Logo by S. Popis

This article has been published by Barry Groves at his web site

Diet for Athletic Performance


Athletics is becoming increasingly competitive. More and more stress is being placed on how well you perform. To reach your highest potential, all of your body systems must be perfectly tuned. Nothing is more important to your well-being and ability to perform than good nutrition. Eating the right foods helps you maintain desirable body weight, stay physically fit, and establish optimum nerve-muscle reflexes. Without the right foods, even physical conditioning and expert coaching aren't enough to push you to your best. Good nutrition must be a key part of your training program if you are to succeed.

The problems come when deciding what is the best nutrition for exercise and athletics.

The conventional (wrong) approach

This is an example of advice that is given to athletes:

There is no one "miracle food" or supplement that can supply all of your nutritional needs. Certain foods supply mainly proteins, other foods contain vitamins and minerals, and so on. The key to balancing your diet is to combine different foods so that nutrient deficiencies in some foods are made up by nutrient surpluses in others. Eating a variety of foods is the secret.

The nutrients - the proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, and water - are teammates that work together to provide good nutrition. Just as each team member carries out different tasks during a game, each nutrient performs specific functions in your body. A lack of just one nutrient is a disadvantage to your body, just as losing a player to the penalty box is a disadvantage for a hockey team. Your body needs all these nutrients all of the time, so the foods you eat should supply them every day.

Just because you are not hungry does not necessarily mean that your body has all the nutrients it needs. You can fill up on foods that contain mostly carbohydrates and fats, but your body still has basic needs for proteins, minerals, and vitamins.

Eating Practice Every Day!

The training period offers you an excellent opportunity to establish sound eating practices that will benefit you on the playing field as well as give you a measure of well-being throughout life.

Make Snacks Count

Chose (sic) snacks that contain more than just calories. When you eat out with friends, choose something nutritionally sound, like a cheeseburger with a slice of tomato and lettuce leaf. How many food groups are present in this sandwich? What might you eat along with this sandwich to make an even better snack?

Look for Extra Food Energy

'Teenage athletes burn up more calories than non-athletic teens. You can fill this requirement by eating more food from all food groups. Carbohydrates are the most efficient fuel for your body during strenuous exercise. Get most of your extra energy from foods like starchy vegetables and whole grain or enriched bread, cereal, rice, or pasta instead of from fatty foods. For example, on an athlete's plate, a baked potato should get the nod over french fries.

Eat Regularly

'Breakfast is especially important because you need food to start the day. Your body begins the day in a low-energy, fasted condition. Teens who eat breakfast score higher on physical fitness tests. Breakfasts can be made up of any combination of nutritious foods that you enjoy eating. Spaghetti and meatballs, together with an orange and a glass of milk, is a nutritionally sound meal for any time of the day-even breakfast!

Check Your Diet Frequently

'Spot-check your daily diet at least once a week. Are you eating at least the minimum number of servings from each food group each day? How can you use the food guide pyramid as a tool to make improvements?

'How can you tell if your diet is stacking up? Nutritionists have developed a food-guide system in the shape of a pyramid that can help you rate or evaluate your diet. This guide divides food into five groups on the basis of the nutrients each group provides. By eating the recommended amounts of food from each group daily, you can greatly increase your ability to get all the nutrients your body needs--and that will improve your ability on the playing field.

'Here is some additional information about the food groups that can help you improve your diet.'

There then follows specific recommendations based on the all too familiar food triangle. In this case it involves:

  • 6 to 11 portions daily of whole-grain and enriched breads and cereals, such as cooked or ready to eat cereals, bread, macaroni, grits, spaghetti, crackers, noodles, and rice. These, it says, 'Contributes complex carbohydrates (starch and fiber) and significant amounts of protein, B vitamins, and iron'.
  • 3 to 5 servings daily of vegetables - including dark green, deep yellow, and starchy vegetables - and their juices. These, it says: 'Provides vitamins and minerals that complement other food sources. Good sources of Vitamin C include tomatoes, broccoli, and brussel (sic) sprouts. Good sources of Vitamin A include carrots, broccoli, spinach, greens, pumpkin, and sweet potatoes.
  • 2 to 4 servings daily of fruits and their juices, which are, apparently a 'Good source of many vitamins and minerals. Good sources of vitamin C include citrus fruits and their juices, melons, and strawberries. Apricots are good sources of vitamin A.'
  • 3 servings daily of Milk, yogurt, and all types of cheese which 'Provides calcium. Also contains protein, vitamin A, and riboflavin (B2).'
  • 2 to 3 servings daily of Beef, pork, lamb, poultry, fish, eggs, dry peas, dry beans, peanuts, peanut butter. These, the advice says, are a 'Good source of protein. These foods also contain thiamin (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin, iron, and zinc.'

