The Athlete’s Guide To Eating Out
What to order–and what to avoid–to maximize performance
Caitlin Chock—The popular axiom, “if the furnace is hot enough, it’ll burn anything” may be true to a certain degree, but competitive athletes are wise enough to acknowledge that what goes into their mouths has a direct correlation to what their legs can put out. Eating healthy at home is one thing, but going out to restaurants for a meal with friends is a part of life, too.
So how can the socially involved, real-word athlete dine out while still eating for performance? According to nutritionist Krista Austin Ph.D., it’s a matter of reading between the lines of a restaurant’s menu and taking into consideration where you are with your training. “Much of what an athlete should be looking for is dependent on the training session they completed that day,” says Austin. “However, my policy is that at least once a week every athlete should have a ‘fun meal’ where they don’t think too much about what they are eating and just enjoy fun food–the key is to watch the portion sizes.”
What’s in a Plate?
An athlete’s dietary requirements are quite different from that of the average person. “If it was a harder session, especially one that was longer in nature, they should focus on consuming a meal that contains starchy carbohydrates, say half the plate, that provide the calories they need to refuel and recover rather than ones that are not as energy dense such as vegetables and fruits; although every meal should contain these to some extent,” explains Austin. “Conversely, if it is an easier day, this should be switched and so forth. Easy days the plate might not even contain starchy carbohydrates, it may be shearly fruits and vegetables; a moderate day would have a plate be one-third starchy, one-third fruit and veggies and the remainder protein. Athletes should always remember to gauge their hunger to help control the volume of food that they eat; if you’re hungry, eat; and as you get full, stop!”
Dining Out Before A Race
Traveling to a race is part of the game for many runners. While we know we’re not supposed to be messing with anything new before the gun goes off, food sometimes gets deemed as an exception. Regardless of how tempting the Super-Spicy Gumbo may read off the menu, however, you don’t want to be setting your stomach and GI tract up for disaster the following morning.
The night before, or day of, a race steer away from:
- Anything new
- Anything overly spicy
- Too much dairy
- Foods high in fat that are more difficult to digest, including nuts
- Anything too salty, since it will cause you to retain excess water
- High-residue foods, as in too much fiber; fiber will sit heavier and longer in your stomach. This is one instance where you don’t want a ton of vegetables.
- Your personal ‘trigger’ foods that cause problems
- ‘Bland’ and simple foods: you’re eating for performance more-so than taste
- Low-residue foods: go for low-fiber carbohydrates like potatoes, white bread and white rice
- Adequate protein: opt for lean meats
The Carbo-Loading Debate
There’s a misconception newer runners have when it comes to how many carbs they need. “Many people believe that large volumes of carbohydrates should be consumed after training sessions for endurance athletes because they glycogen deplete. If training is designed appropriately with recovery sessions, etc., carbohydrate restoration will happen automatically if someone eats properly. There is no need to gorge on carbohydrates in large volumes at any one time,” says Austin. While a bowl of pasta before a 5K is fine, having two or three in the name of carbo-loading will actually have a negative effect. The influx of carbs will cause the runner to retain excessive amounts of water; in addition to leaving you feeling bloated, the extra water weight will be more for you to carry through to the finish and may cause you to slow down.
Sample Menu Ideas and Suggestions
Here are a couple sample menu options and suggestions for making them less likely to cause you problems the night before a race.
- Make your own pasta bowl with spaghetti pasta (whole-wheat if not pre-race) and pomodoro sauce (aka marinara). Top it with fresh spinach (one veggie if pre-race, more if not) and add roasted chicken OR shrimp
Chili’s / American Diner
- Classic Sirloin 6-oz Steak: 6-oz sirloin with butter; side of seasonal veggies and loaded mashed potatoes
Adapt: Get butter served on side, get veggies steamed and swap a baked potato for the mashed.
- Classic Turkey Toasted Sandwich: with lettuce, tomato, provolone cheese and mayo on Texas wheat toast; a side of fries.
Adapt: Swap mustard instead of mayo, white bread over wheat and get a side of chicken noodle soup or rice instead of fries. If it’s pre-race opt out of the lettuce.
About The Author:
Caitlin Chock set the then National High School 5k Record (15:52.88) in 2004. Still an avid runner, she works as a freelance writer and artist.
Additional resources for what to eat for optimal performance: