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The Best Foods for Athletes

Category: Health & Fitness,Lifestyle

Q. But in the real world, do high-fat diets improve performance?

A. It depends on what kind of event someone competes in. In long, relatively low-intensity events like ultramarathons, fat might provide enough fuel. But even then, if someone wants to sprint at the end, they are going to need carbohydrates for that burst of exertion. For more intense events, there is evidence that high-fat diets impair performance. In our research with elite race walkers, we found that after they went on a high-fat diet, they could not train as hard and their competitive results suffered.

Q. So athletes shouldn’t try high-fat diets?

A. I wouldn’t say that at all. Some athletes love them. And we know that high-fat diets stimulate different molecular changes in the muscles than high-carb diets, some of which could be beneficial for performance.

[A practical compromise approach that allows competitors’ bodies to adjust to using both carbohydrates and fats efficiently, Dr. Burke continued, involves a technique called “train-high, sleep-low,” during which an athlete works out strenuously in the afternoon to deplete his or her body of carbohydrate stores, eats a high-fat, low-carbohydrate dinner, completes a long, slow workout in the morning, and then consumes a gloriously large, high-carbohydrate breakfast before training vigorously again. Dr. Burke threads this technique occasionally into her own training for marathons and other events, she says. ]

Q. What about protein?

A. That’s an interesting topic. We know that most athletes need more protein than the standard dietary allowances call for, to help in muscle repair. But we also are learning, by studying athletes, how important sufficient protein is likely to be for nonathletes, especially older people, if they want to maintain muscle mass.

Q. With all the emerging science about nutrition and sports, what overall advice would you give a recreational athlete about how to eat?

A. Talk to a sports dietitian. I think many recreational athletes get caught up in trends and forget the basics. If you are an Olympic athlete, then, yes, the minutiae of your diet’s composition and timing are very consequential. The rest of us should concentrate on simple, healthy eating.


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