Nutrition for Athletes

Yesterday I had an amazing opportunity! I got to speak at a UPMC Sports Medicine Marathon seminar for the DICK’S Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon. The other presenters included Leslie Bonci and Dave Spell. Leslie is the director of Sports Nutrition at the UPMC Center for Sports Medicine and she also consults with Steelers, Penguins, Pirates, and the Pittsburgh Ballet. Given her amazing credentials and fun personality I paid strict attention to her presentation so I could share the wealth with all of you!

Leslie brought lots of foods for everyone to see
Of course, the first thing every marathon runner or endurance athlete is concerned with is hydration! Leslie explained that the newest research shows 70 ounces of water per day is the baseline for women. Men need 90 ounces minimum. What I found most interesting is that everything you drink (that isn’t alcohol) counts towards your baseline! That doesn’t mean you can just drink Pepsi or apple juice all day and be okay but even soups and foods high in water content can count towards that minimum intake. Just be sure you add enough water or sports drink to make up for your exercise habits too!
And what about that morning coffee? Or your afternoon energy drink? Maybe you take caffeinated gels prior to or during a run. The maximum amount of caffeine you should ingest per day is only 400mg! Leslie showed us a couple popular products, like Red Bull and 5 Hour Energy shots, and demonstrated just how quickly caffeine adds up. So be sure you’re not hurting your body or performance by overdosing on caffeine every day!
Athletes also tend to be concerned about macro nutrients and how to balance their protein, carbohydrate, and fat intake for optimal performance. I learned that it’s very personal and usually requires a consult to figure out percentages but there are guidelines that can help. Protein should consist of 0.5-0.8 grams per pound of body weight and be spread evenly throughout the day. Eating an eight egg omelet in the morning and little protein after is not optimal and will lead to muscle loss. So spread it out in little bits through each meal! Carbohydrate intake needs are around 3g per pound of body weight. Leslie also mentioned that fat intake should never be less than 20% of your diet. So no more counting every little bit as long as you hit your minimums!
Leslie also talked a little bit about the hottest trends in the diet industry lately. Gluten free anyone? You will have lower amounts of prebiotics in your digestive tract and it will be hard to hit your fiber intake minimums. Considering 70% of your immune system lives in your digestive tract this is a BIG deal. Try adding Chia seeds for fiber and Omega 3 fatty acids (keep them in the freezer to keep them from spoiling). Eating yogurt with live active cultures or kefir can help too. If you don’t want to eat dairy then try taking a daily supplement.
How about coconut oil? Well it’s primarily a saturated fat (read, not so great) and it does NOT help you shed body fat or lower your risk of disease. Instead use olive oil and save the coconut for your skin and hair care! Walnuts will replace that unhealthy fat too. A golf ball size serving is the way to go.
Running and other sports result in lots of aches, pains, and inflammation. Instead of popping an NSAID or pain killer you can try tart cherry juice for a natural anti-inflammatory. Drink 8 ounces of juice or a serving of the concentrate after your next run. Ginger can minimize delayed onset muscle soreness (500mg is about right). Turmeric is a tasty spice that also works as an anti-inflammatory and may help prevent Alzheimer’s. Try putting 2/5 of a teaspoon in your next dish. Dried plums contain Boron which is necessary for bone health. Eating just 3-4 per day will keep you topped off and also contains those helpful prebiotics!
Finally, who doesn’t want to improve their performance? Dietary nitrates can decrease the oxygen expense of an activity. This means you use less oxygen to create the energy to power your workout and tire less quickly. Bodybuilders use supplements like NOXplode but dietary nitrates can be found in some common foods. A spinach and/or arugula salad, for example. Other choices include celery (about two stalks) and beets. And lastly, replace the iron lost with every foot strike using black strap molasses. Just adding a TBSP to your oatmeal or in place of honey in homemade energy bars will do the trick.
So I hope that helps with your nutrition questions! Please feel free to click the link to contact Leslie or follow her on Twitter @LeslieBonci. And look for the next UPMC Sports Medicine seminar coming soon!