Top 10 Nutrition Tips for Athletes
Nutrition is important for everyone, but it’s especially crucial for athletes. Your body burns energy from your diet in order to allow you to run, play sports, lift weights, or whatever you enjoy that keeps you active. What you eat and drink can play a big role in your athletic performance.
Not only is what you put into your body important as an athlete, but the balance and timing of your meals and snacks can also make or break your athletic goals. If you want to maximize your nutrition to boost your physical performance, read on for some useful nutrition tips for athletes.
1. Stay Hydrated
While this might seem like the most obvious tip, it’s also one of the most important. Physical activity increases fluid loss through sweating and can lead to dehydration if you’re not careful. And in case you were wondering, it’s true that feeling thirsty means you’re already dehydrated. This means that you need to stay on top of your hydration and not wait until thirst kicks in.
Being dehydrated means that your overall blood volume is lower since blood largely consists of water. Reduced blood volume results in your heart not pumping as much blood to your body, which restricts the amount of oxygen the muscles receive. Dehydration negatively impacts athletic performance, and can even be dangerous if it becomes severe. Excessive dehydration is measured as losing more than 2% of your body weight in fluids.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all standard for how much water you should drink in a day. Instead, athletes should monitor fluid losses and urine color to determine how much fluid they should take in. This table shows the recommendations from the National Athletic Trainers Association, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and the American College of Sports Medicine.
When observing urine for color, here are some guidelines to gauge hydration status:
- Overhydrated: Almost clear yellow
- Hydrated: Pale shades of yellow
- Dehydrated: Bright yellow to darker yellow
- Extremely Dehydrated: Orange to brown (if brown, consult a healthcare provider)
2. Don’t Feel Like You Have To Reach for Sports Drinks
Sports drinks are advertised as being for athletes, but might not be necessary. While sports drinks do contain electrolytes that are lost while sweating, they also contain high amounts of added sugars. One 12-ounce serving of Gatorade contains 21 grams of added sugars, which is almost an entire day’s worth based on the American Heart Association’s guidelines (25 grams or less per day for women/36 grams or less per day for men).
Added sugars aren’t good for your health when you consume them in large amounts on a regular basis. While sports drinks can be useful in instances such as endurance sports when energy stores need to be replenished, they usually aren’t necessary for everyday activities. You can also replenish electrolytes without all of the added sugars by eating everyday foods, or opt for an electrolyte powder without added sugars if you’d like to curb your sugar intake.
3. Go Easy on the Fat Before Exercising
Fat is one of the three main macronutrients, the other two being carbohydrates and protein. Fat takes the longest to digest compared to carbs and protein. If you load up on a high-fat meal shortly before exercising, you might regret it when the stomach cramps hit.
When you exercise, your body diverts blood flow away from your stomach and to your heart, lungs, and muscles. This means that your high-fat meal will end up sitting in your stomach not being digested as well, thanks to the reduced blood flow to your digestive system.
Fat is an important nutrient and shouldn’t be restricted for athletes, but you should allow at least a few hours to digest a high-fat meal before exercising. A high-fat meal contains around 18 grams (or more) of fat per 3.5-ounce serving.
4. Eat Complex Carbohydrates Most of the Time
You’ve probably heard the term “simple” and “complex” carbohydrates. What exactly does that mean, though? Simple carbohydrates are those that are digested fairly quickly to be used as energy.
Examples of simple carbs include grains with white flour (white bagels, white bread, etc.), sweeteend cereals, and other processed foods. However, healthy foods like fruit and milk are also considered simple carbs, which still deserve a place in your diet plan as an athlete.
Complex carbs, on the other hand, are higher in starch and fiber than simple carbs. These carbs break down at a slower rate, meaning they are available to be burned as energy for longer. Opt for high-fiber choices like whole wheat bread, oatmeal, brown rice, potatoes with the skins left on, and quinoa instead of refined carbs. A high-fiber diet including complex carbs can not only provide energy, but it also helps promote healthy blood sugar levels, lower cholesterol levels, and benefit your digestive system to keep you healthy.
5. Eat Simple Carbs Before and During Prolonged Exercise
Not to confuse you after touting the benefits of complex carbs, but simple carbs can still be beneficial as an athlete. Simple carbs are broken down into energy quickly, which is helpful when you need a quick energy boost.
When you exercise for long periods of time (usually around 90 minutes and more), your body starts to burn stored sugar in the liver and muscle. Stored sugar is called glycogen, and is useful for helping to prevent low blood sugar in times of fasting as well as prolonged exercise.
Simple carbs like bananas, white bagels, and sports gels can help provide immediate energy and are best eaten soon before exercising as well as during prolonged physical activity. These simple carbs are easy to digest because they don’t contain large amounts of fiber that may cause digestive upset if you eat too much right before exercise.
6. Have Balanced Pre and Post-Workout Snacks
Carbohydrates are good for providing energy and replenishing used up glycogen stores. Protein is beneficial for repairing broken down muscle fibers and building new lean muscle. Combining both carbohydrates and protein as a pre- or post-workout snack is ideal to get both of these benefits. Some examples of balanced snacks include:
- Mandarin orange slices and cottage cheese
- Peanut butter on whole-grain toast
- Low-sugar yogurt with sliced almonds
- Homemade fruit smoothie with yogurt and/or protein powder
- Apple and cheese slices
7. Get Enough Iron in Your Diet
This is especially true for female athletes who are more prone to being iron deficient, but can apply to men as well. Iron is a mineral that helps your body build hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that transports oxygen throughout your body. Without enough hemoglobin, anemia can develop with symptoms such as fatigue, weakness, shortness of breath, and dizziness – none of which are compatible with good athletic performance.
Iron deficiency anemia impacts up to 12% of non-Hispanic women and as much as 20% of black and Mexican-American women. In order to help prevent iron deficiency, include plenty of iron-rich foods in your diet. Some foods rich in iron include meat, poultry, seafood, legumes, dried fruit, and fortified cereals.
8. Get Enough Protein, But Don’t Over-Do It
There’s been a big focus on protein in food marketing in recent years. While protein is important, most people get plenty of protein through a regular diet. Some protein-rich foods include meat, eggs, poultry, dairy products, nuts, seeds, legumes, and soybeans.
The average non-athlete needs around 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, which would equate to around 54 grams per day for a 150-pound person. Athletes require around 1.2-2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, depending on the type of sport and intensity of training. This would equate to around 82-136 grams of protein per day for the same 150-pound person.
Eating more protein beyond two grams per kilogram of body weight likely won’t provide any benefit, and the byproducts of the excess protein will just be excreted in urine.
9. Eat Plenty of Vitamin C Rich Foods
High-intensity exercise may weaken the immune system, making athletes more prone to getting sick. Vitamin C is found in citrus fruits, bell peppers, and many other fruits and vegetables and is well-known for its immune system-boosting powers.
Vitamin C may also have another benefit for athletes as well. Studies have found that vitamin C can help reduce muscle pain and improve muscle recovery. Part of the reason for this is likely due to vitamin C’s ability to act as an antioxidant and fight inflammation.
10. Don’t Forget Your Veggies
Most vegetables are low in calories, which might not be the first choice for those athletes wanting to bulk up and meet their increased calorie needs. Vegetables are an excellent source of many vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that promote overall health and reduce chronic disease risk, so they shouldn’t be overlooked even in the most elite athlete’s diet.
Add vegetables to otherwise higher-calorie meals to obtain their nutritional benefits while still meeting your overall calorie and protein needs. For example, add fresh tomatoes to spaghetti and meatballs, spinach to scrambled eggs and cheese, and pumpkin puree to your high-protein smoothie.
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