The diet and fitness regimes of elite athletes

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Written by: Mike Ryan Elite athletes know the value of a well-structured diet and fitness regime. Both are needed to enhance performance and accelerate...

Written by: Mike Ryan

Elite athletes know the value of a well-structured diet and fitness regime.  Both are needed to enhance performance and accelerate recovery. As with the significant differences in the physical demands of various sports, the nutritional requirements will vary with each and every athlete.

As the Head Athletic Trainer and Physical Therapist for the Jacksonville Jaguars and six-time Ironman triathlete, I appreciate the value of a solid diet and fitness regime as both a sports medicine specialist and as an athlete.

The Diet

Merriam-Webster defines diet as “food and drink regularly provided or consumed.” Unfortunately when the term ‘diet’ is used in today’s society, most people think of some form of an altered nutritional plan and pills in an effort to lose weight, but a successful athlete knows that a diet can be their most valuable training partner.

The foods and drinks an athlete consumes are the energy sources that fuel their performance. As with the varying types of gasoline that race cars and aeroplanes use, mature athletes utilise specific diets that help them excel their respective sports.

Endurance athletes like runners, triathletes and swimmers tend to utilise a higher carbohydrate (carb) diet compared to the traditional balanced diet of carbs, proteins and fats. Because of the high caloric demands of their sport, they are allowed the luxury of consuming more carbs and fats with less concern with weight gain. Carbohydrates are a rapid source of energy and because of this; athletes who exercise for one or more hours commonly consume extra carbs before, during and after activity.

The professional football players that I work with in the National Football League (NFL) are constantly being educated about the value of the foods and drinks they consume. For example, playing in Florida where many of our practices and games can reach temperature close to 38 °C, our players understand that their consumption of the proper types of fluids and carbohydrate-enriched drinks will help them enhance their thermoregulatory system to cool their bodies. Meanwhile, players on our team can weigh as much as 165 kg, so their intake of carbs and fats is monitored closely to avoid increasing their body fat.

The non-professional athlete will benefit from a well-balanced diet of 50 percent carbs, 30 percent protein and 20 percent fat. More important than the percentages is the types of carbs, proteins and fats they are consuming. ‘Bad’ calories such as simple carbs (candy, sugar and syrup) and saturated fats (cheese, creams and lard) are best avoided.

Fitness Routine

This is the fun part. Athletes love to move and play their sports. Their structured fitness routine is often a combination of their sport and additional drills and activities that help enhance their ability to excel in their sport.

I witnessed a great example of this when I spent two weeks volunteering at the United States Olympic Training Centre three years ago. One of the sports that I worked with was the Greco Roman wrestlers. Besides spending extensive time in the wrestling room, these amazing athletes played soccer, climbed mountains and swam in the pool to help them increase their cardiovascular fitness and flexibility to improve their ability to wrestle.

The routine for elite athletes often includes two factors that separate them from the average athlete: volume and intensity.

Professional football players in the NFL spend approximately 11 hours during an average day practicing, rehabilitating injuries, lifting weights, watching film on their opponents and studying their playbooks with their position coach. World-class swimmers will easily swim three times a day for up to 10 miles in the pool. 

Dedication and a defined purpose are the two main reasons why top athletes seek a solid diet and fitness regime.

I strongly recommend that weekend warriors practice some form of cross training for two reasons. First of all, having a structured fitness regime that includes multiple sports helps keep the ‘fun meter’ high and provides a variety of challenges. Secondly, cross training is a wonderful way to reduce the chance of an overuse injury.

Putting it All Together

Olympic champions, the last finishers in the local road race as well as grandparents trying to keep pace with their speedy grandchildren can all benefit from a healthy diet and fitness regime.  It keeps our body and mind functioning at an optimal level at any age. More importantly, a personalised diet and fitness regime provides a simple blueprint for a long and healthy life.

Jacksonville Jaguar Linebacker Drills:


Mike Ryan’s take home diet tips

1. Stay Balanced – A balanced diet is a healthy diet. Avoid the crazy routines and diet pills that only alter your delicate body chemistry and waste your hard earned money. 

2. Watch the Clock – The later you eat anything the less likely you are to burn those calories and the more likely you are to store those calories as fat. Try not to eat any carbs or fats after eight pm and get in the habit of taking an easy walk after each meal.

3. The Less Legs the Better – When it comes to protein, typically the more legs your meal has the more fat it contains. Chicken is better than beef and fish is better than chicken.

4. Know How it is Prepared –Fish is a wonderful source of protein and omega-3, but if that fish is fried and covered in a fatty cream sauce, you are better off eating a lean hamburger!  Always know how your food is prepared and exactly what is being put on it. 

5. Teeter-Totter Time – As with a teeter-totter, what you do on one end will inversely affect the other. Diet and fitness are the same. What you eat (caloric intake) compared to what you burn (caloric output) will determine if you gain weight or lose weight.

Mike Ryan’s take home fitness tips

1. Progression – A fitness plan is like a marathon; it takes time. Progression is the key and planning for a lifestyle change will significantly enhance the success of your fitness regime.

2. Get Out of Your Comfort Zone – It is human nature to do what we like to do but that is not always what we NEED to do. Challenging your body and mind with different types of workouts is the key to growth. Change at least 50% of your routine every 6 weeks.

3. It Starts and Ends at the Core – Your core abdominal muscles are active in almost every activity that you do. Training your abs from your pelvis to your ribs will help prevent injuries, improve posture and elevate your athleticism. Don’t forget to include rotational Abs exercises.

4. No Substitute For Strength – The strong will survive. Quad strength protects the knees, upper back strength improves the skills of the throwers and strong abs helps everyone. To improve the strength of any muscle group, the intensity needs to be high and fatigue of those muscles must be achieved.

5. Learn to Listen – The number one trait found in elite athletes is their ability to ‘listen’ to their bodies. They understand what normal soreness feels like and they can sense when they are need more strength work in a certain part of their body.

Mike Ryan, PT, ATC, PES, is a 6-time Ironman triathlete and sought after sports medicine speaker focusing on fitness and diet training for optimal performance. For over two decades, Mike has roamed the sidelines for the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars as the Head Athletic Trainer and Physical Therapist, keeping elite athletes competing. Using his expert knowledge, Mike founded, a sports medicine website for athletes young and old. 


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