    The advice continues:

    'To meet increased energy needs, most teen athletes require more than the minimum number of servings listed. In some cases, a teen athlete may need more than the recommended number of servings. For most athletes, the increased energy should come from the vegetable group and the bread, cereal, rice, and pasta group. Foods in these two groups contain a lot of starch, which is an excellent source of food energy. Athletes who participate in very high levels of physical activity and/or who have the largest body stature will require the highest intake of food energy.

    'Foods that occupy the smallest area at the top of the Food Guide Pyramid, such as butter, margarine, sweets, and jellies, should be used sparingly. These foods do provide energy and some nutrients. However, go easy on these foods and get your energy from foods that are more nutritious. Your body needs the additional vitamins and minerals to help it use energy. Make this food guide pyramid system the basis of your training table.'

    The advice above was taken from the prestigious University of Illinois' Sports and Nutrition website.(1)

  • That's it.
    Note that there is:

    • no mention of the best fuel for the body: fat. In fact it says earlier that 'Carbohydrates are the most efficient fuel for your body during strenuous exercise'.
    • Not even a mention of the essential fatty acids that are necessary to sustain life.
    • Neither does the advice recommend that the fruit and vegetables be cooked. As we know any minerals and vitamins these may contain (and there are actually precious few to begin with) are not released from uncooked fruit and vegetables.

      Now lets get it right!

      I like to think that I am an athlete. I have eleven International Gold Medals and four World Records for archery. I couldn't eat the 'six portions of bread' a day, let alone the rest, even if I wanted to.

      But why would I want to? The advice given by the University of Illinois is nothing but unsubstantiated dogma. It is the way to failure not only for an athlete but for anyone who needs energy to work.

      In view of the vast amount of dogma, such as that above, which surrounds nutrition for athletic performance, you may be surprised to learn that there is little or no evidence that carbohydrates are an energy food.

      Carbo-loading: the way to failure?

      The idea of the advice given above is based on what is known as 'carbo-loading'. As you may have gathered, this practice involves eating high carbohydrate meals of such things as bread, pasta and cereals for a few days immediately prior to a tournament - in quantities greater than they can use during those days - so the their bodies have a reserve on tournament day. Hence the term 'carbo-loading'.

      Before we look at the scientific evidence that there is a much better way, let me tell you a true story.

      Cheltenham's Tim Hatcher is a triathlete. Involving swimming, cycling and running, the triathlon is a sport that requires a high degree of strength and stamina over a long period. Tim was coached and instructed on carbo-loading to build up a reserve of sugar and thus, energy, in his body for the trial to come. 'On the run up to my first triathlon', he told me, 'I followed the high carbohydrate low fat eating routine, with daily training. Prior to the event I had a pasta lunch, then a banana an hour before the start. I had a terrible time of it, a slow swim time, got a stitch soon into the cycle, felt hungry, had some Kendal mint cake (sugar), and then collapsed exhausted at the finishing line.'

      But that wasn't all. A side effect he had noticed of his pre-race practice was that sometimes he 'crashed' not long after a meal with sweating and a sugar craving. He checked this out with his doctor who diagnosed reactive hypoglycaemia (low blood glucose caused as a reaction to a high carbohydrate meal). This, he was told was not something to worry about as 'we all suffer from it to a certain degree'.

      The doctor's reassurance, however, did not satisfy him. After doing some research, Tim decided to change his carbo-loading regime for one that was low in carbohydrate and high in fats - the sort of regime I have been advocating in these pages.

      'This had surprising effects, my training time started getting better, I felt better, I lost weight, my body shape was changing, I was losing my belly, all of which I had not expected. Also the best thing is that I have not yet had a reactive hypoglycaemia attack since adopting this new eating pattern.'

