As a coach, I care about my athletes’ overall health. After all, that is ultimately one of the goals of leading an active life. Ironically, many athletes lose track of the crucial importance of eating nourishing foods and getting rest. As a result, many feel joint pain, recover poorly, feel fatigue, suffer several high and low energy periods each day and become ill often.
After several decades of misleading nutrition information from “experts,” and more recently, many contradictory nutrition trends, the hardest thing about eating well may be knowing what that means. Everyone is different. What works for you may not work for me.
Fortunately, there are three clear nutritional habits that nutritional advisors agree upon and that will work for almost everyone. You can add these habits to your daily routine without any negative impact on your training goals. Try them and see if you feel more even energy, lose a little extra weight, feel less stiffness and pain and remain healthy the next time your kids bring home a virus.
At national team camps, we test our athletes’ hydration status 1-2 times per week. Despite their best intentions, we always have 1-2 athletes who are moderately to significantly dehydrated. If you are training often, it takes persistent effort to remain hydrated.
A dehydrated body will experience more headaches, fatigue, low energy, aches and cravings. A dehydrated brain will not be able to think as clearly. The body will perceive dehydration as stress and will respond with hormones and negative sensations designed to keep you alive in poor conditions (like storing more fat).
Drink plenty of pure water and water with added electrolytes to help you hydrate. Stay away from drinks with added sugar, caffeine or artificial sweeteners. (It is still fine to use sports drinks with sugar during long or intense workouts.)
How much? As a starting point, aim to drink about 5 ounces of water per day for every 10 pounds that you weigh. For example, a 150-pound person would drink 75 ounces per day of water each day and add another bottle or two per hour of training. (1 cup = 8 ounces)
Eat your vegetables (especially green leafy)
All nutritionists and dieticians agree that vegetables, especially leafy greens, are amazing for us. Most people and many athletes do not eat nearly enough of these vitamin and mineral-packed foods. Eating a variety of vegetables will increase your intake of vital nutrients like Vitamin K, E, A and C, iron, potassium, magnesium, zinc, phosphorus and calcium. Plants have phytonutrients that can help protect us from chronic illnesses and diseases like cancer. Leafy greens reduce inflammation, increase healthy gut flora, improve liver function and lower mucus production (helpful for those prone to sinus infections and bronchitis or asthma).
Aim to eat about 7 servings of non-starchy vegetables per day (especially greens). A serving is one cup of fresh vegetables or ½ cup of cooked vegetables. As you strive for those 7 servings, try to include 1-2 servings of vegetables at each meal and snack. Sautee greens with your eggs. Try sugar snap peas and humus for a snack. Eat a large salad as part of lunch or dinner. Roast brussel sprouts for dinner. Add a handful of spinach to your smoothie. If you work on it, you can do it!
Avoid Added Sugar
The food industry has discovered a dirty secret to selling more food to you. If they add sugar, they can save money over using higher quality ingredients and you will crave that food more. If you look at the ingredient labels for most processed food, you will find sugar or another name for sugar in the list. All this added sugar can quickly accumulate in our daily diet and contribute to insulin resistance, Type II Diabetes, mood swings, depression, cancer, weight gain and yeast infections. It increases inflammation - leading to more joint pain, mucus production (asthma, allergies, sinus infections) and decreased immune system strength.
Look on food labels for these sugar names: maltodextrin, agave syrup, monk fruit, corn syrup, evaporated cane juice, brown rice syrup, fructose and raw sugar to name a few. Stay away from artificial or chemical sweeteners - which only lead to more sweet cravings, possibly with side effects.
Use nutrition information and nutrition trackers to track your added sugars each day. Females should stay below 24 grams of added sugar per day and males should eat below 36 grams per day. As you track your sugars, you do not have to count the naturally occurring sugars found in plain, whole milk dairy or in whole or unsweetened frozen fruits and vegetables. You also do not have to count the sugars in your sports nutrition required for long (2+ hour workouts) or intense (hard interval) training sessions. Everything else counts towards your daily totals.
Work hard on staying hydrated, eat many vegetables (especially leafy greens) and avoid artificial sweeteners and added sugars. You will feel the difference. These are life-long nutrition habits that no one will dispute and they will make a difference in your health and your athletic goals.