Elite athletes don’t fit the conventional dietary mold. With the extreme physical and physiological demands they place on their bodies, they must make special considerations when it comes to their nutrition, supplementation, and recovery.
Many recreational athletes work out three to four days per week for one to two hours at a time, whereas an elite athlete may train upwards of 14 times per week for a total of 15-30 hours. On top of their demanding training and competition schedules, they may also contend with frequent travel, disrupted eating schedules, unusual sleep schedules, and a high mental demand for sport and competition. At the time of competition, the requirements and energy expenditure for just one event can be extraordinary.
As a case study, take a male distance runner who covered roughly 100 kilometers a day over 10 days for 1,000 total kilometers. He burned around 6,000 calories, which equates to about 18 cheeseburgers (1). Other studies have found elite cyclists averaging around 330 kilometers a day over 10 days and expending 7,000 calories (2, 3). Even more impressive was a recent study that found energy expenditure during the Hawaii Ironman averaged more than 9,000 calories and the Western State Ultramarathon (a 100-mile race) was as high as 16,310 calories (4).
Clearly, the nutritional needs of athletes should be viewed differently than that of the general public. Specifically, what might be considered excessive or unhealthy for a normal person may be needed to support the training for this type of athlete.
In conjunction with extraordinary energy needs, elite athletes also have particular nutritional needs: convenience, focus on nutrient timing, and nutritional support for training adaptation and competition. A regimen usually entails moderate to high protein needs, high carbohydrate needs, and substantial water and fluid intake.
Unfortunately, many athletes do not meet their nutrient needs and are at risk for general suboptimal intake for a range of nutrients (5).
An athlete needs to focus on maintaining or building muscle mass while keeping body fat in the appropriate range for their sport. They also need to positively affect their hormonal and immune systems that play a large role in recovery. It’s also vital around training and competition to provide fuel and enhance performance while not causing gastrointestinal upset (2).
The total energy expenditure of each athlete is unique due to basal metabolic rate, the thermic effects of food, exercise, and recovery (3). Energy expenditure is increased by high levels of body mass, growth, and high-volume training. At such extremes athletes need to consume carbohydrate and protein meals dispersed throughout the day and often times even during training. Post exercise is also extremely important and needs to provide athletes with proper recovery agents.
Ingesting the proper amount of macronutrients like carbohydrates, fats, and proteins to fuel and recover from training are vital to success. This includes timing intake at the right intervals and can make or break performance.
Take a look at these nutritional considerations for elite athletes.
- Burke LM, Cox GR, Culmmings NK & Desbrow B. Guidelines for daily carbohydrate intake: do athletes achieve them? Sports Med. 2001; 31(4):267-99.
- Burke LM. Energy needs of athletes. Can J Appl Physiol. 2001; 26 Suppl: S202-19.
- Manroe M & Thompson J. Energy requirements of the athlete: assessment and evidence of energy efficiency. In: In: Burke L, Deakin V, eds. Clinical sports nutrition. 2nd ed. Syndney, Australia: McGraw-Hill; 2000: 124-145.
- Eden B & Abernethy P. Nutritional intake during an ultraendurance running race. Int J Sport Nutr. 1994 Jun; 4(2):166-74.
- Gabel K, Aldous A & Edgington C. Dietary intake of two elite male cyclists during 10-day, 2,050-mile ride. Int J Sport Nutr. 1995 Mar;5(1):56-61.