Should You Eat Like a PRO?

I see this topic come up all the time, whether directed at me specifically or in sports related publications. Headlines like ‘what pro xyz eats in a day!’ or ‘eat like pro xyz!’ are catchy and attention grabbing, but should you really be copying xyz’s eating habits?

It seems every recreational athlete is dying to know what a pro’s diet looks like in hopes of unlocking the secret of a super fit, highly trained person.  There was a time when I was a beginner athlete searching for this very information, thinking that if I knew exactly what xyz ate for their amazing marathon times or climbing legs, that I could eat the same and achieve the same great performances.

Sorry folks, but it doesn’t work like that. If you are not a professional athlete, attempting to adopt a pro’s diet will likely backfire and instead of leaving you with new PRs or an elite contract, you’ll be nursing injuries, illness, slow gains, and lots of frustration.


Here are some reasons why you won’t benefit on a pro/elite diet:

Disordered Eating:

The prevalence of suffering from disordered eating in elite athletes has been reported at 25-62% while only 5-9% for the general population. Disordered eating includes measures to restrict intake (avoiding specific food groups, counting calories, periodic binge/purge measures, etc) in order to improve performance by increasing leanness. This is especially true of sports that include body image impact (dance/ballet), power to weight sports (distance running/cycling), and ‘making weight’ (wrestling/ pole vault). Putting oneself at health risks due to low fueling is dangerous. For a professional athlete, whose livelihood is dependent on performance and image, there is greater motivation to toe the line of health risk for the purpose of performance gains. The average athlete is much less able to appropriately balance that line due to lack of knowledge, support (nutritionist), and off time (remember, pros get down time as part of their career while the rest of us likely are balancing training + work/life).

Training Volume:

Time spent training for the pro and elite field is much higher than the average fitness focused person. It is not uncommon for a high-level athlete to spend 20+ hours a week devoted to training. This comes at a large energy expense. Every additional hour spent training increases carbohydrate grams/kg needed by the athlete.

Body Composition:

Generally, professional athletes are leaner than non-pro level athletes in the same sport. This changes the basic metabolic needs of the highly trained athlete as individuals with more fat free mass have a higher resting metabolic rates. Lean tissue is also composed of a higher water percentage compared to adipose tissue, which allows these uber fit elites to suffer the effects of dehydration less.

Training adaptations:

There are many metabolic level differences between how a recreational athlete and professional athlete process and utilize fuel. For example, a highly trained individual is more able to use fat efficiently for fuel, meaning they have different macronutrient needs than the average active person. Highly trained athletes also have a higher ability to store glycogen, process all nutrient substrates more efficiently for energy, and fatigue more slowly. Meaning that if you copy what they eat, you will likely run out of energy and hit the wall much sooner than they would.

Special Dietary Aides:

Cordyceps for endurance, beet juice to reduce perceived effort levels, antioxidants for recovery, caffeine for accelerations, etc… Research supports that some foods do actually assist with performance, however, elite level athletes have highly honed in and developed systems and are less likely to benefit from these extras (win for the beginners!). This is why you commonly see athletes consuming very basic, even boring (and untrendy) foods. Make this work to your advantage by adding performance specific superfoods to your diet.

Supplements:

While a recreational athlete can freely indulge in vitamins, protein powders, drink mixes, and supplements of all sorts, a professional athlete must take a more careful approach. Certain supplements, or amounts of supplements, are considered banned substances by athletic governing bodies. Athletes competing at the top of their sport for records, prize money, and fame are routinely drug tested to ensure they are competing fairly. Keep in mind that items in the supplement category are not subjected to FDA regulations that food substances are, meaning there is no real way to know what is in the supplement you’re taking. Professional athletes must make the ethical and responsible choice to abstain from such supplements or risk a positive test which could result in heavy consequences.


Keep in mind professionals have spent years dialing in their nutrition. Chances are they did not google ‘how to eat for cycling’ and adopt a new diet overnight. These top athletes have the ability to work with a support team of experts along with access to evaluation methods (hydrostatic weighing, VO2 testing, Respiratory Quotient, frequent blood work, etc) to dial in a personalized regimen that works with their travel schedule, training demands, GI tolerance, energy needs, health needs, preferences, general lifestyle, and cooking abilities.

 

If you want to create a fueling plan that will increase your performance, talk to a sports dietitian (RD, CSSD) to develop a plan that is right for your specific needs.

 


Examples:

Here are a few previously published pro diet recalls along with quick insight on whether you should adopt their eating habits. 

 

Michael Phelps:

We all heard of this pro’s 10,000 calorie/day diet. While this athlete has very high caloric demands to meet his training and lean body needs, chances are you don’t require quite as much. Adopt his eating style and you’ll  be more likely to sink, not swim. Of course it does go to show that high performance requires a fueled body and eating less isn’t always a good thing.

diet recall

 

Aly Raisman:

This Olympian documented her strict and insufficient intake for Cosmopolitan Magazine. Her diet recall is worrisome and projects an image of negative energy balance which could leave the average woman with hormone imbalances and health risks. One positive take away is the simplicity of her diet; mostly whole foods without anything overly trendy is something anyone can adopt.   

diet recall

 

Lindsay Bayer:

A professional cyclist who admits to struggling with body image, but also acknowledges how crucial food is to her sport.  Her recall showcases a common trait in professional athletes, consistency. She admits to almost always eating the same breakfast and recovery shake. While sticking with what works is a generally good tip, if you never incorporate new foods, you are at risk of missing out on variety and risk creating nutrient deficiencies.  

diet recall

 

Shalane Flanagan:

Marathon pro Shalane demonstrates a good knowledge of when to switch foods depending on what phase of training she is in and what the foods she consumes do for her body. Being educated about your food intake is always a win. Shalane is also co-author of a health forward cookbook (right) so you can adopt some of her exact recipes! Something to notice about her diet recall s the lack of snacks. Athletes should be consuming more fuel than just breakfast, lunch and dinner to support health and metabolic needs. Make sure your workouts are fueled appropriately!

diet recall

 

Noah Droddy:

This middle distance track runner shares the basics of his daily eating which include a mix of hearty at home meals and take-out pizza and beer. Good point – balance and not being too strict and serious. Also, the fact that breakfast is his largest meal of the day due it being after his training. Instead of following his exact diet, implement that principal by eating more fuel around your training. One thing to notice, he doesn’t tell you what he eats while training! Many elites keep these things secret. Never think an athlete’s recall is 100% accurate.

diet recall

 


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