I’m A Sports Nutritionist And These Are By Far The Three Most-Common Issues I See With My Athletes.

Question: “You’ve been seeing clients for many years and you’re an accomplished elite mountain athlete. What are three themes you see folks getting wrong in their approach to endurance nutrition?”

As a sports nutritionist who works with athletes on a daily basis, I can tell you that I’ve seen it all. And that should not be surprising – our world is flooded with (mis)information on a daily basis. Eat this! Don’t eat that! This food is healthy! This food group is unhealthy! This diet is the key to performance! Take this supplement, promise it will make you run as fast as Killian!

Humans are faced with making over 200 decisions about food every day, and yet most of us can’t even decide what to make for dinner tonight. Combing through the hefty amount of food information thrown in our faces everyday through social media, the news, athletes we admire, and our peers can be overwhelming and stressful, even for a trained nutritionist.

As a general consumer of media and an athlete myself, I totally get it. Because of that, I have the utmost amount of empathy for my athletes who come to me feeling totally lost about what they should and shouldn’t eat, and what they can do to improve their performance through nutrition.

That’s why I started taking close notes on some of the most common questions from my endurance athlete clients. Here are three of the most common nutrition issues I see:

Issue #1: Not Eating Enough

The biggest issue I see is athletes not eating enough. Training and life are huge stressors, and even though most of my athletes have really good intentions of eating enough, they are often unaware just how much they really do need to eat to account for these stressors.

There are so many things that can complicate this, such as a change of appetite post-run, underfuelling during runs, or just the sheer amount of hours spent on your feet, which can take away from time spent eating. It can be really hard to eat enough, so athletes need to devote as much time, effort, and attention into eating as they do to training, or to comparing the specific details of how the Hoka Speedgoat 5 is different from the Speedgoat 4.

Chronic undereating, whether purposeful or accidental, can lead to a variety of hormonal changes that can negatively affect your immune system, put you at higher risk for injury, and negatively affect your performance.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it until the day I die – a real food diet full of nutrients and moderation, and one that brings us both physical and emotional satisfaction, is the secret to performance.

I always tell my athletes that, when in doubt, eat more! It’s rare that an athlete will eat too much, even if they really try. Double up your servings, add extra snacks, eat more food before, during, and after runs, always eat dessert, and keep fun foods around the house – these things can help an athlete reach their daily calorie intake.

Personally, I’m a huge fan of adding avocado to anything and everything I can – tacos, toast, crackers, rice bowls, even smoothies. There’s not an easier and more delicious way to boost calories, micronutrients, and healthy fats. Or my personal favorite: “pint of ice cream a night” tradition, which is by far the most fun and tasty way to get an extra 1,000 calories!

Issue #2: Believing in a Silver Bullet.

Just like you cannot outrun a bad diet, you cannot take a bunch of supplements to override poor food choices. I’ve seen athletes with a supplement list longer than my weekly grocery list.

While it might seem like the easy route, it will not always replace the benefits that come from eating real, nutrient-dense foods. While there are some exceptions for athletes on restrictive diets, and those with health issues, it can be possible for a person to get all of the nutrients they need from a balanced, nutrient-rich diet. For example, vegans might increase their dietary iron intake by making chili, which combines iron-rich beans with tomatoes. The vitamin C found in tomatoes can boost iron absorption in these non-heme, iron-rich food sources.

RELATED: A Nutrition Therapist and Professional Runner Discusses Link Between Food, Mood, and Running

Supplements like fancy green powders, mega doses of multivitamins, and meal replacement powders are attractive due to their ease, but they are often just a short-term solution with short-term benefits. Nutrient-dense, real foods will be much better absorbed and tolerated since real foods contain an array of things like vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants. These work synergistically to provide your body with what it needs to function well and efficiently.

More isn’t always better, either. When we take certain types of supplements, we run into the risk of toxicity, especially in terms of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) and iron. This can harm internal organs and lead to severe, long-term damage.

If we take high levels of water-soluble vitamins (B vitamins and vitamin C), we’re really just making some really expensive urine, as we pee out everything that our body doesn’t need. Either way, we’re probably just throwing money down the toilet (literally) or setting ourselves up for potential future health problems. We are much less likely to reach these toxic levels when we are able to consume these nutrients through food, and your body will utilize them a lot better.

(Photo: Hermes Rivera)

Issue #3: Following a Specific Diet in Hopes to Achieve Better Performance.

You name it, I’ve seen it. I’ve seen athletes follow restrictive diets like keto, paleo, and gluten-free, even diets as outrageous as the grapefruit-and-bacon diet, in hopes that this “magical” diet will easily help them achieve their 50K PR with the snap of their fingers.

Most often, an athlete has been influenced by a pro athlete following that same type of diet, or maybe someone in their running group has found success while following one of them. And while I’m sure that there are some individuals out there who have found success following a specific, restrictive diet, it is by no means the secret to unlocking your potential or improving your performance.

RELATED: 5 Running Nutrition Myths To Bust Right Now

Food plays many roles for us – physical, emotional, social – and its role on our physical and mental health is multifaceted. If we restrict foods (and therefore happiness!) with the hope of increasing our performance, our performance will undoubtedly suffer in the long term. If mental stress impacts our body the same way physical stress does on the cellular level, then stress related to restriction and dieting will negatively contribute to our overall health, affecting our performance and longevity in the sport.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it until the day I die – a real food diet full of nutrients and moderation, and one that brings us both physical and emotional satisfaction, is the secret to performance.

Alex Borsuk Hasenohr, MS, is a sports nutritionist and professional trail runner for Dynafit. She is passionate about helping athletes reach their full potential through the use of practical nutrition, and she can be contacted through her website.

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