Nutrition Strategies for Sustainable Performance

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Building a Performance Plate

For many athletes, the pathway into RED-S is followed unintentionally. Training schedules are sandwiched between classes or work schedules, appetites are suppressed from a hard session, and it becomes easy to fall behind on the fuel intake necessary to support the energy output. Meanwhile, messaging from diet culture and popular media can plant misco

nceptions about the amount and types of food that are best for health and wellbeing, making it difficult to determine what should be included on our plates in the first place. 

Registered Dietitian Maddie Alm, runs a popular sports nutrition business, Fueling Forward. She describes how “many athletes simply underestimate their nutrition needs. If you don’t have a good sense of what your body needs, it’s really challenging to know whether or not you’re meeting them, because hunger signals are often suppressed.”

How can an athlete figure this out? “If it’s within your means, there is no substitute for working with a Registered Dietitian,” Maddie said simply. 

Unfortunately, working one-on-one with a RD to specifically tailor your nutrition to your goals is not realistic for every athlete. However, there are some general guidelines that may be helpful to support both health and performance, and steer away from the harmful effects of underfueling and RED-S. 

Most of us learn best with visual examples, like the basic framework Maddie shares with athletes, which she calls The Performance Plate. Rather than rigid rules about what you should eat, the performance plate focuses on three simple categories: carbohydrates, protein, and colour. From there, you simply change the size of each category based on the demands of training that day. 

Let’s take a closer look!

Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for your muscles and your brain, helping you feel focused and energised during training and throughout the day. The body stores carbohydrates in the form of glycogen in the muscles (and liver) to use as a quick source of energy during exercise, but these stores are limited and need to be continually replenished. 

“For athletes, over 50% of your diet should be coming from carbohydrates,” Maddie explained. “If this sounds surprising to you, there's a good chance you aren't getting in enough carbs!”

Examples of carbohydrate-rich foods include: oatmeal, bread, rice, pasta, bagels, granola, potatoes, and most fruits. Lower fibre foods that digest quickly might be best before training, while complex carbohydrates that tend to be high fibre are great for meals after training or when you’ve got plenty of time before your next session. 

Protein helps the body repair muscle and tissue damage so your body can rebound from training and develop strength and power over time. Your body can only absorb so much protein at a time, so it's best to include some at every meal so it's readily available.

Meats like chicken or beef, fish, eggs, dairy products, beans, tofu, and nuts can all be great sources of protein. 

Colourful foods give your body the vitamins and minerals it needs to stay healthy. They help support your immune system, reduce inflammation, and boost your recovery after training. 

“Each colour of fruit and vegetable contains different nutrients, so in order to get the most nutrients in your diet, try to pick a new colour with every meal/snack.”

Some of Maddie’s favourites include bananas, avocado, snap peas, carrots, and berries, but the possibilities are endless! Some of these foods might also be a carb source, and that is perfectly fine. I’ll take a toasted bagel with eggs AND a side of fruit, please! 

“If budget is a concern, try picking produce based on what is in season and look for items that are on sale,” she suggests. “Keep in mind, you can get the nutrients you need from fresh, frozen, or even canned fruits and veggies!”

Don’t forget the fats

Though not directly detailed on the ‘performance plate’, fats are an essential macronutrient that should also be included in meals and snacks throughout the day. Did you know that many key vitamins are fat soluble? This means they are best absorbed by the body when paired with a fat source. This means you might not get as many nutrients out of that big salad without some dressing…

Research has shown that healthy fats – like the kinds found in avocados, olive oil, fish, and nuts – may support sex hormone regulation by reducing the risk of menstrual cycle irregularity and promoting healthy testosterone levels. Healthy hormones, healthy body!

Alright. We know the basic categories that need to be included on our plates. Now, let’s get into how much our athlete bodies need.

Let’s start with an easy training or rest day, which Maddie defines as 45 minutes or less at a light effort. Here, your plate should be roughly ½ colour, ¼ carbohydrates, and ¼ protein. 

As carbohydrates are essential for fueling exercises AND for repairing muscle damage after training, it makes sense that the longer and harder your training sessions become, the more carbohydrates are needed throughout the day. 

On a moderate training day, ranging from 45 - 75 minutes, protein should stay at ¼ of the plate, while carbohydrates and colour share the remainder equally, a little over ⅓ each. 

When race day rolls around, or your training goes longer than 75 minutes, go big on the carbs! At mealtimes, carbohydrate-rich foods should make up half your plate on these days, while colour and protein each take ¼ of the remaining space. 

That’s right! HALF your plate should be carbohydrate-rich foods – you can still meet your micronutrient needs without filling your plate with veggies!

What about fats? Like carbohydrates, the amount of fat at each meal should increase based on your training, with a recommended serving on hard days of at least two tablespoons or oil or butter, or the equivalent from other sources. 

Want another reason to like the plate method? It’s scaleable and does not ask you to stress over prescribed amounts of specific foods.

"It causes a lot more emotional distress around food when we focus on numbers and measurements, and it over complicates fueling as a whole,” Maddie emphasised. “That's why I like this plate model – it's very applicable wherever you are. Whether you're a university athlete living in the dorms, you’re a student-athlete at home , or you're eating at a restaurant, it's really easy to visualise: ‘here's generally what my plate should look like, these are the three things in my checklist in my head, if I have all those things on my plate, and I kind of have that ratio down, then I know I'm at least kind of doing what I need to do.’ 

"And then, you can tune into your body from there, and if you're still hungry, you can go eat more, versus telling yourself, I can only have a cup of rice – you eat the whole thing, you're still hungry… that can cause distress as well."

Less stress about food and fueling = more mental and physical energy to support your training and life. Sounds like a win-win to us!

Maddie Alm is a Registered Dietitian and professional runner based in Boulder, CO. Her simple yet effective strategies to fuel your body for health and performance have helped her to a 12th place finish in the 5000m at the US Olympic Track & Field Trials in 2021, and have benefitted her Team Boss teammates along with several other professional athletes in fueling their bodies while chasing big goals. You can follow Maddie on Instagram – her personal account is @madsalm12 and her business account is @fueling_forward – or via her website,