Eating Like A Champion : The super foods powering athletes to victory

When the athletes line up for their events at the IAAF World Championships in London this month, they will be turbo-charged on food. Fuelling these modern-day warriors has become a science that every trainer practices, because any and every advantage should be sought in this sport of fractions.
While the food choices generally stay the same regardless of the event, the requirements for each sport affect the quantities and balances of the intake. The crucial distinction is between whether the athlete needs to draw on power or endurance.
Sprinters, for example, rely on power. Over 100 metres, endurance is not the primary issue. They need a very low body fat ratio, but they also need muscle mass to cope with a demanding training regime and to push through during the race itself.
Most racers will bulk during non-competition times, eating every two or three hours. They usually aim to enter a calorific surplus in this period, but this will be as clean a bulk as possible. Before the competition, they will be cutting back on the amount of food to hit that sweet spot: where their muscle mass is still dense but their fat is down, as close to zero as possible.
One way to keep the fat down is to cut back on carbohydrates. This is not in line with the lately debunked theory about zero-carb diets – most professionals acknowledge that carbs are an essential part of any diet – but because enough can be found in vegetables and fruits to satisfy a sprinter. Carbs give slow-release energy, but this is not necessarily what they need over short distances.
Endurance runners, on the other hand, need that slow-burning release. The long-distance runner’s body is a furnace that needs to be constantly fuelled, but the most important element is water. Every meal should be washed down with between 300 and 600ml of water, which is supplemented with half that quantity of sports drinks such as Gatorade. These drinks contain saline, which helps replace that lost through sweat, but also helps replace electrolytes. These are a key part of nerve transmission and are diminished as the body becomes dehydrated.
Both types of runner eat around their training regime. They have all the meals we normal humans might have, plus one before training, one after training, and a bonus before bed.
Breakfast should include a balance of proteins and carbohydrates to provide the energy the athlete will require for a gruelling day on the track. Oatmeal with Greek yogurt, nuts and berries is a favourite, followed by a couple of boiled eggs and coffee: this will be the breakfast of choice for most of these runners.
Lunch should provide plenty of energy but should not bloat or weigh down the athlete. It should be low-calorie but high in protein. Nuts are a good source of healthy fats, and for the main course either wholegrain pasta or a sandwich packed with salmon or lean chicken should get things moving. The antioxidants in green tea are also thought to be beneficial to a runner.
Dinner is designed to help get in all the nutrients that were burned during the day and to provide power for the following day. This is as close to a conventional meal as a sports person will probably get, with a large portion of protein matched with loads of vegetables, salad and a whole starch such as sweet potato.
Around these core meals, they will consume snacks such as oatcakes, more nuts, granola bars and whey protein shakes. The goal is to keep the body tanked but light in the step.
While all the foods mentioned above are attested to, there seem to be daily updates about new miracle foods. “Clinical studies” fill lite-News programs and sports websites, all claiming something remarkable about another strain of nut or berry.
For example, oats are awesome and everyone knows it. Sure, they are carb-tastic, but they are full of fibre which lowers cholesterol and helps with digestion. They are full of nutrients such as thiamin, magnesium, zinc and iron. Berries are full of vitamins and phytonutrients. Spinach slows carb ingestion through its ample soluble fibre, plus it contains antioxidants. Salmon packs in protein and is full of Omega-3 fatty acids; eggs are pure protein.
These are the super foods we can trust. But what about cherries? Recently, a study found that drinking 20ml of sour cherry juice after a workout reduced pain produced by the build up of lactic acid. Apparently, cherries contain a form of natural NSAID, which is essentially an anti-inflammatory, like aspirin.
Coffee has gradually become accepted as an important part of an athlete’s diet because caffeine can improve stamina and reduce feelings of pain. Tomato juice has found its way in to the canteen thanks to its lycopene, which is an antioxidant which combats tissue-damaging compounds.
Beetroot is slowly making ground on the competition as well. Beets are full of nitrates, which help pull oxygen into muscles, which can’t hurt during the 5000m race. And lots of the dinners at London will be yellow, because turmeric has recently taken gold for being the healthiest of the spices. It has anti-inflammatory properties, which helps reduce joint pain.
The human body is complex, and an athlete’s is constantly being prodded towards greater gains. While not every runner will have the same approach – Usain Bolt swears he eats fried chicken before his races – they will be supplied with exactly the food they require before their event. So as you watch the races this August, spare a thought for the kitchen staff. Maybe that world record time is down to a timely-eaten raisin.