As an athlete, investing in one’s health and nutrition can take a unique path compared to others who may have different aspirations. Today’s emphasis on nutrition can be confusing-what to eat, what to avoid, or what is an acceptable amount to consume. You can choose to listen to these as much as you want, but the most important thing to remember is that nutrition is anything but a “one size fits all” approach. When it comes to nutrition, it is important to be selfish. As competitive athletes, the way we fuel should focus on the best way to recover from training and prepare for performance. As we stand in line at the grocery store, it’s likely that the person one aisle over who is beginning their weight loss journey has a very different collection of items in their cart despite the fact that you’re both focusing on your nutrition.
Fueling for performance should be tailored to each individual’s lifestyle and training routines. When it comes down to any exercising athlete, the biggest thing we need to ensure is that we are consuming enough over the course of the day. This means avoiding what is referred to as a “caloric deficit”. Throughout the day, our body burns calories for energy to carry out the variety of tasks at hand. As an athlete, this involves regular daily life plus the many hours of exercise that we are completing. The fuel we put into our body measures what we refer to as “energy availability”. If we have eaten fewer calories than we have burned for the day we have negative energy available. If we have consumed more calories than we have burned, we have a positive level of energy availability. We must maintain a positive state of energy availability to get through practices and ensure our body has ample means available to recover properly.
A good way to think of performance fueling is thinking about putting gas in your car. If there’s no gas in the tank, the car won’t run properly. The same goes for you. If you lack sufficient food or energy input throughout the day, your body will struggle to carry out its activities to its fullest potential. This state of negative energy availability is called a caloric deficit. When this becomes the case, we fall into this state of caloric deprivation, and we don’t have enough gas being put into the gas tank. It is not uncommon to fall into these caloric deficits unintentionally. As athletes, and swimmers especially, you’re working out multiple times a day, burning thousands of calories, while also maybe working or going to school. We can gradually improve this by making intentional decisions to bring more food on the go or wake up a few minutes earlier to eat a good breakfast. The larger concern with caloric deficit occurs when an athlete chooses to maintain this deficit out of a desire for a particular appearance.
As an athlete, proper fueling becomes difficult when one is hyper-focused on their appearance. Avoiding this particular mindset is much easier said than done. Concern with appearance is especially high among swimmers and more common now than ever before. When individuals begin to focus on appearance it is difficult to ever feel satisfied. This can lead to a downhill effect of gradually eliminating and restricting certain foods and intake at increasing amounts. When we fuel for appearance, we ask ourselves how is this going to affect the way I look if I have this? Many times, we talk ourselves out of eating certain foods out of worry that it will negatively impact our appearance. We also tend to talk ourselves out of “overeating” which in many cases, is eating enough to properly prepare for or replace the energy that we burn in our workouts. Now, instead of having that pre-practice snack about an hour out, we go into practice with an empty gas tank, thinking we will just burn more calories to benefit our appearance.
Afterward, we may find ourselves eating a meal, but it becomes less likely that we are lacking the proper balanced meal following our workout. After a workout, it is important to eat as soon as you can to improve your body’s recovery process. Following a training session or competition, it is important to have a meal that incorporates both proteins and carbohydrates as well as some fruits, vegetables, or other foods with anti-inflammatory effects to help decrease muscle soreness. Instead of asking ourselves how consuming certain foods will affect our appearance, we should start asking ourselves how this will affect our recovery or ability to perform. My college coach would tell us to “eat for energy, not for pleasure”. This can be useful in situations where you’re determining whether or not to have that Wendy’s 4 for 4 after a workout versus a more well-rounded meal, but also in those situations where you need to decipher your primary purpose of what you’re consuming.
As athletes, it is important to prioritize our desire to perform at our fullest potential and not let the fear of proper fueling hold us back. If you’re picking your foods based on how you look, it is time to try to rewire your brain to how will this help me perform at my best. What is it that my body needs right now to recover properly? These are the questions we should ask ourselves when determining what to eat and when. Having an ample energy supply brings tremendous benefits for both mental and physical processes. It is important to train our brains not only to have a positive mindset behind fueling but to also support ourselves and be patient throughout the process.