      The night before his next triathlon Tim ate a low-carbohydrate meal of Morrocan stew. On the morning of the event he breakfasted on feta cheese, artichoke heart and spinach omelette, fried in butter, with sliced tomato drizzled with olive oil and two slices of bread and butter. 'This was really hard for me, no carbo-loading, how was it going to work? Would I run out of steam half way round? Would I "hit the wall"? Would my muscles run out of fuel and seize up? All were conditions I had been led to believe could happen without carbo-loading.'

      It rained throughout the event. Tim's swim time was a personal best. Although the cycling was 'really wet and horrible', with mud on road at several points, Tim overtook two people on the stage - and didn't get the stitch which had plagued his previous race. Tim started the run and thought 'oh no, stitch on its way', but that feeling disappeared as quickly as it had come and came to nothing. Tim overtook three people during the running stage. The end of the run was the end of the race. He finished feeling great; none of his fears had materialised and, he said, 'I felt a thousand times better than the end of the last event, very wet, but very happy, looking forward to the next'.

      Tim's times were much improved - a personal best - and he assured me that he will continue with his new eating regime which, he says 'tastes good, it makes me feel good, it makes me stronger, it is changing my body shape to one I like, and has no adverse side effects. I would recommend this to anybody, in fact I already have. I really does make sense and I feel is a must for any serious athlete.'

      Tim Hatcher is not the only Tim to give up carbo-loading. Britain's number one tennis player, Tim Henman, who came so close to the final at Wimbledon in 2001, said in a recent interview: 'I used to eat more pasta-type food, but I found out more recently that slow release energy food is good, so I started to eat more protein and I'd say that I'm eating now probably sixty percent protein forty percent carbohydrates. I think that helps.'

      So what is wrong with carbo-loading?

      There are two problems that those who recommend carbo-loading don't appear to realise:

    • Firstly, the body can't store carbohydrates in large quantities and most people already get more than enough carbohydrates to fuel their bodies' daily activities. All carbohydrates, whether they are bread, pasta, sugar or jam when you put them in your mouth, enter the bloodstream as glucose. And the bloodstream can only hold so much. The body, being a well-run power plant, puts the leftovers in storage to use in the future if it's needed. Some is stored as a type of starch called glycogen, but as it can't store much of this, the body turns most of the excess into fat and keeps it on deposit in the body's fat cells. And we see it walking around the streets wherever we go, hanging off bodies in a most unattractive way. Put simply, carbo-loading cannot work simply because excess carbs are not stored in a readily usable way.
    • The second problem lies in how the body uses its various options for fuel. Each of our body's cells contains lots of very small power plants called mitochondria. It is they that produce the energy we need from the food that we consume. Glucose is usually called the body's 'preferred fuel' because, if it is available, our bodies have been conditioned from birth to use it first. But it is not the best fuel. That distinction belongs to fats - or fatty acids, to give them their scientific name. Before the mitochondria can use either glucose or fatty acid as a fuel, it has to be transported into the mitochondria.

    Fatty acids are transported into the mitochondria as completely intact molecules. Glucose, on the other hand, can be transported only after it has been broken down first into pyruvate by the process of glycolysis. This is then used anaerobically to produce energy with lactate as a by-product.

    The by-products of the energy-production process when fatty acids are used are carbon dioxide and water, both of which are easily excreted. But when glucose is used, the lactic acid produced in the conversion process can build up in muscle cells and make them ache. It is this that is the cause of the aching muscles or pain involved in strenuous exercise - 'the wall' as athletes call it. This 'wall' severely limits an athlete's performance.

    But it is not necessary ever to 'hit the wall'. If you do, your diet is wrong.

    Now let's look at a real athlete

    It was 1968 at the Mexico City Olympic Games. The spectators at the marathon went wild as a relatively unknown Ethiopian, Mamo Walde, won the marathon. Not only was the thirty-six-year-old runner the oldest man ever to win this prestigious event, he did it in a time that has not been bettered to this day.

    So what was Walde's secret?

