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Why Food Matters for Athletes

Flylow-sponsored mountain biker and sports nutritionist Abbi Hamlin is making a career out of helping women athletes eat right.  

We’ve all been there: You’re miles into a mountain bike ride or run and things start to feel, well, shaky. Like your body’s machine is running out of gas. Which essentially it is. Athletes call it bonking, that sometimes-impossible-to-recover-from slump you encounter when you don’t eat enough on a long, endurance-style outing. As outdoor enthusiasts, we all know that food matters. That’s not news. But how we fuel—how much, how frequently, what kinds of food—can make the difference between a top performance and a total bail.

Bend, Oregon-based Flylow athlete, sports nutritionist, and strength coach Abbi Hamlin, who operates her own wellness community called Wildly Well, which aims to help athletes with smart nutrition plans, knows this truth better than most. Hamlin has ridden 100-mile mountain bike races in Bend. We called her up to ask her about her favorite snacks, what she eats in the summer, and how frequently you need fuel on a long mission. 

In college, I ran cross country and track for Western Washington. I ended up getting injured and looking back, a big part of that was not fueling my body enough. Then I read “Roar,” a book by Dr. Stacy Sims about food and fitness for female physiology and it was a game changer. I learned that nutrition can be a powerful tool for athletes, one of the main things that helps you recover and lets you perform.

I became more resilient once I started eating right. Before, I’d get a small ache or pain and it’d turn into a big injury that took me out for weeks. Once I started fueling my body better, I’d come back stronger and I was better able to adapt.

A lot of athletes don’t realize how much they should be fueling their body and how important fueling is. An athlete’s needs are very different than someone who’s not super active. Every athlete is different. Some people aren’t fueling with the proper foods. Some people are under-fueled.

There’s also this camp of athletes who think, ‘I can eat whatever I want because I’m doing all these activities.’ We need to be nourishing our bodies. Athletes need to look at their bodies like a sports car—you need good gas for a sports car. I try to help athletes focus on what can you be taking in to help nourish your body?

I love food and I think food should be fun and enjoyable. On a typical day, I’ll do an early morning workout and I’ll eat a homemade energy ball before I work out just to get the system going. Afterward, I’ll have Greek yogurt with berries, nuts, and nut butter. For a snack, I love homemade banana bread. For lunch, I’ll make a salad with chicken or tuna or beans. For dinner, I’ll make tacos or steak or salmon and lots of veggies.

The duration and intensity of your activities will dictate what and how much fuel you need. If it’s 45 minutes or under, you don’t need fuel while you’re training. If it’s an hour or more, you’ll want 30 to 60 grams of carbs per hour. If you’re doing three to four hours, you could potentially need up to 90 grams of carbs per hour. I often bring real food: homemade energy bars, homemade pop tarts, plus a carbohydrate mix in my drink. For hydration, an easy rule of thumb is drink one bottle per hour, and if it’s a long ride, add some electrolytes. Again everyone is different, and depending on your needs/season/sport this can all vary, which is why I recommend working with a professional to guide you.

When we’re working out and training, we’re actually breaking down our body. A lot of people make that mistake and think, I’m working out and getting stronger. But we’re actually getting stronger in our recovery. Fuel is a big part of that—if we’re not getting our fuel in, then our body isn’t going to be able to mend our muscles.

Women are built so differently than men and have different needs. Because of our hormonal fluctuations throughout the month, something that works well for men might not work as well for female athletes. It can be beneficial to track your menstrual cycle and learn about changing your nutrition in accordance to different phases in your cycle. 

A lot of athletes eat the same year-round. But it can be super beneficial to practice variation in your diet, whether that’s on a weekly or seasonal basis. For example in the winter, you can focus more on healthy and nourishing fats such as nuts and seeds, coconut oils, grass-fed butter and ghee. I like making nut balls with coconut oil. In the summer, I’m all about increasing complex carbohydrates such as seasonal fruits, sourdough bread, peaches.

Check out what Abbi is up at Wildly Well, or follow her on Instagram for recipe ideas, adventure prompts, and more. (And because we have to say it, a reminder that the information and other content provided in this blog, website or in any linked materials are not intended and should not be considered, or used as a substitute for, medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.)

Photos by Erin Mathias.

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