Elite Eaters: What We Can Learn From Professional Runners

From left: Sprinter English Gardner, sport scientist Mel Ramey, dietician Alicia Kendig and huderl/middle-distance runner Brandon Johnson. Photo: Courtesy of Alicia Kendig

A dietician from the United States Olympic Committee shares some nutrition secrets for athletes.

Team USA’s elite Olympic athletes get all the glory, but Alicia Kendig fuels their performances—literally. As one of five dietitians for United States Olympic Committee (USOC), Kendig works with top athletes such as Ashton Eaton and Kim Conley to make sure their nutrition is on point for the months ahead of race day. She’s also on the scene at key competitions, making sure competitors have everything they need to perform to their potential.

“I work with a number of athletes one on one, making meal plans and helping them navigate whatever lifestyle they’re in,” Kendig says. “So it could be as basic as, ‘here’s how you should shop at the grocery store.’ Or it could be food science recommendations—what’s going to be digested the quickest, what’s going to have the nutrient profiles that engages for peak performance, for example.”

But that’s not all she does. The USOC recently unveiled its new test kitchen at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., where Kendig and others also work on product development. Near the top of her list? Formulating a sports drink that freezes better. (The USOC is seeing performance results from internal cooling before a race.)

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We caught up with Kendig to get her secrets on elite fueling. However, most of it is surprisingly simple: Eat real food. Hydrate often. Don’t do anything new on race day. But she had plenty of other advice to share as well:

The Top Fueling Mistakes That Elite Runners Make

Product vs. food. “A mentality that they need to be using a product of some kind—sports drink, gel, chew, etc. I think we went to one side of the extreme the last couple years, and now we’re trying to get athletes to focus back on food.”

Over-carbing. “People feel like they need to completely replenish their carbohydrate stores after their runs. We’re seeing during those heavy training phases that that’s when alterations in body composition really happen naturally, and you don’t need to completely replenish carbohydrates.”

Cramming cals together. “We have a lot of athletes who say, ‘I calculated my energy needs, and it says that I need to eat 3,200 calories. So by the end of the day I just make sure I get 3,200 calories,’ and a lot of times it’s in a ginormous dinner that they get the majority of their calories from. By simply eating more frequently you can get the most out of your training sessions and get the adaptation that you’re looking for.”

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What All Runners Can Learn From The Elites

Eating right every day. “They pay attention to their food consumption at all times—not just three days before a competition or the morning of. When we say eat to fuel your performance, it’s not always a competition performance, it’s your performance on any given training day.”

Hydrate all the time. My athletes are very good at hydration—because of all the benefits of hydration, not just, ‘Are you dehydrated after a long run?’ It’s to fight off illnesses. Over the long term, especially during the cold and flu season, being hydrated can really help keep all that stuff out.”

Food is fuel, not a reward. “Having a healthy perspective on food, and really looking at it as fuel. Not as a reward for training hard. It’s easy to say, ‘I had a really good workout, so I can eat whatever I want.’ It’s the other way around.”

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