In this article, we’ll provide a comprehensive walkthrough of all aspects of sports nutrition, including basic advice, information on supplements, and the truth about a few common myths.
Sports nutrition is the study and application of how to use nutrition to support all areas of athletic performance.
This includes providing education on the proper foods, nutrients, hydration protocols, and supplements to help you succeed in your sport.
An important factor that distinguishes sports nutrition from general nutrition is that athletes may need different amounts of nutrients than non-athletes.
Sports nutrition, when combined with other areas of athletic development, such as training, can
When it comes to sports nutrition, recommendations are highly individualized based on a number of factors, including your sport, position, training experience, and on/off-season status.
However, a good amount of sports nutrition advice is applicable to most athletes, regardless of their sport.
To support high intensity training or competition, you’ll want to focus on consuming a variety of nutrient-dense foods from the five basic food groups:
- lean proteins
- low fat dairy or dairy alternatives
In general, the foods you choose should be minimally processed to maximize their nutritional value. You should also minimize added preservatives and avoid excessive sodium.
It’s OK to consume prepared convenience foods on occasion. Just make sure the macronutrients are in line with your goals.
Here are the main things to focus on when building a high performance eating plan:
- Include a wide variety of fruits and vegetables that provide important vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients.
- Prioritize whole grains over refined grains, making at least half the grains you eat whole.
- Include a variety of lean proteins such as chicken, pork, fish, turkey, eggs, soy products, and meat alternatives.
- Increase your intake of low fat dairy or dairy alternatives.
- Use oils such as olive oil instead of butter and margarine to boost your intake of healthy fats.
- Regularly include wild-caught fatty fish such as salmon in your diet to ensure good omega-3 intake, if you don’t eat fish, seek out plant-based omega-3s such as chia seeds and walnuts.
- Focus on foods that are high in potassium, fiber, calcium, and vitamin D, as these nutrients tend to be lacking in traditional diets.
By starting out with these basic eating principles, you’ll be well on your way to building a high performance diet and supporting your training through nutrition.
Macronutrients — protein, carbs, and fat — are the vital components of food that give your body what it needs to thrive. It’s especially important to consume the right balance of macronutrients when eating to support high performance training.
Proteins, which are made up of individual amino acids, serve as your body’s building blocks. They help build everything from muscle to skin, bones, and teeth.
They’re typically derived from animal sources, but some plant-based foods also provide protein. It’s best to choose leaner proteins most of the time.
- chicken breast
- lean ground turkey
- lean cuts of pork or beef
- tofu and other high protein meat substitutes
- some grains, such as quinoa
- low fat cheese and cottage cheese
- eggs and egg whites
Protein is particularly important for building muscle mass and helping you recover from training. This is due to its role in promoting muscle protein synthesis, the process of building new muscle.
Carbs are your body’s preferred energy source. They fuel your daily functions, from exercising to breathing, thinking, and eating.
You’ll want to focus on getting at least half your daily carbs from fiber-rich sources such as:
- brown rice
- whole grain bread
- sweet potatoes
- whole grain pasta
- low sugar cereals
- rice cakes
- non-starchy vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, green beans, carrots, and cucumbers
The other half can come from simpler starches such as white rice, white potatoes, pasta, and the occasional sweets and desserts.
Simple carbs are best consumed around training sessions to top off or replenish glycogen stores, your body’s stored form of carbs.
The number of grams of carbs you should consume on a daily basis can vary greatly depending on your sport and which part of the season you’re in.
For example, an ultramarathon runner will need a vastly different amount of carbs than an Olympic weightlifter does.
Generally, carbs should make up 45–65% of your total calories. For example, if you consume 2,500 calories per day, this would equate to 280–405 g daily.
From there, you can adjust your carbohydrate intake to meet the energy demands of your sport or a given training session.
For most people, fats are the body’s supporting or secondary energy source. In select cases, such as in keto-adapted athletes, they will provide a larger portion of daily energy needs.
Fats are unique because they provide 9 calories per gram, whereas protein and carbs provide 4 calories per gram.
In addition to providing energy, fats
Fats provide a valuable source of calories, help support sport-related hormones, and can help promote recovery from exercise.
In particular, omega-3 fatty acids possess anti-inflammatory properties that have been
In general, you’ll want to focus on consuming fats from health-promoting sources such as:
- olive oil
- seeds (sunflower, chia, hemp, flax)
- nuts and nut butter
- fatty fish
- whole eggs
After protein and carbohydrates, fats will make up the rest of the calories in your diet. This usually equates to 20–35% of your overall calories.
