Whether you are training for a marathon or only make it to the gym on weekends, the foods you eat play a major role in keeping your body strong. Nutritious meals and snacks give you the vitamins and minerals you need to thrive and prevent disease. Moreover, healthy food gives you the energy you need to compete or complete a stress-busting workout. If you eat like you are always training, you'll reap the benefits of having an outstanding healthy diet every day.

The differences in the diet of an athlete and a non-competitor are not actually so different, explains the National Institutes of Health. Both diets center on a combination of carbohydrates, protein, fats, and fluids, and include plenty of vitamins and minerals. The main point to remember is that while you'll need to increase your caloric intake during times of heavy physical activity, you'll also want to reduce your calories during non-training weeks. Consult your coach, personal trainer, or physician to determine the number of calories that is right for you based on a variety of factors:

  • Height
  • Weight
  • Type of sport
  • Amount of training you undertake
  • Underlying medical matters, if applicable

Consuming excess calories on a long-term basis can increase your risk of becoming overweight, which brings along its own set of potential health risks.

The Olympic Training Center describes carbohydrates as a quick source of energy that gives you more endurance to exercise longer. For short, carbohydrates are often referred to as "carbs."

Complex carbs, such as whole grain foods, keep you feeling full for long periods of time. They also contribute to better heart health. Simple carbs, on the other hand, are made up of simple sugars or foods that are quickly converted to sugars. For example, simple carbs include honey, corn syrup, and fruit. Foods composed of simple carbs give you a quick burst of energy but often do not contain as many vitamins and minerals as complex carbohydrates. Simple carbs are more likely to elevate your blood sugar levels.

Diets that are high in carbs are not ideal for everyday life; however, the Olympic Training Center notes that it is healthy to eat a high carb diet right before a major sporting event as a fueling strategy. Make sure you eat a variety of carbohydrate-rich foods in combination with fresh produce. Fresh produce ensures you get your fill of essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. You also need protein and a mix of other foods to ensure you'll get the energy burst you need for your sport.

Protein is essential for muscle strength and energy. Choose your proteins wisely to make sure you keep your fat intake to a minimum. Some high protein foods contain large amounts of fat and cholesterol.

Healthy forms of protein that are ideal for athletes and non-athletes alike include:

  • Beans
  • Lean meats such as pork, chicken or fish
  • Eggs
  • Low-fat cheese
  • Fat-free or low-fat yogurt

As with your total daily calorie count, the amount of protein you require depends on your individual situation. Factors to consider include weight, body type, and the activities in which you participate on a daily basis.

Athletes generally require between 1.2 and 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram (kg) of body weight each day, according to researchers at Colorado State University. Some simple math can help you determine your protein needs:

  • Divide your body weight in lbs by 2.2 to get your weight in kg.
  • Multiply your weight in kg by a target protein recommendation between 1.2 and 1.7. You can estimate based on the type of physical activity you do. Runners, for example, would fall at the lower end of the range, while those participating in weight training should use a higher number.
  • The final number you get after your calculations is your personal daily protein recommendation
  • For example, a 140 lb runner weighs approximately 64 kg; multiply 64 kg by 1.2, and you can estimate that the runner needs about 77 grams of protein per day.

If you aren't physically active, ask your doctor for specific protein recommendations. Everyone needs protein, even if you can't make it to the gym as often as you would like.

Fats provide you with energy too, but should be used sparingly. Aim to get no more than 15 percent of your day's total calorie intake from fats. Eating larger amounts of fat on a regular basis can slow down your digestive system, bog down your athletic performance, and may cause health problems, such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. The American College of Sports Medicine suggests making sensible substitutions to reduce the amount of fat you consume. Choose low-fat dairy products, salad dressings, and peanut butter as a starting point. Switch out salty, fat-laden snacks. It can be as simple as exchanging chips for pretzels, or candy for fresh fruit.

Hydration is important during training and during your everyday life. Your cells need fluids to remain healthy, and your body's sodium and calcium levels are highly dependent on proper hydration.

Water is often the best way to keep yourself hydrated, but sports drinks can add carbs and electrolytes if you become dehydrated through sweating. Most people should drink at least eight 8-ounce glasses of water each day; but, if you're in training, you'll need to consume more. Make sure you take in extra fluids before, during and after you work out. Cutting out soda and juice can help you minimize the amount of added sugar you drink.

Remember, it's important to maintain a healthy diet, whether you're training or not.

Put It in Action
A first step toward improving your diet can be as simple as a trip to the grocery store. As you walk the aisles, remember to select a diverse mix of carbs and proteins, and keep fat to a minimum. Enjoying a diverse mix of foods in moderation will help you maintain your weight and keep your energy soaring.