Eat to Build Lean Muscles

"The cellular capacity for nutrients is finite, and whatever you overfill will turn into something else," says Benardot, who has worked with several U.S. Olympic teams over the years. "Amino acids dissipate and they're either stored as fat, or you burn it as you would a fuel. It's then not used as protein to build hormones, and build and repair muscles."

More: Protein: Pros, Cons and Confusion

Make the most of the muscle-building and repairing properties of protein by eating smaller amounts of protein throughout the day. For example, if your daily recommended value (an amount that varies according to your weight, and fitness and activity levels) of protein is 100 grams, have a little protein at each meal and snack, particularly in a snack that falls within the 30-minute post-workout recovery window, so your body can use the amino acids optimally.

More: The Truth About Carbs, Protein and Performance

Athletes Need to Eat Carbs

Carbs don't make you fat. Overeating carbs makes you fat.

With high-glycemic carbs and low-glycemic carbs making headlines, and high-glycemic carbs being demonized as one of the main culprits of weight gain, it's hard to know what information to trust. High-glycemic carbs (found in candy, cookies, white foods, some fruits and vegetables) are made up mostly of simple sugars that are broken down by the body much faster than low-glycemic carbs (some fruits and vegetables, beans and lentils, quinoa), which are complex sugars that take longer to digest.

More: Carbs and the Glycemic Index

Low-glycemic carbs tend to contain more fiber and nutrients than high-glycemic carbs, so they're often recommended to people with weight-loss goals because they satiate hunger longer.

Athletes should think of carbohydrates as the front-line soldiers of the body: Carbs are the body's first source of energy during exercise. When you're training, don't eliminate or severely restrict your carb consumption because your body could turn to protein as a secondary energy source—and then you won't be able to use protein to build and repair muscles.

More: Your Guide to Carbohydrates

"Humans can store plenty of fat and protein, but our carb storage is very low, and it's stored locally and not shared," says Benardot.

Here's how to use carbs to fuel your training efforts:

  • Eat high-glycemic carbs (white bread, jelly, white pasta, juice) 30 minutes or less before a high-intensity workout
  • Eat lower-glycemic carbs, or combine high-glycemic carbs with protein (for example, in a smoothie with fruit and protein powder), after a workout to refuel glycogen stores
  • Complete one long workout per month in the morning without consuming anything first except water so you burn through your body's carb stores. Your body stores roughly 90 minutes worth of carbs; after that, it moves to stored fat as the energy source. Prepare yourself mentally for this fat-burning effort—enduring a long session without taking in carbs can be rough.
More: The Benefits of Running on Empty

Strive for Energy Balance

During Benardot's lab research on how the eating habits of elite athletes affected their body composition, he found that the leanest athletes balanced what they eat with how often they trained.

"The athletes who figured out how to avoid energy deficit or surplus did great—they had higher lean muscle mass, lower body-fat percentages, and they felt and performed better," says Benardot.

If you're strategic about when and how much you eat, and combine this eat-to-be-lean philosophy with increased training stimuli, you might be surprised at how quickly you can increase your lean muscle mass.

More: Reach Your Performance Weight the Right Way

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