For many athletes, it is common to focus primarily or even exclusively on performance, training and recovery. While focusing on athletic performance in relation to a training regimen should take center stage in an athlete’s routine, the importance of proper nutrition for athletes should not be overlooked or understated.
During periods of intense training, it is essential to develop an understanding of proper nutrition for athletes. A solid athlete nutrition plan involves adequate calories, protein, carbohydrates along with vitamins, minerals and hydration, which should be tailored to your specific sport.
To get started, here are a few common nutrition mistakes athletes make that you can steer clear of for maximum performance.
Not Eating Enough Calories
Optimal 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. If you don’t, you’ll most likely find yourself lacking in energy, and your workouts will feel like a struggle.
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 and responding to them. 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 getting enough protein is one of the most important nutrition tips 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. One fact holds true – athletes need more protein than the average person.
Since athletes generally need more protein, Using the RDA to determine your protein needs as an athlete isn’t very helpful. 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. If you’ve ever felt overly sore after working out where it wrecked your training schedule, a lack of protein may have been to blame.
In order to optimize your recovery and training you want to tailor your protein intake based on your needs. A general rule of thumb for athletes 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
Your hydration status can make or break your performance. Losing just 2% of your body water can have a significant impact on your physical output, and thus 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, so getting ahead of this is key.
Another sign of dehydration that may occur is hunger pangs (AKA hunger pains). If your stomach has ever rumbled during workouts and you know you are well-fueled, you may just need more water.
The best way to keep hydrated 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. As a rule of thumb, 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
Athlete nutrition involves obtaining the same vitamins and minerals as everyone else, but getting enough nutrients every day can also help fuel your workouts.
A good diet for athletes is not just about getting in enough calories and protein, it also needs to be rich in a variety of nutritious 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.
Eating a nutritious meal does not mean you should exclude the foods that you enjoy. Finding a balance between what you love to eat and enhancing or complementing those foods with a variety of fruits, veggies, and whole grains is a sustainable and achievable way of creating healthy and long term changes that will keep you performing at your best.
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 suffering, it is best to speak to a sports dietitian who can help create the best plan for you. With the right combination of a training regimen and a specific athlete nutrition plan, you’ll be on your way to hitting PR’s and maximizing muscle gains in no time.
Why is nutrition important for athletes?
Nutrition is critical for athletes as it provides the fuel needed for optimal performance. If the diet is lacking a variety of important nutrients, it can affect energy, slow you down, and make it harder to recover.
What foods should athletes avoid?
Certain foods and beverages such as soda, fast food, processed foods, and refined carbs should be limited or avoided by athletes. For example, refined carbs like white bread or English muffins don’t provide lasting energy since they are stripped of their nutrients and fiber. Processed foods like granola bars, candy, and baked goods should also be limited as they tend to cause blood sugar dips once digested, which results in energy crashes.
What are the nutritional needs of an athlete?
The nutritional needs of athletes are more than the average person’s. More calories, protein, and carbs are needed depending on the level of activity. Most athletes need between 1.3-1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. Getting in enough vitamins, minerals, and water is also essential. As a general rule of thumb, at least 3 meals and 2 snacks a day are needed and should be properly timed throughout the day for maximum performance.
- BMR Calculator. Accessed June 3, 2021. https://www.calculator.net/bmr-calculator.html
- Moore, D.R. Protein Requirements for Master Athletes: Just Older Versions of Their Younger Selves. Sports Med 51, 13–30 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-021-01510-0
- 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/