Eat like an athlete to play like one

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All foods are not created equal. Neither are calories.

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but the idea of exercising so you can eat is not only outdated, it’s just plain bunk. As my good friend and colleague Elizabeth Sparks says, “You cannot out-exercise a bad diet.”

And, if you consider yourself an athlete who is defined as someone who exercises five or more hours per week, a major portion of your training is how you fuel your body.

Not only is what you eat directly related to your body’s performance, so is the amount that you eat. An athlete’s body demands a greater caloric intake than a non-athlete.

According to exercise physiologists William McArdle and Frank Katch, the average daily calorie expenditure for a man is between 2,700 and 2,900 calories; for a woman it’s 2,000 to 2,100 calories. An athlete would need to add to this total all the additional calories expended from workouts.

For example, a 160-pound person running at 8 mph would burn 986 calories in an hour. This amount needs to be matched in the diet. It sounds crazy, but if you understand the demands placed on the body during exercise you begin to realize that the energy to perform those demands must come from somewhere.

But again, not all calories (or units of energy) are created equal, so how can you know where to start? The Food Pyramid for Athletes (downloadable at sfsn.ethz.ch/pyramid_en/index_EN) ­is a great place to begin.

At the base of the pyramid is fluids. Exercise requires hydration and water is the best choice you have. Many people like to have sports drinks for their workouts. That can be a fine choice; however, it’s important to be aware that the use of electrolyte replacement is unnecessary unless you are exercising longer than 60 minutes at a time.

Sports drinks and other electrolyte replacements should be used as intended; otherwise they move up the pyramid to the top level of sweetened drinks and snacks, and thus should be used sparingly.

Vegetables and fruits are next. These are great for fueling the athlete’s body. They offer significant nutrients that help keep the body alkaline and therefore better able to fight off disease and infection. They provide fluid, natural sugar and fiber to help keep digestion regular.

Whole grains or carbohydrates come next. Let me be honest. I’m tired of hearing how bad “carbs” are, especially for the athlete. For additional support on this topic I turned to research that repeatedly supports the fact that athletes need carbohydrates.

“Carbohydrates work best for athletes because they are the quickest fuel to burn,” states and article at livestrong.com. “This is due to the fact that carbohydrates are easily used as energy by the cells. Due to the speed at which they burn, carbohydrates should constitute most of your caloric intake, especially for endurance sports.” (Read the full article at bit.ly/19sXLtk.)

The rest of the pyramid is made up of meat and dairy, oils, fats and nuts, and the top level of sweets.

Give it a good look. Chips aren’t on the list. Neither are soda or greasy cheeseburgers and fries. While those “foods” have become a staple in the American diet, they will not sustain the needs of an athlete.

So, the question becomes how good of an athlete do you really want to be? If you want to perform at your peak levels, you need to train hard, rest well and eat like an athlete.

Leslie Snyder is senior program director of Healthy Living at the Walla Walla YMCA. Leslie holds national certifications with the American Council on Exercise in group fitness, personal training and as a health coach. She can be reached at lsnyder@wwymca.org.

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