Eating for Optimal Performance
Building a winning performance plate: Gaining the performance edge
There is no one meal that will provide the best performance. Instead, model all meals every day after the Athlete’s Plate visuals.
Each Athlete’s Plate includes the same five different categories of food, with differing amounts recommended depending on the type of training day. Together, these foods provide your body with carbohydrate, protein and fat, which are three essential macronutrients your body needs on a daily basis.
- Grains, fruits and vegetables contain mainly carbohydrate which provides quick energy for exercising muscles and the brain and helps to hydrate the body since carbohydrate is stored with water. Choose whole grains at least half of the time, such as whole-wheat bread, brown rice or oatmeal. Choose darkly-colored fruits and vegetables such as berries, mango, peppers and broccoli to consume the highest amount of vitamins and minerals for recovery and to ward off illness. You should cycle carbohydrate intake up or down depending on how much training you are doing on a given day or within a given season. This cycling is explained further on each plate’s page.
- Protein plays a major role in recovery because protein supports muscle growth and maintenance. Protein is found in animal meat, seafood, dairy foods, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds and soy products like tofu and tempeh. Choose protein options that are “lean” or low in saturated fat, such as 90/10 ground beef, chicken breast, any seafood, and low-fat dairy milk, yogurt and cheese; vegetarian proteins like beans, legumes and tofu are naturally low in saturated fat. Certain high protein foods, such as cow’s milk, contain an amino acid called leucine, which plays a key role in helping muscles recover after exercise. Both white and flavored cow’s milk also contain eight grams of high-quality protein per one cup or eight fluid ounces. This is why chocolate milk is a great recovery drink for training athletes!
- Fat not only tastes good and creates a feeling of fullness, but it also helps your body absorb fat-soluble vitamins plus works to decrease inflammation and stressed caused by training. Fat intake should be increased along with an increase in training. High-fat foods include nuts, seeds, nut butters, avocado, oils and fatty fish such as tuna and salmon. Limit intake of foods high in saturated fat such as fried foods, high fat animal meats and store-bought baked goods. While some saturated fat is okay, too much can be detrimental to short-term recovery and long-term health.
- A source of fluid should be included at each meal. It’s a good idea at every meal to grab one full glass of water and then add a second type of fluid at meals to keep hydration levels high throughout the day. Great sources of fluid at meals for athletes include plain water, flavored non-calorie waters, coffee or tea (up to 20 ounces caffeinated daily) or low-fat milk. For optimal hydration, choose milk with meals and then continue drinking water between meals.
*One of the great benefits of following the Athlete’s Plate is that at every meal, your body will receive quickly digested energy from carbohydrates that have staying power from fiber, muscle power from protein and more balanced energy from fat. When eaten together, you will feel full and satisfied after every meal. This will help curb cravings and mindless snacking as the day goes on.
Hot Topic! Injury Prevention: Nutrition can make a good athlete great or a great athlete good. Solid performance nutrition can produce high energy levels, help athletes prevent and fight fatigue, support optimal concentration and overall cognition and reduce the risk of injury or illness. How can nutrition do all of this? By providing the body with the right AMOUNT of fuel at the right TIME, which leads to optimal recovery. An athlete who recovers well on a daily basis will sleep better, feel better and perform better. In addition, remember that three servings of dairy per day provide growing athletes with adequate calcium and vitamin D to support strong bones. Adolescents are in a critical stage for maturation, when adequate calcium intake assures enough calcium is deposited into “bone banks,” which athlete’s bodies rely on as they age. This is important because peak bone building ends around age 20. With strong bones, injuries such as stress fractures and stress reactions can be prevented in these young athletes.
The Plate: Moderate Training Day
The Moderate Training Day plate should be your baseline from where you adjust your plate up (hard/competition) or down (easy). Aim to have your meals look like this on typical training days. One quarter of the plate should contain a lean protein source; this will be about three ounces of animal protein (about the size of a deck of cards). Just over one quarter of the plate should contain a grain source. Just under one half of the plate should contain vegetables; also include a piece or small bowl of fruit with your meal. While a source of fat may be incorporated into the plate already (in those protein options that contain fat), any added fat such as salad dressings should be in the amount of about one tablespoon per meal. Don’t forget to grab those fluids and flavor your meals to your liking (see the Flavor list for those seasonings that add flavor but are not a significant source of fuel).