Another notable factor to consider when optimizing your sports nutrition is timing — when you eat a meal or a specific nutrient in relation to when you train or compete.
Timing your meals around training or competition
To best optimize muscle protein synthesis, the
It’s especially important to consume protein within the 2 hours after an intense training session, because protein synthesis is elevated during this time.
You’ll also need to replenish carbs after intense exercise. Consider consuming 30–60 g of a simple carbohydrate source within 30 minutes of exercising.
For certain endurance athletes who complete training sessions or competitions lasting longer than 60 minutes, the ISSN
But if your intense training lasts less than 1 hour, you can probably wait until the session is over to replenish your carbs.
Hydration status is a key area of sports nutrition that can make a difference in performance.
As you exercise, you lose fluids and electrolytes in the form of sweat, your body’s method of cooling itself down.
When engaging in sustained high intensity exercise, you need to replenish fluids and electrolytes to prevent mild to potentially severe dehydration.
Athletes training or competing in hot conditions need to pay particularly close attention to their hydration status, as fluids and electrolytes can quickly become depleted in high temperatures.
During an intense training session, athletes should consume 6–8 oz of fluid every 15 minutes to maintain a good fluid balance.
A common method to determine how much fluid to drink is to weigh yourself before and after training. Every pound (0.45 kg) lost equals 16 oz (0.5 L) of fluid loss.
You should consume the equivalent amount of fluid to rehydrate before the next training session.
It’s also important to replenish electrolytes during and after extended intense exercise to avoid dehydration.
Because many sports drinks lack adequate electrolytes, some people choose to make their own.
In addition, many companies make electrolyte tablets that can be combined with water to provide the necessary electrolytes to keep you hydrated.
There are endless snack choices that can top off your energy stores without leaving you feeling too full or sluggish.
The ideal snack is balanced, providing a good ratio of macronutrients, but easy to prepare.
Here are several pre- and post-training snack options:
- a sandwich on whole grain bread (such as turkey, egg salad, tuna, peanut butter and jelly, or low fat grilled cheese)
- apple slices with nut butter
- hard-boiled eggs on toast
- pita chips and bell peppers dipped in hummus
- Greek yogurt with granola
- trail mix
- a protein bar
- chia pudding
- low sugar cereal and your choice of milk mixed with protein powder
- a salad with some kind of protein, such as chicken
- a protein smoothie
- a piece of fruit and a low fat cheese stick
When snacking before a workout, focus on lower fat options, as they tend to digest more quickly and are likely to leave you feeling less full.
After exercise, a snack that provides a good dose of protein and carbs is especially important for replenishing glycogen stores and supporting muscle protein synthesis.
In general, whole foods should make up the bulk of an athlete’s diet. They help provide an appropriate balance of energy, nutrients, and other bioactive compounds in food that are not often found in supplement form.
That said, considering that athletes often have greater nutritional needs than the general population, supplementation can be used to fill in any gaps in the diet.
Here are the top science-backed supplements often recommended by sports nutritionists.
Protein powders are isolated forms of various proteins, such as whey, egg white, pea, brown rice, and soy.
Protein powders typically contain 10–25 g of protein per scoop, making it easy and convenient to consume a solid dose of protein.
For example, some people choose to add protein powder to their oats to boost their protein content a bit.
Carbohydrate gels and powders
Carb supplements may help sustain your energy levels, particularly if you engage in endurance sports lasting longer than 1 hour.
These concentrated forms of carbs usually provide about 25 g of simple carbs per serving, and some include add-ins such as caffeine or vitamins.
They come in gel or powder form. Gels don’t have to be mixed with water.
Many long-distance endurance athletes will aim to consume 1 carb energy gel containing 25 g of carbs every 30–45 minutes during an exercise session longer than 1 hour.
Sports drinks also often contain enough carbs to maintain energy levels, but some athletes prefer gels to prevent excessive fluid intake during training or events, as this may result in digestive distress.
Vitamins and minerals
Many athletes choose to take a high quality multivitamin that contains all the basic vitamins and minerals to make up for any potential gaps in their diet.
This is likely a good idea for most people, as the potential benefits of supplementing with a multivitamin outweigh the risks.
One vitamin in particular that athletes often supplement is vitamin D, especially during winter in areas with less sun exposure.
