Athletes have many behaviors that can seem very strange and even socially unacceptable for anyone not involved in sport. They wake up and immediately put on a heart rate strap to check heart rate variability. They stretch in public places. They lay on airport floors to put their legs up between flights. They wear compression clothing and techy watches. They study the color of their urine. They love to talk about their sport, miles, splits, power, etc…
The strangest of them all might be the way athletes fuel their bodies: from the types of foods they eat, to how they consume them and the specific timing of meals. Eating habits of the elite are rooted in superstition, strict nutrition protocol, gastric tolerance and the hopes of providing a performance edge.
Here are some of the odd food habits of athletes:
Endurance athletes are known to eat loads of plain, cooked sweet potatoes, which may be strange to a non-athlete. It’s very common in the endurance sports world as these root veggies are easy on the gastric system, loaded with energy-providing carbohydrates, induce a feeling of satisfaction and provide tons of potassium. They also travel well, are inexpensive and can be cooked in a microwave in minutes.
If you’re an athlete looking to go the distance and clean up your diet, this odd eating habit might be for you.
While endurance athletes turn to potatoes, power athletes and figure competitors can often be found eating tuna straight from the can. I’ve seen athletes pull cans of tuna out of their gym bag to consume immediately post workout. You might stink up the locker room, but your body will benefit from the whole food, omega-rich protein source. Opt for a brand of tuna that is not only good for your body but also good for the environment such as Wild Planet.
Another odd protein-ingesting habit is mixing whey with water and eating it with a spoon. This trick is used by competitive bodybuilders and figure competitors to get pure protein and trick the body into consuming it slowly, like a meal. Being an athlete definitely comes with culinary sacrifice!
When an athlete decides they need a specific nutrient to boost their performance, they go straight to the source. An example of this is a female athlete looking to boost iron and energy levels by consuming a tin of oysters a day. Oysters help resist fatigue of daily competition and high-altitude conditions. While traveling with a personal supply of oysters is unusual for most, there is solid reasoning behind the habit. Oysters are loaded with B12, a vital vitamin in energy production and a good percentage of iron, needed for getting oxygen to working muscles. These two compounds are often low in female athletes and lead to anemia that diminishes athletic performance.
Athletes rely on supplemental nutrition more than most to get the high level of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients needed to support high energy outputs. While many of the supplements taken are pretty typical (protein, daily vitamins, electrolytes), others are a bit more unique. One is Athletic Greens, a mix of more than 75 whole-food ingredients claiming to support and promote health for the active individual. Another is mushroom powders. Specifically Lion’s Mane and cordyceps are making their way into smoothies, coffee drinks and bars consumed by athletes to boost endurance and reduce oxidative stress. It might sound like frou-frou hippie nutrition, but science backs up these compounds as being potentially beneficial in supporting an athletic body. There are many retailers of ‘shroom supplements such as Four Sigmatic and Om, so do some research to find the purest form that works for your taste buds, body and wallet.
Adding oil to water doesn’t mix. Unless you’re an athlete looking for an edge. Many athletes — from distance runners to crossfitters — add MCT oil (coconut oil is a popular example) to drink mixes in hopes the fat will be utilized as an efficient energy source. There may be some actual benefit to this. Fats, even consumed in liquid form, can help promote satiety, allowing the athlete to go longer without feeling hunger. MCT refers specifically to a form of fat known as medium chain triglycerides that have the unique benefit of being utilized more quickly than long-chain fatty acids. One study found MCT can increase muscle glucose uptake and insulin sensitivity. However, other research points to no added performance benefit in trained runners. Adding MCT or other fats can greatly disrupt the gastric system before a workout, so experiment with caution.
COFFEE (OR JALAPEÑOS)
Consuming pre-workout/race foods that help speed up gastric emptying is a common trick athletes employ to get to the start line feeling ‘cleaned out,’ lighter and to avoid GI mishaps. One cyclist reported eating large amounts of jarred jalapeños before events to ensure he was able to use the restroom before starting. Jalapeños may seem extreme, but many athletes drink espresso hours before an event for this exact purpose. Experiment with caffeine or spicy foods to see what works for you and how long in advance your body needs to feel the effects. Getting to the start line without the risk of an unwanted bathroom break is a winning tactic.
Perhaps the most extreme is the coffee enema. I’ve heard of athletes rectally ingesting (so sorry for that visual) coffee in hopes it will bypass the gastric tract and be more rapidly absorbed. Believers of the practice claim it reduces chronic pain, improves mood, detoxifies and improves energy levels. My expert advice is to stick with orally consuming your cup of joe. Research shows that caffeine consumed rectally is 3.5 times less bioavailable compared with orally consumed coffee, so you’re not getting an extra boost. There are also risks involved in doing this type of procedure that will definitely not enhance athletic performance.
As a sports dietitian and elite endurance athlete, I’m not immune to practicing odd food behaviors myself. Before my very first marathon, I drank a sugar-free Red Bull (not something I suggest as a sports dietitian). But sometimes, food rituals go beyond health — and this one is a superstitious must for me. Before every big race, I down a small can.
A health-related strange food habit I have is carrying around tins of sardines and eating them for snacks or smashing them into meals. Weird (and smelly), but they are loaded with calcium, omegas, protein, zinc and iron that my physically stressed body needs. Also, when it comes to getting that extra edge, I’m a believer in beet powder. I mix it into lattes, juice or smoothies before training sessions and races because research shows it provides an ergogenic effect on the cardiovascular system.
THE BOTTOM LINE
When considering your food intake as a competitive athlete, nutrition should be at the top of the list for what and when to eat to perform. However, there are many more factors (mood, preference, superstition, tolerance) that come into play when choosing the foods that work for your body to perform its best.
If you’re trying to use food to get that extra edge, consult a sports dietitian first. Experimenting with foods that promise amazing results can be a fun way to boost your performance, but it can also be dangerous if done too much or incorrectly.
At the end of the day, remember foods should be the foundation of a healthy diet, not a ritualized regimen that leads to stress, restriction or poor health.