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The best diet for athletes — individualized

Running, fitness and nutrition have been a part of Jackie Dikos’ life as long as she can remember.

“I’ve always been a runner,” she says, noting that she ran in high school and college, then did a couple of marathons after college. After having her first son in 2004, “something got me motivated again and I had some of my best performances.”

She picked up a professional coach, who increased her mileage and helped Dikos qualify for the Olympic Trials in 2008 and 2012. “I ended up flourishing much later in life than I ever expected,” says the Indianapolis-area resident.

Dikos characterizes her high school running career as “above average” and her college performances as “average.” Something clicked in her 20s.

“It was such an honor and a privilege (to make the Olympic qualifiers),” she says. “I trained very hard and had high expectations only to be injured only a few weeks before the trials.”

She persevered and completed the race — dead last — but treasures the finisher’s medal she received. It also served as inspiration for the next round of Olympic qualifying, which she accomplished when she won the 2011 Indianapolis Monumental Marathon. “Qualifying for the Olympics Trials the second time was really emotional on many levels — winning in your hometown alone is pretty cool. To earn back what I thought I lost in the 2008 trials meant a lot to me.”

Now, Dikos is slowed by a Lisfranc sprain in both feet. “Basically, I’ve been born with beautifully flat feet that have been overused enough that I can sprain the joint in my arches fairly easily.”

She is no longer competitive but envisions running as long as she can to enjoy the health benefits. Dikos continues to incorporate fitness into her life, using her training as a registered dietician to help athletes with their nutrition.

Here are excerpts of our interview, focusing on nutrition for endurance athletes:

Question: Let’s talk about nutrition. Tell me about when you first got interested in nutrition for athletes.

Answer: “I went to college to study it. Even back in high school, I remember dreaming about opening my own smoothie shop — with really healthy smoothies. I went to school for dietetics but didn’t become a registered dietician right out of school. A couple of years later, I became a registered dietician and had five good years under my belt working in the clinical setting. That helped me learn the role of chronic disease and how nutrition plays a role with that. I also dabbled with sports nutrition but wanted to get a bigger base before opening my own sports nutrition business.”

Question: We’ve all heard about the various diets — paleo, high fat/low carb, keto, etc. What do you recommend to endurance athletes and why?

Answer: “There are still foundational concepts — researched and supported — that tell us the role and importance of carbohydrates and how they fuel endurance training. Protein supports muscle repair and development. We need a good amount of healthy fat to keep away inflammation and to support the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Those foundational concepts will never change. But within that I can see why people feel certain foods make them feel better than others.

“I’m certified in sports nutrition as well as food sensitivities. Everyone has a unique immune system and reacts to food in different ways. The popular fad diets and trends indicate to me that people are trying to dial in to what foods that make them feel certain ways. I can’t say that there is one diet out there for everyone. Anyone who tells you that there is a perfect diet and you need to follow it, probably isn’t in tune that everyone is really unique. It’s a matter of finding what foods are best for the individual.”

Question: When you were training at an elite level, what did your diet look like? What have you learned since then, that you wish you knew back in the day?

Answer: “During the first Olympic Trials, I was not a sport dietician. And the second, I was. It was exciting for me to apply those concepts to my training. I did the things runners do in the early stages of training — test what you eat the night before a race, some of the basic guidelines. One factor that made a big difference for me was to dial in to how many ounces of fluid to drink per hour during training and racing. It became a game. Now, I teach my clients to measure what one-ounce of water feels like in their mouth to guide them in the race setting. The combination of what one ounce feels like in their mouth with individual sweat rate calculations and the number of aid stations throughout the race can really support healthy hydration and a successful race finish. Dialing in to each individual’s nutritional needs can support performance a lot. This is just one example, but there are many just like it.”

Question: What do you recommend individuals do to find their sweet spot — elimination diet, or just trying various foods to find what works?

Answer: “There are a lot of ways one could look at it. If you want to be super specific, I offer a blood test called the Mediator Release Test (MRT). It tests your immune system’s reaction to basic foods and I create a diet based on those foods. I then educate the person on how to go beyond those foods that we tested.”

