Healthy eating tips for athletes

1: Make your own grab and go snacks. Buy nuts and dried fruit in bulk at the beginning of the week, and make a huge container full of trail mix you can spoon from each day on your way out the door.

2: Avoid sports drinks, energy bars, etc., unless you're literally in the middle of a marathon or Ironman.

3: Teach your kids to become active participants in the "hunter gatherer" nature of food. Take them to the store, engage them while making meals and have them make suggestions for food they'd like to try or make.

4: "Eat things that were alive recently," sports nutritionist Curt Thompson says.

5: Pay attention to how your body, mind and emotions respond after you eat certain foods, Thompson says. What we eat has a direct impact on how we feel, act and think.

Sources: Curt Thompson, sports nutritionist and Mary Collette Rogers, owner of Everyday Good Eating.

B oulder athletes worry about their VO2 max, their joints, stretching and cross training. They hire the best physical therapists, coaches and buy the best gear.

But what about their food?

As marketing and advertising continue to shape the way we view products, some athletes say their community is being pushed away from eating healthy, real foods, and toward energy drinks, meal replacement bars, carbohydrate gels and sports drinks.


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These foods are marketed as "health" foods and sold at local health foods stores. In an athlete's training-filled schedule, who has time to cook a meal anyway, many athletes ask.

It's not true for all athletes in Boulder, says sports nutritionist Curt Thompson. But this New Year's, Thompson is urging athletes and non-athletes alike to make time for food, and consider it a priority rather than an afterthought.

After all, if we don't eat, we die, Thompson pointed out.

"When people say I don't have time to eat well, what that tells me if you've got your priorities wrong," he said. "I think a lot of athletes fall into that category."

Thompson works with young athletes every day. In addition to being a nutritionist, he's also a soccer coach. From a young age, he says, athletes are conditioned to think they can't play a soccer game without drinking a sports drink, which is simply not true.

Thompson says sports drinks and energy bars are created for people who train "hours a day" and need to replenish lost nutrients quickly in the middle of a race, not teenaged soccer players who practice for an hour or so after school.

With professional athletes as spokespeople, it's easy to understand why young athletes have the wrong idea about what "healthy" means, Thompson added.

"We tend to reach for things in the hope that it's going to do something wonderful for us," he said. "A lot of times it's a quick fix. Give me an energy drink, give me something that's going to make me perform better. The attitude around food is kind of twisted in the wrong direction. We put everything else as a higher priority as food has become grab and go."

He's also noticed that the next generation of athletes have never had to cook for themselves, only eating meals prepared by their parents or by the college dining hall.

When they graduate or move out of the dorms and start feeding themselves, Thompson says they have no clue where to turn. So they eat whatever is easiest or in front of them, often energy bars, takeout or any number of processed packaged foods.

"I've had college soccer players ask me, 'What does it matter what I eat?" he said. "You look at them and you're dumbfounded, but they don't even know that what they eat makes a difference in their performance."

Everyday Good Eating owner Mary Colette Rogers said she was surprised when six athletes showed up to her Mediterranean foods cooking class earlier this fall.

They wanted to eat better, but were out of ideas for new recipes that were interesting, but also somewhat quick and easy to make.

"These six athletes joined us out of the blue," she said. "We were doing a kale dish and they said, 'Oh, we had kale a while ago and it was so bad we had to smother it in cheese to eat it, but we want to eat it because we know it's healthy.'"

So Rogers showed them how to make kale tasty. She instructed them to remove the stems because "they can be pretty tough," and how to prepare kale in different ways, including raw for salads.

Many athletes are far too busy to learn different cooking techniques, which may be hindering their attempts to eat healthy, Rogers said.

"You need to know those basics," she said. "How do you work with these really nutritious vegetables, and learn how to work with them quickly and correctly so that you want to eat them?"

Rogers said that because athletes train so many hours each week in addition to working or going to school, it's hard for them to find time to prepare a healthy meal. When they come home from a workout, they're starving and reach for whatever they can find.

Often, that's something pre-packaged and processed. And in huge quantities.

"It's that myth that somehow nutritious eating is different for athletes," she said. "That they have to have real power packed food, and just regular food doesn't do it."

But regular food is just fine, provided that athletes understand how it affects their bodies, how to prepare it and how to set themselves up to succeed by planning meals ahead of time.

Corey Steimel, a 27-year-old triathlete living in Golden, was one of the athletes in attendance that night learning about kale.

He says it's not that they don't want to eat healthy foods, it's that he and his athlete friends are tired of eating the same foods, day after day.

"I struggle with finding creative recipes that are not only healthy, but you can make in a timely manner," said Steimel, who trains between 10 and 20 hours a week in addition to his full-time job. "We don't have a whole lot of time to make food."

He and his athletic friends care about the food they eat, Steimel says. They've watched food documentaries, checked nutrition books out from the library and scan their favorite magazines for tips on eating healthy foods. Steimel and his housemates try to buy about 80 percent of their groceries from the fresh produce section.

"We still have a lot of things we need to learn about a lot of foods we'd like to incorporate in our diet," Steimel said. "Our biggest thing is finding out how to prepare the food and how it should be made."

Cyclist Brad Neagos, 23, said that it takes time planning out his meals in advance, but it's always better than eating meal replacement drinks or bars.

Neagos plans his meals a week in advance, he said, and looks over that plan each morning so that he can begin thawing meat for that night's meal.

"I really focus on it and try to plan ahead," Neagos said, adding that his favorite pre-race meal is linguini with clam sauce the night before.

Steimel said many athletes he knows at least attempt to eat well, but there are some who say they train so hard, it doesn't matter where they're getting their calories from.

"You don't put crap fuel into a high performance vehicle," Steimel said. "Just because a race car is burning through all that fuel doesn't mean you don't put high quality fuel in it. Some people have the philosophy that they're training so hard and with so much intensity that it doesn't matter. "

--Follow Sarah Kuta on Twitter: @SarahKuta.