Sports and Nutrition: Fueling Your Performance

Young men's version of this guide

girl holding soccer ballJust as a car runs best with a full tank of gas, your body needs the right kind of fuel from food in order to perform at its best. A balance of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, minerals, vitamins, and water will give your body what it needs for peak performance.

What should I eat to fuel my exercise?

Before exercise: The food you eat before you exercise greatly affects the quality of your athletic performance as well as how you feel during and after exercise. These tips will help you plan your pre-exercise meals to prevent low blood sugar, to keep you from feeling hungry, and to fuel your muscles for training and competition.

  • Eat a larger meal if you have 5-6 hours before you begin your exercise. Smaller “mini” meals are better if have 2-3 hours before your workout begins. Meals that are high in complex carbohydrates (foods rich in carbohydrates for long-lasting energy power) are best because they fuel your muscles. Pasta, bagels, baked potatoes, rice, and fresh fruit are all good sources of complex carbohydrates.
  • Avoid high-bulk (high-fiber) foods such as broccoli, baked beans, or high-fiber cereal right before exercise. These foods may cause stomach pains during exercise due to their passing more slowly through your digestive system. However, high-fiber foods are loaded with good nutrition, so be sure to include them at other times of the day.
  • Sugars and sweets (especially soda and candy) don’t provide lasting energy, and therefore aren’t recommended to fuel your exercise.
  • Limit foods that are high in dietary fat such as fast food, ice cream, nuts, and cheese for your pre-exercise meal. These foods take much longer to digest and may make you feel sluggish and tired if you eat too much of them right before working out.
  • Don’t try new foods before a competition. You may have trouble digesting a food you have never eaten before. Choose foods that are familiar to you or try something new on a training day.

1-2 Hours Before Exercise

  • Eat: Fresh fruits such as melon or vegetables (low fiber, such as tomatoes), crackers, granola, or cereal bars
  • Drink: Water, fruit or vegetable juice

2-3 Hours Before Exercise

  • Eat: Granola bar and yogurt, ½ bagel and peanut butter, cereal and milk, or oatmeal and fruit
  • Drink: Water, fruit, or vegetable juice

3-6 Hours Before Exercise

  • Eat: Fruits, vegetables, breads, bagels, peanut butter, lean meat, cheese, yogurt, full sandwich, cereal with milk and fruit, or baked potato
  • Drink: Water, fruit, or vegetable juice

During exercise: Depending on the length of your workout, you may or may not need to eat something during exercise. If you find that you are getting hungry and/or your workout is lasting more than an hour and a half, try having something easy to digest that will provide you with fast acting energy such as fruit, an energy bar, or even a small amount of gummy bears or jelly beans. There are products such as sports gels and chews formulated for endurance athletes; talk to a coach or registered dietitian about whether these are appropriate for your level of activity.

After exercise: It’s very important to refuel your body after a hard workout. Because your body needs to replace glycogen stores in your muscle within the first few hours after exercise, it’s important to eat carbohydrates and some protein soon after your workout.

Follow these tips when planning your post-exercise meal:

  • Sometimes exercise can cause people to feel less hungry even though they need to eat afterward. Try having a snack that contains carbohydrates (such as a yogurt or half a sandwich) within 30 minutes after a workout. This will help your body recover quickly.
  • You should eat a larger meal that’s high in carbohydrates and has some protein within the next 2-3 hours to replace muscle glycogen stores that were used up during exercise. This will help you be in top shape for the next time you exercise.

How can I make sure to eat enough calories?

Calories fuel your body for exercise and replace energy that is used up during sports performance. Cutting calories keeps you from performing your best. As exercise and athletic training demands energy above and beyond your body’s day-to-day needs, it is essential to meet these needs in order to compete at full strength and recover quickly after a workout. Skipping meals will hurt your performance. Eating regular meals and healthy snacks is the best way to fuel your body for athletic events.

Because different foods have different nutrients, you should eat a variety of foods to get all the nutrients you need to stay in peak condition. For example, oranges provide vitamin C and carbohydrates, but not iron or protein. A piece of grilled chicken provides iron and protein, but not vitamin C or carbohydrates. Remember, a balance of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, minerals, vitamins, and water are best for peak performance.

