How times have changed since I was growing up. In our house, there were seven children and no one ever asked what we would like to eat. We simply ate what was put in front of us and it was simple, good-quality food.
To a certain extent I was lucky because we were self-sufficient – with our own vegetables, meat, chickens, eggs and milk. I'm convinced this stood greatly to me during my athletic career. I was the youngest in the family, so at mealtimes I had to fight my corner to get my share. I especially remember coming home from school when my mother would have prepared a large saucepan of stew. It was very nutritious with a variety of vegetables and meat.
When I started serious running and training I realised that I needed to eat sufficient food to keep my energy levels up. Many athletes fail to understand this point and, as a result, never get to reach their full potential. Athletes are bombarded with advice on nutrition from several sources. The contradictory instructions from some of these sources often leads to male and female athletes under-fuelling for their activity levels. The message that should be given to athletes is if you want your body to perform well and feel good, treat it right by not holding back the nutrition it needs.
Believe it or not, the vast majority of athletes do not eat enough calories to fuel their performance. They push their energy-deprived bodies to the maximum in training and competition day after day. For many athletes, the desire to lose weight seems to motivate the under-eating.
Athletes who consume less fuel than they need become ill or injured; they can't train to their potential or recover fully between training sessions. They can also feel psychologically run-down and even suffer depression.
Believe it or not poor performances is often simply linked to not eating enough. Fainting, fatigue and declining performances can often be traced to an insufficient or faulty diet.
Low carbohydrate intake, in particular, is known to hurt athletic performance. If glycogen stores are low, the ability to perform high-intensity activities over time will be limited. The inability to train at a high intensity will limit an athlete's capacity to improve his or her speed and strength.
If athletes don't eat a sufficient amount of protein, they will not recover as quickly as they should from their training.
One simple step to improve your performance is to make sure you are eating enough. Using the analogy of the athlete's body as a racecar and food as fuel is a good place to start.
The good news is that eating to reach your peak performance rarely requires a special diet or supplements. It's all about working the right foods into your fitness plan in the right amounts. What I recommend is a variety of foods with special focus on the following:
Complex carbohydrates such as potatoes, rice, porridge, fruit, vegetables and pasta. The less processed the better, so that you will be getting more nutrients into your diet
Lean red meat is an excellent source of protein as well as iron
Fish and poultry is a good source of protein for building muscle tissue during training
Dairy products create a source of calcium needed to build strong bones.
You are not going to eat your way to success. Success comes mainly from consistently hard but smart training. Yet, that training can be undermined if you don't give your body the fuel it needs. Coaches should send a clear message that their athletes' health and well-being are paramount and when it comes to food – variety is the spice of life.