An Overview of Nutrition for Athletes

Athletes often push their bodies to the limit during training and competition. And, in order to fuel the physical demands of exercise, proper sports nutrition is essential. In many cases, elite athletes have unique nutrition requirements that differ from those of non-athletes—they may need to eat and drink the right foods at the right times to ensure athletic success.

While the basics of good nutrition are important for everyone, athletes, in particular, need to keep the following guidelines in mind as they plan their daily diets.

Eat a Balanced Diet Every Day

To exercise consistently, you need to provide a good supply of high-quality energy to your working muscles. The easiest way to do this is to eat a balanced breakfast and continue eating a variety of high-quality foods throughout the day.

Carbohydrate in the form of glycogen is the fuel that makes exercise possible, so adequate carbs should be eaten each day if you intend to train consistently. Protein and fat also have a place in your diet and should be consumed daily.

In general, each meal should contain a varied combination of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Athletes may also require a diet slightly higher in B vitamins and iron than their not-as-active peers. And vegetarian athletes have even more reason to pay attention to their diet in order to avoid nutrient deficiencies.

A balanced diet generally consists of plenty of fruits and vegetables (especially green leafy vegetables), high-quality proteins (such as lean meats, fish, eggs, nuts and seeds, and legumes), adequate fiber, whole grains, and essential fats. Plenty of pure water is also the drink of choice for athletes.

What to Eat Several Hours Before a Workout

The pre-exercise meal will vary depending upon your exercise style. If you work out in the evening, lunch should include easily digestible foods high in complex carbohydrates, such as pasta, breads, fruits, and vegetables. A big salad with a small amount of protein works well. Select a small amount of lean meat, such as chicken or fish, and experiment with what works best for you.

If you exercise first thing in the morning, you'll probably feel best if you eat a light breakfast of fruit, toast, or an egg. Again, everyone is different, so experiment with what works best for you.

Regardless of what you choose to eat, you should drink plenty of water before and during a workout.

What to Eat 30 Minutes Before a Workout

Depending upon the type and duration of workout you do, you'll want to eat a small snack and drink some water a half hour before you get going. Trail mix is great for aerobic workouts over 60 or 90 minutes. But, if you are going hard for 30 minutes, you probably only need a half of an energy or granola bar, a large banana, a few graham crackers, fig bars, or pretzels.

For a shorter workout, you may not want to eat anything at all but can get a few calories from drinking about eight to 10 ounces of a sports drink. You should also start drinking water to ensure you've consumed about six to 12 ounces in the hour before your workout.

What to Eat During a Workout

Proper hydration during exercise will vary based on your exercise intensity and duration and even the weather. In order to simplify the recommendations, a good starting point is to drink eight to 10 fluid ounces of water every 15 minutes during exercise.

If exercising longer than 90 minutes, a simple plan is to drink eight to 10 ounces of a sports drink (or other easily digested carbohydrate) every 15 to 30 minutes. If you exercise for more than 90 minutes, you will likely need to replenish lost carbohydrates.

For exercise lasting up to two hours, the current recommendation is to replenish carbohydrates at approximately 30 grams per hour. As exercise duration increases over two hours, it's recommended to increase carbohydrate intake up to 60 grams per hour, and if the exercise goes more than three hours, to consume 90 grams of carbohydrates each hour. If your work out is less than an hour, odds are you don't need to consume anything extra.

How to Hydrate After a Workout

After your workout, the general rule is simple—drink enough water to replace water lost through sweat. The best way to determine this is by weighing yourself before and after exercise. For every pound of body weight lost, you'll need to consume about three cups of fluid. Another way to determine how much liquid to consume is to check the color of your urine. Dark, concentrated urine may indicate dehydration. Your urine should be relatively clear in color.

What to Eat After a Workout

Your post-exercise meal should be consumed within two hours after a long or intense workout in order to replenish glycogen stores. Research shows that getting 100 to 200 grams of carbohydrates within two hours of endurance exercise helps you replenish adequate glycogen stores. But adding a combination of carbohydrates and protein seems to be an even better option. Studies have found that a 4:1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein seems to be the ideal combination of nutrition.

Although solid foods can work just as well as a sports or recovery drink, liquids may be easier to digest, making it easier to get the right ratio—and meet the two-hour window.

Special Requirements

In addition to eating a well-balanced diet full of a variety of healthy foods, some athletes will have special nutritional needs. Vegetarian athletes may have more difficulty getting enough protein and iron in their diets. Endurance athletes may need more fluids, sodium, and easily digestible carbohydrates. Power athletes may need slightly more protein. And athletes who train and compete in winter sports may find that eating and drinking for cold weather exercise helps regulate their core temperature while maintaining the energy they need for extended exercise in freezing conditions.

A Word From Verywell

These tips will be helpful for most athletes. However, what each individual athlete needs to eat to fuel their activity is highly dependent upon their unique needs, lifestyle, sport, and personal preferences. It's a good idea for any athlete who is seeking a performance edge through nutrition to consult with a certified nutritionist or dietitian who works with athletes for specific advice and meal plan recommendations. A skilled nutritionist will review your current eating habits and help tailor your nutritional plan to help you meet your sports performance goals.

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Article Sources
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  • Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: 48(3): 543–568, 2016 []