By Lisa Densmore Ballard
Mickey Mantle, the famous Yankee slugger once said, "If I'd known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.”
Mantle passed away at age 63, hardly old by NASTAR ski racing standards, a circuit in which athletes compete into their 90s. As an athlete, Mantle retired from his sport at age 37. Were he a ski racer, he would have left the slopes barely past his prime. Mantle’s fast living was obviously not on a ski trail. That said, his words ring true in that taking care of yourself is essential to performing your best.
“Ski racers peak athletically between their late 20s and early 30s; then it’s a slow decline,” says Allen Tran, the USSA high performance chef and dietitian. “People begin to notice big changes in their 40s or 50s. Their joints don’t cooperate like they used to, and recovery is slower because their muscles aren’t as efficient.”
Tran compares an aging ski racer to an automobile. A new car performs very efficiently, but over time, it might burn more oil and get worse fuel economy. “The muscles still work, but they lose horsepower,” says Tran. “The skills are still there, but the ability to execute them may decline.”
Pack In the Protein
To counter this decline, Tran recommends eating more protein — approximately 15 grams (women) to 20 grams (men) per day. Ironically, as people age, they tend to eat less protein, yet they need it to maintain their muscles, especially an amino acid called lysine, which is important for muscle recovery after high levels of exertion. Lysine is not manufactured by the body and must be ingested through food sources.
“Chocolate milk or other dairy products such as Greek yogurt are excellent sources of lysine,” says Tran. “Dairy products are a particularly rich source, but you can also get it from animal products, such as eggs and meat, and edamame and nuts.”
Time Your Carbs
Carbohydrates are also important to an aging athlete’s diet, particularly for NASTAR racers who train or race regularly. But say goodbye to carbo-loading, a dietary technique in which you lay off carbohydrate-rich foods for several days before a race, then eat a huge quantity of them, like a huge plate of spaghetti, the night before. Tran says that a well-honed racer should time his carb intake relative to his training and racing.
“You don’t need to go the extremes of carbo-loading,” says Tran. “Your engine turns over a lot if you’re on the hill every day. You should eat protein consistently, then add carbs before your workout to fuel it, then afterward to recover.”
For NASTAR weekend warriors, Tran recommends simply a well-balanced diet of lean proteins, healthy fats (olive oil, nuts) and slow-burning carbs (brown rice, sweet potatoes). “A well-balanced diet gives you 80 percent to 90 percent of the benefit,” he says. “Just be consistent. It will carry over to race day.”
The Most Important Meal…
Timing is also important when it comes to what you eat for breakfast on race day. “In general, it’s best to plan ahead,” says Tran. “Race day isn’t the day to try something new.”
If you’ve got two to three hours before your start, Tran says a big breakfast is fine, but an hour before race-time, he suggests eating easily digestible foods, which is probably all a nervous stomach can handle. Missed breakfast or hungry just before your start? He says to go with an energy bar, fruit or gel shots.
“The biggest mistake people make is having a big dinner then skipping breakfast completely,” he says. “You gotta stoke the fire and maintain it. You need constant fuel throughout the day, especially on heavy training days and race days.”
Caffeine and Competition
Alberto Tomba, the Italian who won three Olympic gold medals in alpine skiing in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was renowned for taking a shot of espresso in the starting gate before a race. Tomba’s pre-race swig was not just for show or to revive himself after his purported nocturnal indulgences. It was during Tomba’s era that caffeine started gaining respect as a performance enhancer. In addition to perking you up, it releases fatty acids, an important fuel source during sustained exercise, into your blood stream. But Tran warns that caffeine works only if you use it sparingly.
“Caffeine is not a bad thing,” he says. “But if you drink lattes daily, it won’t help you perform better on race day.”
Other warm beverages can help you ski better (and stay warmer), too. “Comfort is a huge part of it and staying hydrated, especially at higher altitudes,” says Tran. “If you’re devoted to your sport, you need to treat your diet as seriously as your training. Like a vintage car, your body needs more care and attention to keep it running well.”
RECIPE: STEVE NYMAN’S PEANUT BUTTER ENERGY BALLS
Looking for the perfect between-run snack? Try U.S. Ski Team member Steve Nyman’s special recipe, which packs both protein and carbs for better energy and muscle recovery:
1 cup dry old-fashioned oats
2/3 cup unsweetened coconut flakes
½ cup natural peanut butter
½ cup chocolate chips
1/3 cup honey or maple syrup
1 tsp vanilla extract
½ tsp cinnamon
1. Mix all ingredients in a large bowl and stir until well combined.
2. Place bowl in refrigerator for 30 minutes to allow the mixture to set up for easier handling.
3. Remove bowl from fridge and roll into balls of roughly 1 inch in diameter.
4. Store in an airtight container/Ziploc bag in the fridge for up to 1 week. Store in the freezer for up to 1 month (if storing in the freezer, pre-freeze the balls on a sheet pan or plate before storage so they don’t stick together).
Yield: Approximately 20 balls.