Nutrition Tips for Athletes
Getting good nutrition is important for everyone, but it’s especially important for athletes. When you’re training hard and competing regularly, it can be a challenge to eat the right foods at the right times. But eating well is an important part of reaching your athletic potential, so spend some time getting to know the basics of sports nutrition.
Here are some of the best nutrition tips for athletes:
- Eat a Healthy Diet.
It’s important to eat a balanced diet that provides the right amount of calories, carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals. A registered dietitian can help you plan meals to meet your needs.
- Choose Carbohydrates Carefully.
Carbohydrates are the main source of fuel for muscles during exercise — especially in endurance sports such as running and cycling. The best sources of carbohydrates are whole-grain cereals, bread and pasta; fruits; and vegetables. These foods also provide other important nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Stay away from processed foods with added sugars and fats — including sweetened drinks and snacks — which can be high in calories but don’t add nutritional value to your diet.
- Don’t Go Overboard with Protein.
Some athletes may think they need to eat large amounts of protein to build muscle mass or increase strength, but this isn’t necessarily true — especially if you’re getting enough calories from a healthy diet. If you’re eating a balanced diet that includes protein.
- Focus on Nutrition for Recovery
The more you train, the more important recovery nutrition becomes. Recovery nutrition can aid in better performance by providing athletes with the nutrients needed to replenish energy stores, repair damaged tissue, and reduce inflammation. Eat soon after exercise; within 30 minutes is ideal. This helps replace muscle glycogen and protein losses that occur during exercise. If you can’t eat right away, try liquid meal replacement shakes or drinks containing carbohydrates and protein.
- Focus on Nutrients, Not Calories
Athletes tend to be obsessed with calories, but they should focus on nutrients instead. The goal is not to lose weight but to increase energy by getting the right mix of carbohydrates, fat, and protein.
Athletes should eat foods that are high in complex carbohydrates, such as whole-grain bread, cereals, pasta, vegetables, and fruits. These foods contain fiber and they take longer to digest than simple carbohydrates, so they provide long-lasting energy.
Athletes should also eat foods that are high in protein, such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products. Protein is used by the body for the growth and repair of muscle tissue.
Finally, athletes should eat foods that are high in fat. Fat provides a concentrated source of energy and helps protect organs from damage during exercise. However, most athletes get enough fat from the other foods in their diet. So it’s best not to load up on fatty foods because they’re usually high in calories too.
- Aim for Small Meal and Snack Gains
Eating smaller, more frequent meals can help sustain your energy throughout the day. If you have a snack or meal every three to four hours, you’ll be better prepared to train at a high level regularly.
- Keep track of your meals and snacks in a food journal.
Keep track of your meals and snacks in a food journal. This will help you identify missing nutrients, as well as overeating or snacking too much. Make a plan for eating every 3 to 4 hours. This will help keep your blood sugar levels stable so you can focus on exercise and workouts.
- Eat for your sport
There are two main considerations when it comes to nutrition for athletes: eat for your sport, and pay attention to what you’re consuming. You want to make sure you’re fueling up with the right foods before exercising, eating to replenish what your body is losing during exercise, and eating properly after exercise to help your muscles recover.
- Carb-load before an event
Carb loading is a popular way to fuel before a big event. The idea is that you eat a high-carb diet for a few days leading up to an event, such as a 5K or marathon. This practice can increase your muscle glycogen stores so you can run longer and harder, says the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
“Carbohydrate loading is really important for athletes who are competing,” says Georgie Fear, RD, an Oregon-based sports nutritionist and author of Lean Habits for Lifelong Weight Loss. “If they’re not doing that, they’re going to run out of gas.”
Carbohydrates are stored in your body as glycogen and broken down into glucose (sugar) during digestion. Glucose is used by your brain and muscles for energy during exercise. Unless your muscles have enough glucose stored up via carbohydrates, you’ll tire out early, Fear says.
Your body can store between 400 to 600 grams of glycogen, depending on your size and fitness level, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. A 120-pound person will have less glycogen storage than someone who weighs 200 pounds.
- Drink plenty of water
Drinking plenty of water is the most important thing for all athletes. Whether you are a runner, cyclist, weightlifter, or swimmer, you will perform better if you are hydrated. The body has a very sophisticated system for maintaining water balance: when the body perceives that it’s being deprived of water, it triggers thirst and reduces urine output.
This mechanism works very well for most people; however, athletes can easily outrun their thirst and become dehydrated during intense exercise. To hydrate properly, use the following strategies:
Drink before you get thirsty. This is a classic tip that has stood the test of time. If you wait until you feel thirsty to drink, it’s already too late; by then your body is already feeling the effects of dehydration. If possible, weigh yourself before and after exercise sessions to see how much weight you lost through sweat. For every pound lost, replenish with 20-24 ounces of fluid (keep in mind that food will also contribute to fluid needs).
Drink often during exercise sessions. Most sports drinks contain electrolytes like sodium and potassium which help maintain fluid balance in the body. Electrolyte drinks can be a great choice but they’re not essential; plain water will work just fine.
- Don’t skip breakfast
You may be tempted to skip breakfast, but you shouldn’t. Research shows that eating a healthy breakfast high in fiber and low in fat, sugar, and sodium can help you maintain a healthy weight. Aim for at least 20 grams of protein to further speed muscle repair and growth after exercise.
To help keep your blood sugar levels stable, eat foods that provide a slow release of energy throughout the morning. Examples include whole-grain cereals, yogurt with berries, whole grain toast with avocado or nut butter, chickpea curry on a bed of brown rice, or scrambled eggs on wholegrain toast. Avoid sugary cereals, refined carbohydrates, and fried foods as these can cause your blood sugar levels to rise rapidly and then fall sharply. This can leave you feeling tired and lethargic.
- Get enough omega-3 fatty acids.
Omega-3 fatty acids are important for good health. They can be found in fish such as salmon and tuna. You can also get them from eating walnuts and soybeans or by taking a fish oil supplement. Studies have shown that people who eat more omega-3s are less likely to get heart disease and to have better blood flow and fewer blood clots than those who don’t eat enough omega-3s.
Omega-3 fatty acids play an important role in the nerve pathways that control muscle contractions. Omega-3s also reduce muscle soreness and inflammation after exercise — so you’ll be ready for the next workout or event faster.
In summary, a good nutrition routine will help you perform at your best.