For many athletes, it is common to focus primarily or even exclusively on performance, training and recovery. While focus on a training regimen and athletic performance should take center stage in an athlete’s routine, what you eat can have a significant impact on performance and even hinder progress if not done right.
This is why during periods of intense training it is essential to develop an understanding of proper nutrition for athletes. A solid athlete nutrition plan involves adequate protein, carbohydrates tailored to your specific sport, vitamins, minerals and proper hydration.
To get started, here are a few common nutrition mistakes athletes make that can negatively impact their performance.
Not Eating Enough Calories
Proper nutrition for athletes starts with eating enough calories. If you are regularly exercising at a moderate or intense level, you need to eat enough to fuel those workouts.
This may mean eating several hundred calories above your basal metabolic rate. Your basal metabolic rate is intended to supply your basic nutrient needs when at rest and does not account for variation in exercise. To find your basal metabolic rate, you can use this handy calculator. The linked calculator also provides a range for the calories you might need based on your activity level.
If you don’t want to count calories, that’s fine too. You can ensure you are getting enough by listening to your body’s hunger cues. Aim to eat at least 3 balanced meals a day and 2 snacks. If you are hungry, eat!
Not Eating Enough Protein
You probably already know that protein is important for athletes. But how much protein do athletes need?
The ideal protein intake for athletes depends on the sport, the intensity of the training, personal goals and other lifestyle habits. Basically, your protein needs are not a “one size fits all” situation and should be personalized.
Using the RDA to determine your protein needs as an athlete isn’t going to work. This number is not meant to be used for those with high levels of physical activity as it isn’t enough to support muscle repair and recovery after intense exercise.
Instead you want to tailor your protein intake based on your needs. A general rule of thumb is somewhere from 1.3.-1.8 grams per kilogram of body weight.
Those involved in more cardio-based activities should eat on the lower end of that range, whereas athletes involved in strength-related activities need to eat on the higher end.
Ideally, if you want to know exactly how much protein you need to support your performance, it is best to speak to a sports dietitian who can provide tailored recommendations.
Not Staying Well-Hydrated
Hydration can make or break your performance. Losing just 2% of your body water can have a significant impact on your physical output. Proper hydration is essential for any athlete.
When you are working out, you lose water through sweat and dehydration can quickly set in. Once you are thirsty, you are already dehydrated.
The best way to know if you need more water is to drink every 15-20 minutes. After your workout, you should also replace any fluid that has been lost. This can be accomplished by weighing yourself before and after. You need to drink 16 ounces for every pound lost.
Another way to monitor hydration throughout the day is to check the color of your urine. You are well hydrated when you have to use the restroom every 1-2 hours and your urine is clear or pale yellow. The darker the urine, the more dehydrated you are.
Not Focusing on Food Quality
Athletes need the same vitamins and minerals as everyone else. Getting enough nutrients every day can also help fuel your workouts.
A good diet for athletes doesn’t only provide enough calories and protein, it is also rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains. These are some of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet and will provide the vitamins and minerals you need to perform optimally.
Ideally, when you are an athlete you should follow an 80-20 rule when it comes to your diet. 80% of the foods you eat should be healthy, loaded with good nutrition to support your performance. 20% can be “fun” foods you enjoy eating that may not be quite as nutritious.
Optimizing Nutrition for Athletes
An ideal athlete nutrition plan should be tailored to the individual. It should consider the type of sport, how much training you are doing and other physical goals.
If you don’t have experience creating nutrition plans or your performance is not great, it is best to speak to a sports dietitian who can help create the best plan for you.
- BMR Calculator. Accessed June 3, 2021. https://www.calculator.net/bmr-calculator.html
- Phillips SM, Van Loon LJC. Dietary protein for athletes: from requirements to optimum adaptation. J Sports Sci. 2011;29 Suppl 1:S29-S38.
- Shirreffs SM, Sawka MN. Fluid and electrolyte needs for training, competition, and recovery. J Sports Sci. 2011;29 Suppl 1:S39-S46.
- Infront G. Fluids and Hydration. Published May 6, 2019. Accessed June 3, 2021. https://www.usada.org/athletes/substances/nutrition/fluids-and-hydration/