Proper nutrition is crucial for athletes to stay healthy, recover well, and perform at their best during training and competition. The right diet provides the body with adequate energy and the nutrients needed to power workouts, build and repair muscles, and bounce back from intense exercise.
More specifically, an athletic diet should include:
- Enough calories to support energy needs and maintain an appropriate weight and body composition. This means consuming adequate calories to fuel activity and recovery without over or under eating. Work with a sports dietitian to determine caloric needs based on your sport, training load, metabolism and goals.
- Adequate carbohydrates to supply muscles and fuel activity. Endurance athletes generally need more carbs – about 60-70% of total calories compared to 30-60% for strength athletes. Time carb intake wisely around workouts to optimize training and recovery.
- Sufficient protein for building, maintaining, and repairing muscle tissue. Strength athletes have particularly high protein needs of up to 0.9 grams per pound of body weight per day compared to about 0.5-0.8 g/lb for endurance athletes. Focus on high quality sources and meal timing.
- Healthy fats for hormone regulation, vitamin absorption, brain health, and to support energy systems. Dietary fats shouldn’t dip below 20% of total calories for most athletes. Include beneficial fats from fatty fish, nuts, seeds, oils, and other sources.
- Ample vitamins and minerals to facilitate biochemical processes that convert carbs and protein into energy, optimize recovery, support immune function and overall health. If dietary vitamin and mineral intake is inadequate, specific supplementation may be warranted for some athletes.
Getting the balance right allows training adaptations and performance gains over time. Work closely with sports diet professionals to tailor nutritional needs to your sport, training load, body composition goals, and individual differences.
Maintaining Optimal Hydration
Dehydration can severely impact athletic performance and poses serious health risks like heat stroke or exhaustion. Adequate hydration is vital for:
- Regulating body temperature and preventing overheating
- Transporting nutrients to working muscles for energy production
- Removing metabolic waste products like lactic acid
- Cushioning joints and organs during activity
- Supporting many essential whole-body functions
Athletes need to drink enough fluids before, during, and after exercise to replace what is lost through sweat. The amount of fluid needed varies based on duration and intensity of training sessions, climate conditions, acclimation levels, metabolism, and individual differences.
As a general rule, darker urine indicates dehydration while clear urine means you are well hydrated. Track hydration by monitoring urine color, sweat rate (weighing before/after sessions), thirst, headaches, cramps, heart rate changes and perceived exertion and fatigue. Work with your coach to individualize a hydration protocol for different training scenarios.
Fueling with Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are the primary fuel used by muscles during athletic activity. Maintaining optimal carb stores in the body allows an athlete to train harder and longer without hitting a wall. Complex carbs from whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes provide long-lasting energy, while simple carbs offer a quicker boost when needed.
Carb loading by increasing intake in the days before an endurance event helps maximize muscle glycogen stores to delay fatigue. During training and competition, carbs also help spare protein breakdown allowing more amino acids to be available for building and repairing muscle tissue afterwards. Work with a sports dietitian to calculate your carbohydrate needs and develop fueling strategies.
Building Muscles with Protein
Protein provides the amino acids required to build, maintain, and repair muscle tissue, which constantly gets broken down during exercise. Endurance and strength athletes have higher protein needs than less active people to support recovery and lean muscle mass gains over time.
As a general rule of thumb, endurance athletes need around 0.5 to 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight, while strength trainers need 0.7 to 0.9 grams or more depending on the sport and training phase. Timing matters too – consume high quality protein foods and shakes within 45 minutes after workouts to maximize muscle protein synthesis rates in response to exercise. Spread intake over each day across meals and snacks as well.