Another thing, as runners, we often listen to our bodies and what they are trying to communicate. That’s our best guide. If you are eating a food and your nose is running while you are eating, your immune system is likely having a reaction to what you are eating. Another example is to understand what foods cause a distended belly or force you to run to the bathroom. Those foods you can eliminate while your immune system calms down and you can try to reintroduce them at a later time, maybe in smaller doses.”

Question: I noticed a post about teff on your website. Tell me about the benefits of teff and how would you recommend athletes use this grain.

Answer: “Teff is a gluten-free grain that is not as common but has a lot of powerful benefits to it. For someone who wants to try it, it can be hard to find. Whole Foods and some specialty stores will carry it. It’s less common in regular grocery stores. It’s great to mix in a morning porridge. I’m a fan of just mixing in ingredients in our food. Mixing in various grains, instead of always using wheat, in pancakes, for example, can be really good to vary the grains we’re consuming.

“Teff is a staple in the African diet. It’s a nice option. If it’s not available, there are other lots of great options out there.”

Question: Do you see a difference in nutritional needs for masters athletes versus those who are younger athletes?

Answer: “To a point there is. I think there are a lot of concepts that hold true for both. Overall calories and macronutrients should be adjusted as we age and become less active, be it lower mileage and training intensity – or simply a job change to a desk job. Heightened attention to protein as people age is important. When an aging athlete decreases calories, protein intake can become inadequate. Make sure they are getting their protein requirement. Another aspect in terms of aging requirements is for an aging athlete to consider incorporating glutamine to support lean mass and a healthy immune system. I like to suggest glutamine after a hard workout or speed session. Also, zinc, Vitamin D and iron needs should be followed in aging athletes.

“Times have changed. I remember going to a running camp and the counselor said, ‘Eat anything. Eat a Snickers bar.’ There was a time in my life when I believed that. You just get the calories you need and it’s covered. Now that I am older I don’t believe that. I think that a lack of sufficient micronutrients can throw off runners. When they don’t have enough, they can be prone to soft tissue injuries, stress fractures, slower to recover, poor muscle building and tissue repair, and overall sub par performance.”

Question: We’ve talked a lot about individualized diets. Are there specific foods that should be “musts” for all endurance athletes? What are they and why do you recommend them?

Answer: “That’s why I like to offer my clients the option to test and identify their specific needs. Sometimes someone will be reactive to broccoli and wonder, ‘How can I be reactive to broccoli?’ Even foods that are coined to be ‘super’ can be reactive. I tell my client that right now, their immune system doesn’t do well with those foods. Salmon can be inflammatory or not anti-inflammatory, to a person. That person would choose other types of fish, or other foods rich in Omega 3s until their immune system was ready for salmon again.

“I hesitate to say that there are ‘musts’ for every athlete. I’d rather focus on educating them on the appropriate ratio of macronutrients before making a blanket statement that one single food is great for everyone. There are musts for meeting protein, carb and fat requirements every day and timing those correctly after a long run. There are a lot of foods that are great but we need to customize it for each person.”

Question: Anything else you would like to talk about that we have not already covered?

Answer: “My husband and I are about to open a brewery in Westfield (an Indianapolis suburb). My husband is a home brewer, We lived in Seattle for a while with great beer and great food. So we decided to apply that here. It’s a very large project. Ultimately, it will be great food. The restaurant, Field Brewing in Westfield, Ind., is expected to open in late July.”

Speed drill

Name: Jackie Dikos Hometown: Cincinnati, Ohio - but have lived in Indiana for about 16 years Number of years running: 25 years How many miles a week do you typically run: Currently about 50, but at my peak 80-100 Point of pride: Winning the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon with my second qualification to the Olympic Trials marathon. Favorite race distance: Marathon Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Oatmeal topped with a vegetable saute and a soft egg or egg whites with horseradish. Favorite piece of gear: Athleta biker style shorts with side pockets on the legs Favorite or inspirational song to run to: I always get motivated by Lose Yourself by Eminem. Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: "Eventually all things fall into place. Until then, laugh at the confusion, live for the moment and know that everything happens for a reason." - Albert Schweitzer Where can other runners connect or follow you: Website: Facebook:> Twitter:>

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