Everyone should pay attention to nutrition — and that's particularly true for athletes.
"Many athletes forget that food is fuel, meaning that it provides energy for exercise. Without proper nutrition, your energy levels will be low and that will affect your performance," says Natalie Rizzo, RD, author of The No-Brainer Nutrition Guide For Every Runner.
Have you let good nutrition fall on your priority list in favor of focusing on workout strategy and game day goals? We spoke to dietitians who work closely with athletes to find out precisely why good nutrition is so important to athletes — and what they recommend you eat (and do not eat!) for the best possible performance.
Good nutrition helps you play a game, work out or run a race longer, without injury and at your peak level, says Nyree Dardarian, RD and assistant clinical professor and the director of the Center for Integrated Nutrition and Performance at Drexel University.
"Proper nutrition for athletes can prevent and manage diseases and conditions (like injuries), contribute to better sleep, fuel performance and help them gain a competitive edge and foster career longevity — not to mention lifelong health when they eventually leave the sport," says Monica Auslander Moreno, RD and nutrition consultant for RSP Nutrition.
Most athletes consider greater endurance and greater stamina as their goals. But what exactly do those terms mean?
Put simply, we can think of endurance as the ability to perform aerobic activity for a long period of time, says the American Council on Exercise (ACE). Endurance is the difference between being able to run for 20 minutes versus two hours.
"Stamina, like endurance, is time-dependent," says Moreno. You can think of it as how long you can go at 100 percent. Let's use running as an example: If endurance is about how long you can run, stamina reflects how fast you can run for that period of time. That is, can you run a six-minute mile for five miles, or keep that pace up for 15 miles?
Why Do Athletes Hit a Wall?
"Athletes want to play the game all the way to the end with as much intensity as they possibly can have," says Dardarian. A nutritionist's goal, says Dardarian, is to extend the time to fatigue, or that moment when an athlete's muscles give out.
You'll hear this described often as an athlete "being gassed" or "hitting a wall," and you can observe it as you watch marathoners in the last mile of the race or during a double-overtime period of hockey.
"Nutrition plays a significant role in extending the time to fatigue," says Dardarian. If you think of food as fuel, you won't be surprised to note its big role here. Dardarian explains that there are two main causes of muscle fatigue:
- An insufficient amount of carbohydrates: Carbs break down into glycogen, which is stored in your muscles and liver, providing energy. "When you don't have enough of it, your muscles conk out on you," says Dardarian.
- Lactate build-up: Lactate is produced by the cells as the body turns food into energy and is sometimes in the form of lactic acid. Nutrition plays a role there too. "If you train properly, with the right amount of calories and carbohydrates, you can increase your lactate threshold." (You'll be able to tell when you have lactate build-up and have hit your threshold when you feel a burning sensation in your muscles.)
The foundation of nutrition for athletes, Dardarian says, is getting enough calories to build muscles and endurance. "Athletes need more calories than the average person — and, of course, it's important for athletes to ensure those calories are the right mix carbohydrates, proteins and fat, she says.
How to Build Endurance and Stamina Through Nutrition
Carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats provide the fuel needed to maintain energy and promote stamina and endurance. Together, these three building blocks are known as macronutrients — or macros — and many athletes opt to follow a macro-based diet. Instead of counting calories, athletes seek out the right macro ratio based on their body weight that will lead to their peak performance.
Generally, you want 40 to 60 percent of your calories to come from carbohydrates, says Dardarian. Then, about 35 percent of calories should be devoted to protein. Fats (good ones, she specifies), can make up about 20 percent of your diet.
Here's an in-depth examination of the role carbs, protein and fat play in athletic performance.
Carbohydrates It's hard to understate the importance of the role that carbohydrates play for athletes who want to build stamina and endurance. Carbohydrates are involved in regulating your blood sugar and glycogen level in your muscles, which is vital for preventing muscle fatigue.
Think of carbs as your body's fuel. "For endurance activities, carbs are really important," says Rizzo. Timing matters, too. "If you eat 30 to 60 minutes before an activity, you want a simple carb that will break down quickly, like a piece of fruit or toast. If you eat two to three hours before a workout, you want carbs, protein and a little fat because those all provide long-lasting energy," says Rizzo. The ACE recommends 55 to 65 percent carbohydrates for people engaged in medium- to high-intensity training.
