Nutrition “Mistakes” Athletes Should Make

Lori Russell, MS RD CSSD
by Lori Russell, MS RD CSSD
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Nutrition “Mistakes” Athletes Should Make

Forget what you think you know about the rules of nutrition, sometimes there are nutrition ‘mistakes’ you should be making. When you are eating to improve fitness and athletic performance, general nutrition rules don’t always apply.

You might actually see better results if you completely ignore these seven:

ATHLETE TWIST: Skipping food before bed can reduce your overall calorie count, especially at a time when your body doesn’t need the energy. However, active bodies can reap muscle gains overnight. Though it sounds too good to be true, by adding a slow-releasing protein just before bed, you can promote muscle synthesis while you sleep. To implement this, sip a casein-rich shake just before bed.

ATHLETE TWIST: Meals packed with vegetables are a great way to increase micronutrients, fiber and satiety in a healthful way. However, filling up on low-calorie vegetables can leave you deprived of the calories you need to fuel your training. These meals can also create a very full stomach that is struggling to digest the tough vegetable fibers. If you’re about to go into a training session, this could lead to GI discomfort, unwanted restroom stops and delayed energy breakdown. Counter this by limiting vegetable intake around — before, during and immediately after— your training, and, instead, placing them further away from your training session. Choosing baked or pureed vegetables over raw can also help the digestibility.

ATHLETE TWIST: Consuming beverages like shakes, smoothies and sodas can lead to lots of calories without feeling full. For the average person, this can lead to weight gain and desensitized hunger cues. While an athlete doesn’t have a free pass to guzzle calories, these beverages can be very beneficial in some situations. Pre- and mid-workout shakes or sport drinks can supply usable energy without straining the digestive system. Post-workout shakes offer an immediate way to replenish the body’s lost energy stores for proper recovery and rebuilding. Outside of training sessions, nutrient-rich smoothies help fill calorie, vitamin and mineral deficits left by heavy training.

ATHLETE TWIST: OK, we all know sugar should be limited in our general diets. The twist here is that quick energy bursts are fueled by sugar! When used appropriately and well timed, simple carbohydrates provide an immediate energy boost athletes need to perform their best. The trick is saving sugar intake for those quick, intense efforts and choosing more complex carbohydrate sources away from training.

ATHLETE TWIST: Having regular and consistent meal times is key for keeping hunger and blood sugar levels steady. When you’re an athlete meeting up for early morning pool sessions or after work group rides, these sessions can conflict with regular meal times. Instead of trying to cram in a full meal around training or just before sleeping, break your meal into pre- and post-workout snacks. These larger snacks help put the nutrition and calories into your body when it needs it most. The timing of nutrition-to-performance needs trumps that of ‘normal’ meal consumption.


ATHLETE TWIST: Sure, whole foods definitely win when it comes to eating a healthful diet. But it can be tricky to always carry whole, fresh foods to the gym, trail, race, etc. … Sport foods are designed with an athlete’s needs in mind; macronutrient content, electrolyte inclusion, portability and size. These foods can be a very beneficial part of your performance fueling. Just remember to use them to fuel your actual workouts, not base your entire diet off them.

ATHLETE TWIST: Watching sodium intake is a staple of many healthy eating plans. Athletes who sweat a lot are at risk of depleting sodium during hard training sessions. The electrolyte loss needs to be replenished to keep the body in balance, prevent cramping and, in severe situations, hyponatremia. Since most adults only get 25% of their total sodium intake from the salt shaker (the majority comes from eating out and packaged foods), be liberal with adding to your healthful, minimally processed meals.  

Having a little dietary wiggle room to the general rules is just another benefit you get from being an athletic person. As always, make sure to consult with a sports dietitian who can design an appropriate fueling plan for your individual needs.

About the Author

Lori Russell, MS RD CSSD
Lori Russell, MS RD CSSD

Lori, MS RD CSSD is an accomplished sports dietitian; she holds a Master’s Degree in Human Nutrition and Certification as a Specialist in Sports Nutrition. As a current professional road cyclist and previous elite marathoner and ultra-runner, Lori knows firsthand that food can enhance or diminish performance gains. She understands the importance of balancing a quality whole food based diet with science-backed performance nutrition and strives to share this message with others. Learn more about her @HungryForResults.


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