Hot Topic! Maximizing your daily training fuel: If you find this plate hard to meet on a daily basis, try writing out a list of meals that would fit the plate. Use this list to shop from. Incorporate easy to grab foods such as milk, cheese sticks, yogurt containers, deli meat, bags of frozen or raw veggies and fruit, and microwavable bags of brown rice or whole wheat bread and bagels. This will allow you to quickly and easily throw together great meals that meet the Moderate Training Day Plate.
The Plate: Hard Training and Competition Day
The Hard Training/Race Day plate should be used on days that contain two workouts that are relatively hard or on competition days. If you compete in a sport that lasts 90 minutes or longer in duration, use this plate to load up in the days before the event as well. One quarter of the plate should contain a lean protein source; this will be about three ounces of animal protein (about the size of a deck of cards). Half the plate should contain a grain source. This increase in grain intake is needed to provide additional carbohydrates that will support the added work you are asking of your muscles. Remember that carbohydrate is your muscle fuel during exercise! One quarter of the plate should contain vegetables; also include a piece or small bowl of fruit with your meal. While a source of fat may be incorporated into the plate already (in those protein options that contain fat), any added fat such as salad dressings should be in the amount of about two tablespoons per meal (more is needed here to support the increased fuel needs from increased training). Don’t forget to grab those fluids and flavor your meals to your liking (see the Flavor list for those seasonings that add flavor but are not a significant source of fuel).
Hot Topic! Five tips when choosing competition days meals:
- Find what works (and doesn’t work) for you: Just because your teammate can’t eat or drink a certain food before games doesn’t mean you cannot. Use high intensity practice days to test foods pre-workout that you might want to eat on competition days. Identify what makes you feel the best fueled, both physically and mentally.
- Do not try any new foods or meals on competition day (see #1). You do not know how those foods will make you feel.
- The day of and one to two days in advance, avoid foods that may be more likely to increase your chance of foodborne illness, including raw sushi or other raw meats, mayo-based salads and raw eggs. Do not risk getting sick on game day!
- Some athletes feel better when avoiding very high fiber foods at the last meal prior to competition (i.e. the pre-game meal), such as fresh salads, whole grains and starchy beans because these foods can cause gas and discomfort. However, test this on yourself as this does not apply to all athletes.
If you find you haven’t made the best effort following the plate on a regular basis, commit to following it in the final days prior to and on the day of competition. This especially means decreasing intake of foods with little nutritional value such as fried foods, regular soda and baked goods.
The Plate: Easy Training Day or for Weight Management
The Easy Training/Weight Management plate should be used on days that include only an easy workout or when tapering without the need to load up fuel for competition in the days before. This plate also applies to athletes trying to lose weight and for those who require less total energy due to the type of sport in which they participate (such as field events in track, golfers or wrestlers).
If using this plate on an easy training day, one quarter of the plate should contain a lean protein source; this will be about three ounces of animal protein (about the size of a deck of cards). One quarter of the plate should contain a whole grain food source specifically.
If using this plate for weight management, protein intake should increase to just over one quarter of the plate to support muscle maintenance as weight is lost. This will be about four to five ounces of animal protein total. If using this the plate should contain a grain source. Just under one quarter of the plate should contain a whole grain food source specifically.
With the lower fuel intake overall, it is important to prioritize higher nutrient foods like whole grains. This is why this plate specifically reads “whole grains” instead of “grains.”
Whether following on an easy day or for weight management, one half of the plate should contain fruits and vegetables. While a source of fat may be incorporated into the plate already (in those protein options that contain fat), any added fat such as salad dressings should be in the amount of about one teaspoon per meal. Don’t forget to grab those fluids and flavor your meals to your liking (see the Flavor list for those seasonings that add flavor but are not a significant source of fuel).
Hot Topic! Four smart ways for athletes to manage weight:
- When beginning a weight management plan, think about decreasing fuel intake in small amounts throughout the day instead of entirely cutting out meals at any point of the day. This will facilitate muscle maintenance while you decrease total weight.
- Do not cut out fuel around moderate to high intensity training sessions. Fuel your body well pre- and post-workout. Instead, decrease fuel intake at the opposite time of the day as training sessions. This will assure you to maintain muscle mass.
- Be mindful of your fluids. Coffee drinks, juice and sports drinks can easily add up in the fuel department. Pay attention to how often and how much of these types of liquids you are drinking. Try switching to plain water or non-calorie flavored waters to help cut back on total fuel intake.
Keep things in perspective. No foods are bad. No foods are off-limits. No foods “make you gain weight.” The Weight Management plate was created to help show you how to continue to eat the foods you love but in a way that will help you meet your body composition goals as an athlete.