    Walde grew up in an Ethiopian village. His life consisted of running after and hunting wild game on foot. His diet was one high in animal meat and fat, with practically no carbohydrate. Subsequent tests showed that Walde's body, under conditions of physical load, readily burned fat as its main energy source. Walde had no concept of 'hitting the wall'. It had never happened to him.

    And, just like him and Tim Hatcher, it never happen to you

    A real energy diet - a diet for winning

    While there is little or no scientific evidence that carbohydrates are a particularly good energy food, there is a great deal that fats are.

    What may not be immediately obvious is that, with the correct diet, constant exercise and practice to maintain muscle suppleness, strength and stamina doesn't seem to be needed either.

    It is well known that carnivorous animals - lions and tigers - if fed their natural diet of fat meat, even when confined in cages or small pens in zoos for long periods of time, without the opportunity to exercise, do not lose their vigour, strength and endurance. Such animals in circuses are even more confined but they are still able to make prodigious leaps when called upon to do so.

    Eskimo sled dogs are normally kept on leashes or in small kennels during the summer months and fed fat meat and fish. When, after some months of such inactivity, the winter arrives and they are required to pull sleds again, they have no need of a period of training or conditioning before they go about their arduous task. And they still manage to pull heavy sleds for up to twelve hours a day. The same applies to English hunting dogs. They do not lose their ability to run hard for long distances when correctly fed.

    The same is true of Man. The Eskimo spends most of the year in practical inactivity during the winter months. Confined to his snow-covered hut or igloo, eating meat, fish and fat, he rarely ventures outside for months at a time. But when spring arrives, he immediately begins a very strenuous life, travelling many miles to hunting grounds. He, too needs no period of conditioning after his long winter of inactivity. He also requires less sleep and is much more resistant to fatigue.

    In 1895 two Norwegians, Fridtjof Nansen and Frederik Johansen, landed on an island of the Franz Joseph group.(2) They had 'conventional' provisions to last for several weeks but, as there was abundant game in the form of walrus and polar bear, they decided to live off the land and save their provisions until the following summer. From the end of August 1895 until the spring break up of the arctic ice they got no exercise, did not wash themselves or change their clothes, yet they remained in perfect health and were able to do a full day's sledging on their first day of travel.

    Rear Admiral Robert Peary also noted the ability of Arctic explorers to subsist for more than a year with no food other than pemmican twice a day. Men doing heavy work required two pounds of pemmican, which was the equivalent of six pounds of meat and a pound of fat per day.(3)

    This ability to do fantastic feats of strength and endurance was not confined to the Arctic. Native porters in Australia, eating only kangaroo meat, carried heavy loads for up to twelve hours without rest or refreshment; and Aborigines in the desert, would lope for distances of up to twenty miles, with occasional bursts of speed to catch game, on a handful of worms, bugs and insects, and kangaroo meat.(4)


    What all these people (and animals) have in common is their carbohydrate free diet. Fat is the best fuel for an athlete, carbohydrates are the worst. It really is as simple as that.

    Still not convinced?

    Athletes are told to eat a diet high in carbohydrates and low in fats. This, they are told, will increase their performance. However, this was not confirmed in a dietary study published in 1994.(5)

    Using three diets: normal, high-fat and high-carbohydrate, the study showed that the high-carbohydrate diet increased performance by an average ten percent over a normal mixed diet. Not bad, you might think, but the high-fat diet increased performance by a massive thirty-three percent. That's much better. The authors conclude that restriction of dietary fat may be detrimental to endurance performance.

    Experience from around the world confirms it


    There is just one caveat. It takes time for the body to change from burning inefficient carbs to burning fats efficiently. You should notice a marked increase in performance after about 26 weeks on a low-carb, high-fat diet, but maximum performance will not be reached for about a year.


    1. http://www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/hsnut/index.html, accessed February 2002

    2. Stefansson V. Cancer: Disease of Civilisation. Hill & Wang, New York, 1960

    3. Military Surgeon, August 1944, Quoted in Walter L Voegtlin. The Stone Age Diet.

    4. 4. The Epic of Man. Time Inc. New York, 1961

    5. Muoio D M, et al. Effect of dietary fat on metabolic adjustments to maximal VO-2 and endurance in runners. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 1994; 26 (1): 81-88

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