Wondering what your favorite March Madness athletes eat? Some might stick to the typical college fare of instant ramen and whatever free food they can find at meetings around campus. But many have access to resources like their own cafeteria, with carefully designed, nutrient-packed meals, and sports dietitians who can help them optimize their diet for athletic performance.
Now, even if you’re not a championship-bound athlete, you can still eat like one. Here are four ways we can all benefit from the muscle-boosting and recovery-promoting foods that elite athletes fuel up with every day.
Don’t Skip Breakfast
For athletes, breakfast may just be the most important meal of the day. After fasting all night, glycogen stores—our main source of fuel—are mostly depleted. That means that if you head to practice (or work) the next morning on an empty stomach, you’re running on fumes. Skipping breakfast not only results in a less intense and impactful workout, but also delays the recovery that follows, dampening your gains in strength and endurance. And even if you’re not working out in the morning, a solid breakfast—built with complex carbohydrates, quality protein, and healthy fats for long-lasting energy—fuels your brain and body to get through a busy work day.
Focus on High-Quality Protein at All Meals
Most Americans eat the bulk of their protein at dinner, ignoring it almost entirely at breakfast and when snacking. And while it’s generally a myth that your body can’t put to use more than 30 grams of protein at a time, spacing out your protein intake throughout the day has benefits for athletes and health-focused individuals alike. For athletes, a consistent intake of protein throughout the day results in increased muscle protein synthesis. For the rest of us, evenly distributed protein across all meals provides steadier energy levels and decreased hunger.
Daily protein needs may vary by age, gender, and activity level, but aim to eat at least 1 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight. A 150-pound woman, for example, should consume around 68 grams of protein per day. Focus on high quality, unprocessed protein from sources like meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
Eat Your Veggies
Vegetables might not be the most economical source of energy for athletes (they’re low in calories and carbohydrates and high in water and fiber—a bonus for most who are trying to limit their calorie intake, but not for athletes who need all of the calories they can get) but they’re still important. That’s because an athlete’s diet and lifestyle require more of certain nutrients found abundantly in veggies, including B vitamins thiamin, riboflavin, and B6, as well as iron. B vitamins, for example, play a role in the metabolism of carbohydrates and protein. So because athletes eat more of these macronutrients, they also require more B vitamins. And iron, which plays a key role in the transport of oxygen throughout the body as well as energy metabolism, is lost in sweat.
As a result, a deficiency in any of these nutrients can result in decreased athletic performance. These micronutrients work around the clock to keep your body functioning regardless of your activity level, however, and because they’re found in abundance in fresh produce, they’re a fundamental part of any diet.
To stay ahead of the game, athletes rely on planned out pre- and post-workout meals and snacks. Planning out your meals and snacks in advance takes the guesswork out of eating, which means that when you’re exhausted from a tough workout (or meeting!) you don’t have to waste any energy figuring out what you’re going to eat or how to prepare it.
If you always come home from work low on energy and motivation, for example, dedicate some time on the weekend to preparing a few dinners that are balanced with quality protein, complex carbohydrates, and plenty of vegetables that you can simply heat up when you get home. Or if you always work out in the morning and come into work starving, stash supplies at your office to whip up a healthy breakfast. Last year, ESPN reported that many basketball teams fueled up with PB&J’s—arm your office with whole grain bread, almond butter, apple or banana slices, and cinnamon for a healthier take on the basketball favorite.