What Can We Learn From The Diets Of Elite Athletes?

07/06/2017 11:59 | Updated 08 June 2017

Athletes are the pinnacle of human performance; there is something quite incredible about seeing these superhuman-like individuals in action.

Over my years working as a sports dietitian, I have witnessed the complexities of performing at such a level, with the stakes much higher for these athletes, and getting nutrition right is one of the most important aspects.

People often ask me what we can learn from these phenomenal people. Is there anything we can do to enhance our own performance from following their lead?

Here's what I've learnt.

Athletes learn to be resilient

For some athletes, the term 'no pain, no gain' is a mantra they live by.

Certainly athletes are no strangers to hard work. Many hours of training not only builds strong muscles but more importantly, incredible tolerance to discomfort and this is just as vital when it comes to making dietary changes.

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The diet industry often makes empty promises by calling diets 'effortless', yet the truth is that for many, making permanent lifestyle changes can be uncomfortable.

Recent research indicates that for weight management, those who build a strong psychological tolerance to discomfort and readiness to accept challenges are more likely to maintain weight loss long term.

We often look at athletes and think they are born with this level of tolerance but much like a muscle, they put in the hours and train it over time, until it is second nature.

It's all too easy to give up, but perhaps a bit of pain, for significant gain, is something we can all learn.

Athletes personalise their nutrition

Einstein is thought to have said it first:

"Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results"

Athletes personalise everything from their warm-up to their routines before a big competition. If something doesn't work they must change it and they are not afraid to stand out from the rest.

For instance, Usain Bolt turned heads eating chicken nuggets before his sprint performance at the Beijing Olympics in 2008...

...and then he broke the 100m world record.

Not all foods and dietary approaches work for everyone. Two athletes can compete in the exact same sport and have very different nutrition plans - and you can too.

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Athletes don't worry about diet 'fads' - they focus on recovery

Whilst I was working at a major international sporting event earlier this year, I asked a professional football player from Cameroon what he thought 'clean eating' was, and his answer was 'washing your hands before dinner'. The point being, he didn't know what 'clean eating' was and didn't really care.

What he was interested in was what he could eat to train harder, aid recovery and prevent an injury. He wasn't cutting out dairy, lectins, nightshades, sugar, gluten or anything else. He was more interested in what would boost his performance and recovery.

When eating to perform, every meal is an opportunity to heal and nourish the body.

Foods rich in protein such as milk, eggs, meat, fish and plant alternatives are essential to repair; they should form the basis of meals and snacks.

To refuel after exercise, wholegrain, minimally processed forms of carbohydrates such as potatoes, squash, legumes/beans, wholegrain rice and pasta are best; add some essential fats, focusing on those naturally found in whole milk dairy products, monounsaturated plant based-oils (such as olive oil and avocado), oily fish and seafood to control inflammation and further support recovery.

For those who find they don't get on with regular milk, a number of high performing athletes drink a2 Milk, shown to be gentler on digestion while containing all the nutrients of whole cows' milk.

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Athletes look at the bigger picture

Athletes are commonly told that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to be at a world-class level for their sport. Whether or not this figure is true for every sport, it is a considerable amount of time.

Despite these figures, the reality is that many top level athletes are not full-time. They may also have a regular job, friends, family and children to look after.

Athletes' stories such as that of Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill put things into perspective. She won gold for Great Britain at the London 2012 Olympic Games, became a mother, picked up an injury and then came back to compete at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

This ability to see the long term goal and remain motivated is something we can all learn from. In order to win a gold medal at the end of their journey, athletes have to fall in love with the process.

It doesn't matter what your nutrition or fitness goal is, the real challenge is changing your mindset to love, rather than loathe the process.

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Photo credits: Pexels

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