The perfect diet makes elite athletes better, faster stronger… but how?

Ancient Olympians manipulated their diets according to prevailing beliefs, with Pythagoras being credited – probably incorrectly – for introducing athletes to meat and protein-rich foods in place of traditional figs, cereals, and cheese.

Modern-day athletes are bombarded with social media “‘warriors’” who evangelize vegan, Paleo, and low-carb “keto” diets for peak performance.

In the prestigious Science magazine, world leading sports nutrition experts Louise Burke and John Hawley from ACU’s Exercise and Nutrition Research Program dissect nutritional approaches that help elite athletes achieve optimal performance.

Their article is part of a special issue on diet and health bringing together the world’s best and brightest in their fields.

Professors Hawley and Burke look at the significant contribution modern sports science has made to gold medal and world title tallies.

“Sports nutrition offers a feast of opportunities to assist elite athletes to train hard, optimize adaptation, stay healthy and injury- free, achieve their desired physique, and fight against fatigue factors that limit success,” Professor Hawley said.

"The exploits of elite athletes continue to delight, frustrate, and confound us as they strive to reach their physiological, psychological, and biomechanical limits."

“Although there will be challenges and changes to sports nutrition guidelines as they evolve beyond the frontiers of current knowledge and practice, it is exciting to see how sports science delivers outcomes that amaze us from our sofas and the grandstand.”

Despite an enduring belief in a single, superior “athletic diet,” Professors Burke and Hawley said diversity in sports nutrition practices for successful athletes arise from specific metabolic demands of different sports and the periodization of training and competition goals.

“In contrast to the battle over the perfect menu, contemporary sports nutrition embraces diversity in dietary practices, underpinning the demands of training and competition with the philosophies of specificity, periodization, and personalisation,” Professor Burke said.

"Metabolic demands of elite sport are complex, with some events such as jumps, throws, and lifts lasting from seconds to others like Grand Tour cycling events lasting several weeks."

Professor Hawley added that the best performance outcomes come from deliberate, sport-specific training aimed at maximizing adaptations to fulfil genetic potential.

“While some elite athletes benefit from systematic, science-driven advice on training adaptation and competition performance, others use ‘trial-and-error’ approaches under the guidance of experienced coaches, leaving scientists to explain post hoc how diet might have contributed to their performance peaks,’’ he said.


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