration. I read once that a professional basketball player drank gallons of water before a game. I’m not sure how that would keep him on the court.  Like the fuel system, our bodies can only absorb fluids deep into our cells over time. Drinking plenty of water, mixed with occasional electrolytes, for three days prior to my race is usually sufficient for me. If on the eve of race day, I drink a bottle of water, then quickly get rid of the water I drank, I know that I’m well hydrated.

I’ve tried other many other things, but adequate hydration and properly fueling up through nutrition have always kept me from [crashing] during a race, or even during a long workout.

The bottom line

While each person has unique nutritional needs, Dave’s advice has application for all athletes, even those who are just recreational exercisers. Proper hydration and balanced nutrition — and not just the night before the event — will help your body reach its maximum potential during exercise.

See More Helpful Articles:

Fueling Your Workouts the Right Way at the Right Time

The Best Pre-Workout Fuel

The Best Post-Workout Fuel

Carmen is a registered dietitian who specializes in weight management and nutrition therapy for chronic disease. In addition to nutrition counseling at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Carmen teaches undergraduate health and wellness courses and provides corporate wellness seminars on exercise and nutrition.