Protein is important for muscle recovery and growth. "Getting enough protein throughout the day and long-term can help bolster stamina," says Moreno. Timing matters here, too. "Obtaining constant amounts of protein throughout the day is preferable to just whopping it all at one or two meals," says Moreno. So how much protein do you need? The ACE recommends 20 to 30 percent total protein for people engaged in medium- to high-intensity training. When it comes to protein, always opt for lean, says Dardarian. She recommends eggs, which she calls "the most complete food out there." Eat the whole egg, she says — both yolk and white. Chicken and fish are also good options.
For endurance sports, fat plays a particularly important role, providing an energy source for athletes, according to the Colorado State University Extension. It's also important for helping your body absorb fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Athletes engaged in medium- to high-intensity exercise should get 30 percent of their total daily calories from fat, the ACE recommends. In general, eat fat in moderation — and stick to good-for-you ones like avocado, says Dardarian. Avoid "fats without a purpose," she says, like mayonnaise and sour cream.
Here's one more important note on macros: The amount of protein and fat consumed typically remains consistent, says Dardarian. Carb consumption, on the other hand, varies. "What shifts with your exercise demand is your carb intake," Dardarian says. "The more you exercise, and the harder you train, the more you'll need to refuel with carbs."
Think of these carb, fat and protein recommendations as a starting point. The right macro ratio will differ depending on your sport, endurance or stamina goals, points out Moreno. How your body responds to nutrition also matters. And, athletes need to consider both when and how to fuel up with the appropriate macronutrients, Moreno adds.
Tips for Making Food Choices That Fuel Your Workout
Dardarian puts it simply: Imagine your plate. First, load up about 60 percent of it with carbs (those are your fuel!). Then, add some protein, and lastly, add vegetables. There's no need to go out of your way to add fat since your protein source will likely have some.
"If you want to eat less, just decrease the size of your plate," Dardarian says, noting that you should still fill it up with the same proportions of carbs, protein and fat.
Eating a variety of foods is important too, says Moreno. Aim to eat different foods throughout the day and from day to day to vary your macros and micronutrients. (That means, steamed chicken and broccoli with rice for lunch and dinner every day isn't the best strategy!)
"Bananas, sweet potatoes, oatmeal, cherries, beets, pomegranates, celery, leafy greens, salmon, honey and all nut butters and nuts paired together tend to be high-performance power combinations," says Moreno.
To maintain energy levels, try eating frequently throughout the day, having as many as four to six meals. Remember that each meal should include carbs, protein and fat. For example, a healthy breakfast to start your day might include a bowl of high-fiber, whole-grain cereal with a banana and low-fat milk. To maximize your nutrient intake, be sure to include a fruit or vegetable with each meal. To replenish energy stores and spur muscle recovery after practice or games, eat a carb- and protein-rich snack such as a turkey sandwich on sprouted bread or unsweetened yogurt as soon as you're done.
And stay away from junk food, cautions Moreno. "Many people assume athletes are nutritionally invincible," she says, but binging on candy, ice cream and other indulgences hinders performance.
Good nutrition is also central to maintaining a healthy weight. Weight can be a hot-button issue in athletics. If you need to lose weight, severely restricting calories, protein or fat is not only dangerous for your body but also negatively impacts your athletic performance. Fill up on high-fiber vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, lean protein sources and low-fat dairy to get essential nutrients. Working with a registered dietitian can help you identify any unhealthy food behaviors and create an eating plan that addresses your unique needs.
Hydration Matters, Too
Don't discount the importance of hydration as an athlete. "Without being properly hydrated, you won't be able to perform," says Rizzo, adding that it's just as important as nutrition. Water provides musculoskeletal lubrication as well as helps to transport nutrients throughout your body. Fail to maintain fluid balance in your body and you'll find yourself at risk of dehydration.
Rizzo supplies a good rule of thumb when it comes to staying hydrated with the right mix of fluids and electrolytes: With activities that are under an hour, water should be fine. When workouts extend over an hour (or, if they’re shorter but quite strenuous), opt for a clean sports drink to replenish lost electrolytes and aid in muscle recovery.
After the Game
Whether you win or lose, your mind is likely not on nutritional concerns after a game. Yet making it a priority is important, especially if you don't meet energy or fluid needs during activity. Most athletes don't consume enough fluids during events, so restoring balance post-game is essential.
Eating a small meal containing carbs, fat and protein within 30 minutes of competition is ideal but may be an unrealistic commitment. If this is the case, try snacking on nutritious foods like whole-grain bagels, apples or bananas. And try incorporating nutrient-rich carbs like bananas, potatoes, lentils and yogurt into your post-workout meal. It's OK to add a dash of salt if you're craving it.