Are you among the many athletes, coaches, trainers and support crews—including parents, partners and siblings—who spend too much time on the road, travelling from one sporting event to the next? If so, your food budget is likely tight, your encounters with unhealthy foods are relentless, and your hankerings for comfort foods might often overpower your nutrition knowledge. While you likely know what you should eat, you may struggle to eat well. Regardless of the obstacles, triathletes who travel by car and bus need to fuel optimally to be able to perform at their best.
When healthful food options are scarce, some travelers wonder if eating a decent sports diet is even possible when grabbing late-night or early morning snacks from a gas station or vending machine’s meager offerings. The answer: yes, you can, with a bit of creativity.
To better understand the limitations of eating on the road, I spent an afternoon hanging out at a few gas stations. The bigger stations and those closer to a main highway or busy towns had far better offerings than the small-town gas station’s shelves stocked with just a few bags of pork rinds and some candy bars. Hence, you (or the team’s bus driver) want to take nutrition into mind when planning fuel stops. Gassing up sooner at a bigger station is better than later, if later will be in the middle of nowhere.
The following tips can help you eat reasonably well from a gas station or vending machine— or at least, eat better than if you have no plan at all. But first, for the purposes of this article, you need to understand the definition of “well balanced sports diet” — and note that “well balanced” applies to your entire day’s eating, not just one meal or snack. Hence, a good breakfast, lunch and dinner can help offset sub-optimal midnight junk food.
A “well balanced sports diet” includes foods from at least three—ideally four—of these food groupings:
1. Fruits and vegetables for vitamins and minerals to boost your immune system and help keep your body healthy.
2. Grain-based foods to fuel your muscles and your brain.
3. Protein-rich foods to build and repair your muscles.
4. Calcium-rich foods such as dairy, to enhance bone-health and also offer high-quality protein for muscles.
“Balance” also includes calorie-balance. Be sure to read the calorie information on food labels and eat only the portion that fits into your calorie budget: approximately 600 to 800 calories/meal for active women and 800 to 1,000 calories/meal for active men.
The following list of some typical gas station snacks groups the foods according to nutrient profile. Your job is to choose one food from at least three of the four groups. Using this template, you can manage to pick a somewhat balanced, halfway decent sports diet when you are on the road (or at a vending machine).
** If you are lactose intolerant, cheddar cheese is a lactose-free dairy option — but you likely want to travel with Lactaid™ Pills. Non-dairy calcium-rich foods such as soy milk or calcium-fortified orange juice can be hard to find on the road.
Fruits and Vegetables: Orange, orange juice, 100 per cent fruit juice, apples, applesauce, bananas, raisins, canned fruit (peaches), salsa, V-8 juice
Grain-based foods: Triscuits, Wheat Thins, Graham crackers, Peanut butter crackers, BelVita Biscuit, Popcorn/ SmartFood, Corn chips, Tostitos scoops, Pretzels, Clif Bars, Powerbars, Nature Valley Granola Bar, Muffin (bran, corn), Cereal cups (Raisin Bran).
Protein-rich foods: peanuts, almonds, mixed nuts, trail mix, sunflower seeds jerky (beef, turkey), KIND bar, Clif Builder’s Bar, canned tuna, egg hard boiled, milk, yogurt, cheese.
Calcium-rich foods/ Dairy: milk, dairy or soy, flavoured milk: chocolate, strawberry, vanilla, yogurt, regular yogurt, Greek, cheese sticks, pre-sliced cheese (individually wrapped)
Turning snacks into a balanced sports diet
When you are at home, a “well balanced diet” includes all four food groups and might look like this:
Wheaties + milk + banana + hard boiled eggs
Whole wheat bread + turkey + cheese + lettuce/tomato, an apple
Brown rice + chicken + broccoli + yogurt (for dessert)
When you are eating from the gas station/vending machine, your balanced diet might resemble these “tasty” (ha!) meals:
Orange juice + popcorn + protein bar + yogurt
Salsa+ corn chips + almonds + milk
Banana + peanuts + Wheat Thins + cheese stick
Fruits and vegetables are the hardest foods to find when you are on the road. Because your body stores vitamins in the liver, you can have a diet low in fruits and veggies for a week or so and you will not suffer from malnutrition. (A healthy person’s liver stores enough vitamin C to last at least three weeks.) But you will want to re-stock your liver’s diminished supply when you get back home. That means, choose fruit smoothies, colorful salads, and generous portions of fresh fruits and veggies whenever you get the opportunity to do so.
Travelling with a cooler
A wise alternative to “dining” at gas stations is to travel with a mini-cooler (and re-freezable ice packs). Stock the cooler with sandwiches (PB&J, ham & cheese), beverages, and wholesome sports foods. A pre-trip food-shopping spree at large supermarket can save you (and your teammates) a lot of money. Suggestions include:
Perishable items: Oranges, orange juice, baby carrots, peppers (eat them like apples); yogurt, sliced cheese, milk chugs; ham, hard boiled eggs, hummus; tortillas, wraps, mini-bagels.
Non-perishable items: tuna in pop-top cans, small jar of peanut butter, almonds; granola bars, graham crackers; Fig Newtons, dried fruit, V8 juice.
Note: Your teammates might come begging for food, so pack extra —or better yet, encourage them to pack their own cooler!
The Bottom Line
Performance starts with good nutrition. If you make the effort to travel to races and running events, you might as well make the effort to eat well. No amount of training will outperform a bad sports diet.
Nancy Clark, MS, RD CSSD (Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics) counsels active people at her private practice in Newton, MA (617-795-1875). For more information, enjoy reading her Sports Nutrition Guidebook and Food Guide for Marathoners. They are available at www.nancyclarkrd.com. Also see www.NutritionSportsExerciseCEUs.com for online education.