Nutrition plays a pivotal role in an individual’s journey toward success. Whether you’re a professional athlete or someone who enjoys recreational sports, how you eat can significantly impact your performance. Proper nutrition can improve energy levels, endurance, recovery, speed, strength, ability to focus, and overall performance. In this article, we will explore some key aspects of nutrition that contribute to sports performance.
Athletes Get Energy from Macronutrients
Carbohydrates are the body’s primary source of energy throughout the day and during exercise. Eating enough carbohydrates also helps to prevent muscle breakdown. Athletes should follow a diet rich in complex carbohydrates like fiber-rich vegetables and whole grains. These foods provide sustained energy during workouts and throughout the day, promote overall health, and much more. Quick digesting, simple carbohydrates, like low-fiber fruits, refined grains, or gels, can be useful pre-workout to boost energy when consumed 30-60 minutes before intense activities. Check out this Sworkit Nutrition article on pre-workout nutrition strategies and timing.
Protein is crucial to build, maintain, and repair muscle. Protein is also important for immunity and to help keep you full longer. Athletes should include healthy sources of protein in their diets, like chicken, turkey, fish, tofu, low-fat dairy products, eggs, and legumes. A post-workout snack containing protein and carbohydrates can impact muscle recovery or serve as an additional opportunity to meet the higher-calorie needs many athletes have. Athletes who are having a balanced post-workout meal soon after a workout and are eating enough throughout the day may not necessarily need a post-workout snack. Check out this Sworkit Nutrition article on post-workout nutrition strategies and timing.
Fat is essential for overall health. Fat helps with making hormones and absorbing certain nutrients, can be anti-inflammatory, and can be used for fuel during exercise (depending on the intensity and duration). Athletes should choose healthy, unsaturated fats like avocados, nuts, seeds, fish, and olive oil most of the time.
Micronutrients: Small But Mighty
Vitamins and minerals make up the micronutrients. Micronutrients can be found in the food and beverages you eat or drink. They help make sure you are able to turn food into energy, keep your bones strong, transport oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body, impact hydration, protect against oxidative damage, help your muscles function, and so much more. A well-balanced diet that includes a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and low-fat dairy products can meet the micronutrient needs of most athletes.
Plan to Fuel Your Performance
The timing and composition of your meals and snacks can affect your performance. Many athletes need to eat balanced meals and snacks every few hours throughout the day to meet the macronutrient and micronutrient demands of training and maintain good health. Athletes should consume a balanced meal 2-3 hours before exercising and within a few hours after to provide sufficient time to allow for digestion or promote recovery, respectively.
The macronutrients you consume add up to total calories. Athletes burn a lot of energy during training. To be the best athlete possible, you need to take in enough energy through food (calories) to fuel your training, recover from your training, and maintain good health. Recreational athletes who follow a general exercise program (30-40 minutes each session) a few times per week likely meet calorie needs by following a relatively normal diet of 1800-2400 calories. Athletes who follow a moderate to high volume intensity training program (2-3 hours or more each session) 5-6 days per week can have calorie needs that well exceed 2500 calories per day. These are general ideas of calorie needs for different training situations and may or may not be right for you. Various factors play into how many calories an individual athlete may need per day. For a personalized plan, consult with a registered dietitian.
Hydration for Staying in the Game
Staying well-hydrated is essential for attaining maximized performance, minimal injury and cramping, and optimal recovery. Dehydration can result in the activity feeling harder, fatigue, headache, cramping, decreased mental edge, and more. Athletic performance starts to decrease with as little as 2 percent weight loss from sweat. Here are a few tips to maintain hydration:
- Divide your body weight (pounds) in half and start by drinking at least that each day in ounces. From there, you can use your urine as an indicator of hydration status. Aim for pale yellow or light yellow colored urine. Dark yellow urine can mean you are dehydrated, while clear, colorless urine can mean you are overhydrated.
- Hydrate before you feel thirsty. Stay hydrated throughout the day, and don’t wait until right before exercise to start hydrating. Try creating a hydration plan and sticking to it.
- Maintain hydration as needed during exercise or training. Try drinking a few gulps of water every 20 minutes or so. Consider a carbohydrate-containing sports drink for intense activities over an hour in length or in hot, humid conditions. Sports drinks contain electrolytes that can help replace the minerals lost in sweat and contain carbohydrates to replenish energy and help your body absorb the fluid.
- Weighing yourself before and after training can build insight into how much fluid you are losing through sweat and how to hydrate better during or rehydrate after. After exercise or training, gradually rehydrate with about 16 oz fluid per 1 pound of body weight lost.
Supplements, whether vitamins, minerals, or ergogenic aids, are not always necessary for athletes who follow a well-balanced diet. Common supplements for athletes include protein powders, creatine, or vitamins. When used correctly and appropriately, some well-studied supplements may be helpful in certain situations after optimizing nutrition through food first. Competitive athletes should only use products that go through rigorous third-party testing by a reputable organization. Always consult with a healthcare professional or registered dietitian before starting any supplement.
Proper nutrition is a cornerstone of achieving and maintaining athletic success. A nutrition plan optimal in overall calories that meets your macronutrient, micronutrient, and hydration needs can enhance or maintain sports performance and overall well-being. Athletes should approach their nutrition with the same dedication and discipline as they apply to their training routines. It’s a winning recipe for success on and off the field, court, or track.
Athlete nutrition needs can vary based on age, gender, environment, training program, personal goals, individual health needs, dietary restrictions, food allergies, and more. For personalized nutrition advice based on your unique situation, work with a registered dietitian who specializes in sports nutrition or performance nutrition for athletes.