What Does It Take to Strive to be a Professional Athlete?


Experts say training to be an athlete – ready to run marathons, compete in endurance trials and eat and train seriously -- should represent the culmination of proper nutrition, smart exercise and committed lifetime habits.

It's a timely topic, since March is National Athletic Training Month.

The founder of several Chicago runners’ groups for African-American men and women remembers how he discovered the hurdles of transitioning to outdoor running after sticking to a treadmill for two years.

“I didn’t have the confidence to go outside,” said Terrance L. Lyles, a resident of Greater Grand Crossing who grew up in Chicago’s West and South Sides.

Lyles said he overcame his hesitation to run outdoors by starting a training program that focused on completing a certain distance.

“I started during a hot summer, and it was rigorous,” Lyles said. “You run outdoors in the elements with no excuses – whether it’s in rain or ice, or cold or hot weather,” he said. “Other than lightning and thunder, it’s ‘Game on.’”

Lyles’ running high was cemented after he lost 30 pounds early on in his training, saw his skin clear up, quit drinking liquor, and got in tune with how good he felt after a long run.

The journey had its moments.

“My first eight-mile run, I remember like it was yesterday,” Lyles said. “I didn’t think I was going to die. I knew I was going to die.”

Yet his perseverance led him to become a certified running coach and create and mentor 57 members of Men Run Deez Streets, and Black Chicago Runners, with 225 women members. Men Run Deez Streets counts 12 other active members spread among Atlanta; Houston; Little Rock, Ark.; Tampa, Fla., and St. Louis.

“It’s not a fad. It’s a lifestyle,” he said.

Others who’ve transitioned into serious athletes say they’ve overhauled their diets: They’ve quit soda pop, cut back on eating favorite cakes, donuts and cookies, and started munching on nuts instead of chips.

In fact, running outside puts extra demands on breathing, and, when it’s cold, can blunt a person’s thirst reflex, said Audra Wilson, a dietitian at Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital in west suburban Geneva, Ill.

Wilson, who ran the 2018 Chicago Marathon, advises runners to weigh themselves before and after trial runs – not to become obsessed with each ounce one way or the other – but to see how much water weight they’re losing, and to plan to hydrate to make up for the loss.

“I lose three to four pounds on a (marathon) run,” she said. “I need to drink at least 64 ounces before the run and then drink every 15 minutes if I’m running for an hour or longer.”

The best way to know if you’re staying properly hydrated? Your urine should be light yellow to clear throughout the day, said Alicia Glass, senior sports dietitian for the United States Olympic Committee.

The latest research shows runners should beware eating too many calories and too many carbs.

“You can’t outrun a bad diet,” Wilson said. “Half of our plates should be non-starchy vegetables such as broccoli, onions, peppers, cauliflower, and/or a salad; one-quarter of the plate should consist of carbs, such as oatmeal, quinoa, brown rice and, on a heavy running schedule, a glycogen drink to maintain the body’s main form of fuel for long-term energy; and one-quarter should include protein, such as eggs, tofu, fish, legumes, chicken breast and lean meat.”

Dairy products such as milk, soy milk, other milk substitutes, and yogurt also fall under high-quality proteins, Glass said.

“After eating enough proteins and carbohydrates, dietary fats should fill in to balance out our energy needs,” Glass said. “The best choices are fish and plant sources rich in essential fatty acids, which act as anti-inflammatories for the heart and body. Salmon, avocados, olive oil and nuts, such as walnuts and almonds, are great examples.”

Yet Glass also noted that 30 minutes of running may burn 200 to 300 calories. That’s less than a cup of pasta – not a huge entree dish of spaghetti.

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