When you’re an athlete, nutritional advice and eating habits start early.
As kids, we chug Gatorade to quench our thirst. It’s supposed to hydrate us and keep our energy up throughout games and tournaments. Way better than water, we come to believe. We even drink it casually.
As teens, we attend pasta dinners the night before a big game to load up on carbs. It’s supposed to boost athletic performance the next day and give you a leg up on the competition.
As college athletes and active adults, we “work off” our indulgences and treat ourselves after a particularly grueling workout. We earned that donut, right?
Although this advice came from the good intentions of our parents, coaches, and sports and media influencers, it’s time to refute these myths and start eating in a way that is better suited for our overall health and athletic performance.
Eat well. Feel well. Perform well. Let’s start by tackling 3 core myths.
Myth #1: You can out-exercise a bad diet.
This is a particularly compelling myth to athletes who burn more calories than those who live a more sedentary lifestyle. Eating with abandon is a welcomed treat for punishing your body on a regular basis.
However, not all calories are created equal. The quality of calories consumed is just as, if not more, important than the number of calories we eat. The trouble with the calories in/calories out mentality is that you may end up depriving your body of critical nutrients it needs to optimally perform and recover from workouts.
Instead of cancelling out your diet with exercise, try viewing what you eat as the fuel your body needs to meet the physical demands you put on it. You’ll start to make more informed choices and dial in to what foods your body thrives on.
Diet and exercise should work together, not in contrast to one another.
The best part about this new framework is the freedom to stop counting calories and focus more on how food makes you feel. Spoiler alert: real, nutrient-dense food is where it’s at.
Myth #2: Carbs are the best source of energy for athletes.
Carbo-loading. We’ve all done it. Cereal, toast, pasta, and pizza have played a big part in most athletes’ diets. How else would we get the energy we need for athletic performance? We absolutely need carbs (especially the ladies for hormone health), but there’s more to the energy story.
Think about making a fire. You need kindling to get the fire started, but it won’t last long unless a larger log catches for a long-burning heat. Both the kindling and the larger logs are critical to the success of making and sustaining a fire.
Our body works similarly when it comes to using energy. Carbs are like the kindling of a fire. They burn quickly and are the go-to source of energy our body uses for quick-twitch, high-intensity workouts like CrossFit or sprinting. But like kindling, carbs shouldn’t be used as the sole source of energy.
Fats, an often overlooked source of energy our bodies love to use, are like the slow-burning logs of a fire that remain once the kindling has burned out.
Fats are a particularly great fuel source for endurance athletes. Their bodies use carbohydrates/glucose for energy, but see a great performance benefit from also using fat/ketones for sustained athletic performance when glucose stores run low.
There are a ton of nuances to consider for pre-workout and post-workout nutrition, and often it comes down to experimenting to find what works best for your body and the type of workouts you enjoy. Scale back the carbo-loading in favor of adding a more balanced ratio of fats and proteins to your diet, and keep track of your performance and recovery to see what works best for your body.
Myth #3: All hydration is good hydration.
Sports drinks are healthy, right? We’ve all seen the sidelines of sports games littered with Gatorade bottles and those large orange coolers being dumped over coaches’ heads. This Gatorade commercial basically encourages binge-drinking Gatorade for a competitive advantage.
Sports drink companies put a lot of money and effort into product marketing to make athletes reach for their beverage over the competition, despite that many sports drinks have almost as much sugar as soda — which has a much worse reputation.
Even chocolate milk is marketed as a sports recovery drink. Store-bought chocolate milk is known to include added sugar, artificial flavors, and carrageenan (an additive that has been linked to inflammation, gastrointestinal issues, allergies, and even cancer).
Luckily, there are healthier beverage choices to help replenish electrolytes without the artificial colors, additives, and insane amounts of sugar. Here are three of my favorites:
After years of chugging down heavily sweetened sports drinks, regular old H2O may simply be boring to most people. Plus, bottled or filtered tap water doesn’t naturally contain a high amount of electrolytes for those particularly punishing workouts.
Infusing water with oranges, grapefruit, pineapple, strawberries, watermelon or lemons helps you rehydrate naturally with no added sugar. The mix-and-match flavor combinations are endless, take a quick trip over to Pinterest for some ideas.
Nuun Electrolyte Tablets
Nuun tablets are naturally flavored electrolyte tablets that are super convenient when you’re traveling, on a hike, in a road race or an hours-long competition, or just looking to plus up your standard bottle of water after the gym. A fun trivia fact is that Nuun was the first to separate electrolyte replacement from carbohydrates, recognizing that for most workouts under 90 minutes, additional sugar or carbohydrate isn’t needed.
They’re a great portable source of sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium that you can add to water without the overwhelming flavor or sweetness.
Pure coconut water (not from concentrate) includes potassium, sodium, and Vitamin C to help you rehydrate after a workout. Naturally sweet, coconut water is a better option than beverages with added sugar. Because of its natural sweetness, you don’t feel the need to over-consume it either. I often use it as a complement to regular water when I need some extra recovery (it’s also delicious mixed with chocolate protein powder).
Flavored varieties include fruit purees like pineapple or peach mango for an extra kick of fruit. And it reminds me of vacation. Important.