Low vitamin D levels
It’s best to consult a qualified healthcare professional and have lab tests completed to determine whether you’re truly low in a particular vitamin or mineral.
That’s thanks to caffeine’s brain-stimulating effects, which
Many athletes choose to drink a strong cup of coffee before training to get a boost, while others turn to supplements that contain synthetic forms of caffeine, such as pre-workouts.
However, caffeine isn’t for everyone and can be dangerous in high doses, especially for those younger than 18.
Whichever form you decide to use, be sure to start out with a small amount. You can gradually increase your dose as long as your body tolerates it.
You can certainly get omega-3s from your diet by eating foods such as fatty fish, flax and chia seeds, nuts, and soybeans. But if you don’t often include these foods in your diet, supplementing with fish oil may be a good idea.
Plant-based omega-3 supplements are also available for those who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet.
Creatine is a compound your body produces from amino acids. It’s also found in small amounts in meat and fish. It aids in energy production during short, high intensity activities.
Supplementing daily with 5 g of creatine monohydrate — the most common form —
Most sporting federations do not classify creatine as a banned substance, as its effects are modest compared with those of other compounds.
Considering their low cost and wide availability and the extensive research behind them, creatine supplements may be worthwhile for some athletes.
Beta-alanine is another amino acid-based compound found in animal products such as beef and chicken.
In your body, beta-alanine serves as a building block for carnosine, a compound responsible for helping to reduce the acidic environment within working muscles during high intensity exercise.
The most notable benefit of supplementing with beta-alanine is improvement in performance in high intensity exercises lasting 1–10 minutes.
For example, this could help athletes such as short- to medium-distance runners and swimmers.
The commonly recommended
Some people prefer to stick to the lower end of the range to avoid a potential side effect called paraesthesia, a tingling sensation in the extremities.
Like creatine, beta-alanine generally isn’t classified as a banned substance and is safe for most people, making it a viable supplementation option for athletes.
Sports nutritionists are responsible for implementing science-based nutrition protocols for athletes and staying on top of the latest research.
At the highest level, sports nutrition programs are traditionally overseen and administered by registered dietitians specializing in this area.
They often hold a distinguished CSSD certification, which stands for “certified specialist in sports dietetics.”
These professionals serve to educate athletes on all aspects of nutrition related to sports performance, including taking in the right amount of food, nutrients, hydration, and supplementation when needed.
A day in the life of a sports nutritionist will often include the following:
- meeting with athletes one-on-one to formulate individual plans
- conducting group education sessions
- strategizing with team management
- being present during pre- and post-training meals to help guide athletes’ food choices
- ensuring that athletes are well nourished to perform at their highest level
Lastly, sports nutritionists often work with athletes to address food allergies, intolerances, nutrition-related medical concerns, and — in collaboration with psychotherapists — any eating disorders or disordered eating that athletes may be experiencing.
One of the roles of sports nutritionists is to help debunk these myths and provide athletes with accurate information. Here are three of the top sports nutrition myths — and what the facts really say.
Myth #1: Supplementing with protein will cause you to get bulky
While protein intake is an important factor in gaining muscle, simply supplementing with protein will not cause any significant muscle gains.
To promote notable changes in muscle size, you need to regularly perform resistance training for an extended period of time while making sure your diet is on point.
Even then, depending on a number of factors, including genetics, sex, and body size, you will likely not look bulky.
Myth #2: Eating before bed will cause excess fat gain
Another common myth in sports nutrition is that eating close to bedtime will cause additional fat gain.
This is based on the assumption that because you’re lying down, your body is burning fewer calories, so any food you eat will be stored as fat.
While it’s true that your body burns fewer calories at rest, this doesn’t mean the food will automatically be stored as fat. Many metabolic processes take place during sleep.
If you’re looking to minimize fat gain, it’s best to focus on the types of food you’re eating close to bedtime.
For example, eating two slices of pizza before bed is much more likely to result in fat gain than eating a cup of cottage cheese or Greek yogurt.
Myth #3: Drinking coffee before a workout can promote dehydration
Coffee gets a bad rap for being dehydrating. But the available
Athletes have a good reason to be concerned about their hydration status, as sweat loss can surely affect the body’s fluid balance.
But as long as you start out well hydrated, drinking coffee before exercise isn’t likely to promote dehydration.
While sports nutrition is quite individualized, some general areas are important for most athletes. Choosing the right foods, zeroing in your macros, optimizing meal timing, ensuring good hydration, and selecting appropriate snacks can help you perform at your best.