Feed Your Inner Olympian

Fuel your inner Olympian. Here’s how to eat like an athlete.

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It's almost here—can you feel it? The opening ceremony, the lifelong dreams fulfilled (or dashed), the awe that's inspired by incredible athletes pushing their bodies to the absolute limit. The Olympics are with us again, and for me, they're also a tug at my inner athlete. They make me want to get up and be active, push myself just a little harder, and see what my body is capable of.

Melinda Johnson
Melinda Johnson
Of course, training is only part of the equation; a junk-food diet doesn't get a body to the Olympics. Nutrition is the fuel that feeds the human machine, but Olympic athletes don't eat anything special. They eat the staples we already have in our kitchen—just a lot more of them. If you're inspired to be more active during this Olympic season, why not also feed your inner athlete like an Olympian? Here are four key factors:

Breakfast: Sure, this one may be a no-brainer, but it's critical to fuel up with breakfast. The body uses its reserves during the night and needs more carbohydrates, protein, and liquids in the morning. A recipe for the perfect breakfast includes: one whole-grain item, one protein item, one fruit or vegetable, and a drink. Depending on when you plan to work out, you can adjust the amounts—a bigger breakfast if you won't be working out for at least two hours; a smaller one if you're going to exercise sooner. For a grab-and-go breakfast, try a whole-grain pita filled with hummus, feta cheese, and tomatoes, along with a glass of skim milk.

Water: Most of us are aware that exercise itself can lead to dehydration—but you also run the risk of "hypohydration," or beginning to exercise when you're already dehydrated. When that happens, the body simply cannot perform well. The workout seems harder, endurance is lower, heart rate and body temperature increase too quickly, and you may overly rely on the body's carbohydrate stores, rather than dipping into fat stores, to fuel your activity. (Burning fat is preferable and promotes more weight loss.) Worse, these effects have been shown to occur with even very mild dehydration, when athletes may not even feel thirsty.

To combat this, active people need to consciously rehydrate before, during, and between workouts. Most of us don't need to grab a sports drink, unless the exercise was very intense, lasting for an hour or more and in warm weather. Even then, having a snack afterwards can replace lost electrolytes. Most of all, the body needs water. To make sure you're getting enough, watch your urine color and output. A large amount of light colored urine means you're adequately hydrated, while a smaller amount of darker urine means you need to drink more. 

Pre-workout snack: This is tricky: If you eat too much, you may develop a stomach ache and feel sluggish; if you have too little, your body will be running on fumes. Aim for a pre-workout snack one hour ahead of time, and make sure it contains carbohydrates and fluids. Smart choices include pasta, fruit, bread, and crackers, along with some water.

Some athletes like to have a bit of caffeine before working out, and there's research to suggest this improves performance. But too much can have a negative effect on the workout, so stick to one cup of coffee at most.

Post-workout recovery: Considerable research suggests that there's a window of time after a workout when the body is most receptive to rebuilding body stores of fats and carbs and repairing muscle. The greatest benefit seems to happen when athletes have a mix of protein and carbohydrates within 30 to 60 minutes after exercising. One of the best post-workout snacks is equally surprising: chocolate milk. It contains fluid, protein, and simple carbohydrates, all in one package.

Enjoy the Olympics this year, but don't forget to get off the couch and pay tribute to our remarkable athletes by moving your own body.

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Melinda Johnson, MS, RD, is the director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics and lecturer for the Nutrition Program at Arizona State University, and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaRD.