Happy Friday! To wrap up the week, my Friday Five is dedicated to the athlete performance plate. I discuss the day-to-day nutrition for athletes, and how it changes based on the training load and training goal. I’m linking up with Running on Happy and Fairytales and Fitness this week to talk about fitness fuel.
This is a follow-up post to the general nutrition guidelines for runners post I did a few weeks ago. The most frequent question I get as a running coach isn’t about running it’s about nutrition. “What should I be eating during training?” The basic answer: the day-to-day nutrition for athletes changes based on the training load and training goal. What you put on your plate each meal should reflect your training cycle. I refer to it as the athlete’s performance plate.
Quality time at the gym, track, or on the road can easily be wrecked with improper nutrition. Putting in the work will mean nothing if you don’t fuel correctly. As an athlete recovering from an eating disorder, this lesson is one that I learned the hard way. Once I started treating food as fuel and focusing on my day-to-day nutrition, my athletic abilities quickly improved. Here’s what I’ve learned over the years, graphics courtesy of the U.S Olympic Committee of Sports Dietitians, and photos of my actual training meals. You should consult a dietician or doctor before putting any performance plate into practice.
Performance Plate: Day-to-Day Nutrition for Athletes
When you approach a meal, think of the four key areas for athletes: fruits and veggies, whole grains, proteins, and fats. Then think of your plate. You’ll want to divide your plate up into sections: a fruits and vegetables section, a whole grain section, a protein section and a fat section. The size of those sections will fluctuate based on your training load for the day. These “performance plates” or “athlete’s plates” play a significant role in energy and hydration levels, as well as post-workout recovery.
Easy Training Day
On an easy day, half of your plate should come from fruits and vegetables. Yes. HALF. One fourth of the plate should come from whole grains and one fourth from protein. If you’re on more of a weight management plan, slightly more than 1/4 of the plate should be proteins and slightly less should be whole grains. Fats should be about 1 teaspoon, so pretty minimal. The goal of sports nutrition on an easy day is to consume essential nutrients without the need to load up the glycogen stores for competition or hard efforts.
I follow the easy training day plate guidelines on cross training days, or days when I run easy slow miles. What might this look like in real life? For lunch I might have a large salad with lentil pasta (protein), side of pretzels and tortilla chips (carbs and fat) and a side of cherries. For dinner, my performance plate might look like steamed kale, steamed corn, some baked tempeh (protein), and some roasted brussels sprouts and purple potatoes (whole grains, plus a little but of fat).
Moderate Training Day
On a moderate training day, athletes need to increase the amount of whole grains consumed. This is to due to the increased demand on glycogen stores in the muscles from moderately intense exercise. If we think of the performance plate again, 1/4 of it is still lean protein sources, but the ratio of fruits and vegetables and whole grains changes. About 1/3 of the plate is whole grains and 1/3 of the plate is vegetables. Yes, I know the math doesn’t quite add up. The basic concept is to slightly decrease the amount of fruits and vegetables and slightly increase the amount of whole grains. You also increase the fats to about 1 tablespoon per meal.
I follow the moderate day performance plate guidelines on Tuesdays when I do a speed workout, or Wednesdays when I do a run and strength class. What might this look like in real life? For breakfast I might have some vegan omeletes (carbohydrates and protein) with a side of fruit and left over sautéed vegetables (a bit of fat). For lunch I might have a chickpea “tuna” salad sandwich.
Hard Training Day
On a hard training day, athletes need more carbohydrates to replenish the glycogen stores and to have sufficient fuel to complete the workout (or multiple workouts if doing two-a-days or a brick for triathletes). In terms of performance plate on a hard training day, half of the meal should consist of whole grains, one fourth protein and one fourth fruits and vegetables. 2-3 tablespoons of healthy fats are recommended too.
I follow the hard training day performance plate guidelines when I have a long run, especially when I train for ultras and have back-to-back long runs. What might this look like? For breakfast I might eat a vegetable black bean and tofu scramble with breakfast potatoes, two slices of avocado toast and a side of fruit. For dinner it might be some black bean and quinoa enchiladas (whole grains and protein and fat). I also documented all the food I eat on a hard long-run day in a past post.
I’m all about eating desserts in moderation. I’m discovering that I have a wicked sweet tooth. Now, you can adjust your desserts based on your day-to-day training load too! On an easy day, I might do a raspberry basil sorbet. It’s made up of just fruits and a small percentage of nuts, so I am focusing more on the nutrients. On a moderate day, maybe some vegan nice cream. That has a bit more carbohydrates. And on a hard day, some banana chocolate chip muffins stuffed with almond butter. That will give you more whole grains, fats, and still retain some of the fruits.
That’s the basics for day-to-day nutrition for athletes. They key is that what you put into your body directly affects your performance; building a strong athlete performance plate will enhance the physical training you already put in.
What do you think of this guide for day-to-day nutrition for athletes? Do you have a favorite meal during training? Leave your comment below!