Inflammation & The Athlete

by | May 11, 2022 | Healthy Bites

Recently, I received a question from a client around eating anti-inflammatory. When to do it and how with all the training he is currently doing.

First, I love getting questions! So do keep them coming. There is so much hype around anti-inflammatory eating. And also some misinformation. Let’s clear the air around what anti-inflammatory eating is.

Eating in an anti-inflammatory way is going to look different to everyone based on their activity level, current health status and just overall physical needs and lifestyle. In a nutshell, this style of eating generally means:

  • Focusing on including lots of vegetables daily – such as cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, cabbage, onion, garlic and leafy greens. Plus, as many colorful veggies as possible, like bell peppers, carrots, squash.
  • Including fruit such as berries, citrus, apples, pears etc.
  • Adding beans several times a week – like black beans, pinto, chickpeas, kidney beans and red beans.
  • Choosing anti-inflammatory fats such as olive oil, avocado, nuts and nut butters.
  • Including 100% whole grains for those without celiac, gluten intolerance or any other kind of grain allergy.
  • Using spices such as cumin, ginger, garlic, and herbs to smoothies, salads, whole grain dishes and any other cooking. Eating baked or grilled fish most often, having poultry or pork 1 – 2x/wk and red meat 1 or 2x/month.

Granted there are some exceptions to this, as everyone’s needs are different, but overall, this is what it entails.

Can an athlete still have enough energy and eat this way, absolutely. The key is to make sure we have more simple, easy to break down carbohydrate around workouts and the more complex forms away from workouts.

Let’s get back to some sports nutrition basics. What we CAN NOT forget is that the body needs

readily available fuel for workouts. Carbohydrate is the most accessible and easy to breakdown and preferred fuel for your body. Especially when doing high heart rate activities like running and HIIT. We need to remember that it is the lack of it that creates additional stress on the body and will inhibit proper muscle and cellular recovery because of the role it plays.

The amount and the type of fuel is really dependent on the type of workout or training. For example, if you are going for a 30-60min walk, you do not require quite as much carbohydrate as say someone who is going to run that same 30-60min. The difference, is in the heart rate. The higher the heart rate, and the longer that heart rate is elevated, determines the fuel and quantity that is required.

A body cannot have speed and longevity, operating off of fat or protein while in a high heart rate state (I’m not saying this is impossible, but it requires a specific training and is not preferred and still creates stress in the long term). The body can and will breakdown any protein that has been consumed in place of carbohydrate to convert it into a “usable” carbohydrate if it has to. This, is not only an expensive form of carbohydrate, but a real waste of protein, and it creates stress on the body. This is not ideal and is also not as quick of an energy conversion, so typically, over time, if endurance athletes are under fueling with carbohydrate, they will start losing muscle mass in this state. When the body does not have the necessary energy required to continue the intensity and duration, it will breakdown muscle mass for fuel. This creates stress and therefore, inflammation.

So what do you do? For any high heart rate (this will vary from person to person, depending on age and conditioning but usually 145 and over) activity lasting 45min or longer, choose easy to breakdown carbs with some protein and maybe a little bit of fat prior to exercise. Again, each person has their own required amount. Anything I recommend may end up being too little for your sport, training or body composition. Good fuel sources may include:

  • RX Bars
  • Lara Bars
  • Cliff bars
  • Fig bars
  • Banana + peanut butter or string cheese
  • Fruit smoothies
  • Pretzels + nuts or string cheese or jerky stick – meat or vegan based
  • If you are training at a higher heart rate for longer durations, competing or doing back to back workouts etc. Then fueling during your workout is necessary. Typically it requires 15-25gms carbs per 20min. Which we can rely on things like:
    • Dried fruit
    • Welch’s fruit snacks
    • Honey Stingers – waffles or sticks
    • Jelly belly’s
    • Pretzels
    • Pbj and honey sandwich squares
    • Mini-cliff bars
    • Sports gu’s
    • Poptarts
    • Cliff blocks

In a traditional sense, the above would be considered “inflammatory” simply due to the composition of those choices. What we need to remember is that these foods are not the culprit to inflammation. Inflammation occurs overtime. And in this sense, these items are being used for immediate fuel. They are going into the body, immediately converted to energy, doing their job beautifully by fully fueling the brain, the nervous system and the muscles to continue working hard throughout the whole workout, event or training!  Preventing the athlete from bonking, getting tired, cramping, losing mental steam etc. All of this kind of nutrition, is being used immediately and not lingering in the bloodstream. And that is the difference.

 To recap: Quick forms of fuel around exercise and long lasting, slow-release forms of fuel away from exercise. And again, nutrition is highly individualized!

Go fuel and have fun!!

To figure out what you or your young athlete’s nutrition needs are, schedule a Sports Nutrition Consult, where we will hone in on your specific needs based on your sport, lifestyle, body structure and composition. Click on either an in-person consult or virtual consult to get started!

In-Person Consult

Virtual Consult

Helpful Resources: All of the below come with additional resources and guides.

Calming the Fire! Reducing Inflammation Through Nutrition

Understanding Your Microbiome

Heart Health

Sports Nutrition: The Foundation for Success


Photo by jana müller on Unsplash



Meet Nicole

Registered Dietitian Nutritionist

Nicole is recognized state-wide and nationally as a Registered Dietitian and is also a Certified dietitian through the state of Wisconsin. She is also a Board Certified Sports Dietitian and a Certified Personal Trainer and Physical Fitness Instructor.

Nicole’s areas of expertise include: Wellness and lifestyle coaching, weight management, behavior modification, eating disorders, vegetarian lifestyles, gluten-free living, sports nutrition, recipe and menu design and development.







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