Carbohydrates or “carbs” (found in pasta, bread, cereal, rice, grains, potatoes, fruit, vegetables, milk, yogurt, etc.) are especially important for athletes because they supply the body with glucose for energy. Extra glucose is stored in the muscles and liver as glycogen, your energy reserve. During short bursts of exercise such as sprinting, basketball, gymnastics, or soccer, your body relies on glycogen to keep your blood sugar levels stable and thus maintain your energy. If you don’t have enough glycogen, you may feel very tired or have difficulty sustaining the activity – effects that will, undoubtedly, impact your performance! During longer exercise, your body uses your glycogen stores first, next turning to fats stored in your body to fuel performance.

Fat is an important source of energy used to fuel longer exercise and endurance activities, such as hiking, cycling, and long-distance running or swimming. Eating a diet that is too low in dietary fat may decrease athletic performance and cause other health problems, such as deficiencies of certain vitamins, which require fat to be absorbed. Heart-healthy sources of fat include avocados, salmon, nuts and nut butters, and olive oils.

Protein is needed for your body to build and repair muscles. Small amounts of protein may also be used for energy. Protein can be found in lean meats like chicken and turkey, beans, tofu, eggs, and dairy products such as Greek yogurt.

Vitamins and minerals are not sources of energy, but they have many important functions in the body. For example, vitamin D and calcium are needed for strong bones, and iron is needed for blood cells to carry oxygen throughout your body. Certain minerals, like potassium, calcium, and sodium are called electrolytes. They are important during exercise because they have an effect on the amount of water in your body and on how your muscles work. Athletes should eat a balanced diet with a variety of foods to make sure they get enough vitamins and minerals. It is fine to take a regular multivitamin, but supplements with high doses of vitamins and minerals do not improve performance and may actually be harmful. Vitamins for performance include, Vitamin B, C, D, E, Iron and Magnesium. These vitamins can be found in most sports supplements.

Water is essential to keep you hydrated. Dehydration (when your body doesn’t have enough fluids to work efficiently) can cause muscle cramps, and dizziness or lightheadedness. When you are physically active, dehydration is not only dangerous, but can also keep you from performing your best.

What is carbohydrate loading?

Carbohydrate loading is a technique used to increase the amount of glycogen in muscles. It involves eating extra carbohydrates during the week before a competition, while at the same time cutting back on your training. Carbohydrate loading is intended for marathon runners and other competitive athletes and isn’t necessary for most recreational athletes.

Should I eat extra protein or use protein supplements?

Although some extra protein is needed to build muscle, most people get plenty of protein from food. Getting extra protein from supplements won’t have any added benefit. Eating enough calories is actually more important for building muscle than having extra protein. Without enough calories, your body can’t build new muscle.

Should I eat energy bars?

It depends. There are many different energy bars you can buy. Some are high in carbohydrates and protein or both; energy bars may also be high in sugar. They don’t contain any magic ingredients that will help your athletic performance. Foods that have some carbohydrate and protein in them such as yogurt, cheese and crackers, or peanut butter and fruit are typically just as good (if not better) and may cost less than energy bars. However, energy bars are convenient to grab and go, and may help you fit a snack into your schedule when you otherwise couldn’t.

What fluids should I drink and how much do I need?

Athletes need more fluids than non-athletes. Do not wait until you are thirsty to start drinking water, because thirst means that you are starting to dehydrate. Remember to drink even more in hot and humid weather.

Before exercise: The goal of drinking fluids before exercise is to be well hydrated before you are physically active. Different people need different amounts of water before they exercise depending on a wide variety of factors, including their weight, how much they sweat before exercising, and how much they’ve eaten. In general, teens should drink 2-2.5 cups of fluid at least four hours before physical activity; they should then drink 1-1.5 cups of water 10-15 minutes before the activity.

During exercise: Fluid needs during exercise depend on how intense and long your workout is, weather conditions, and how much you sweat. If you will be exercising for less than 60 minutes, drink ½-1 cup of fluid every 15-20 minutes during your workout. If you are going to be exercising for more than one hour, it is recommended that you drink ½ -1 cup of a fluid every 15-20 minutes.

After exercise: Calorie-containing drinks (such as milk, juice, or a sports drink) can replace water and glucose. Milk will also provide protein to help rebuild and repair muscles. You can figure out if you’re well hydrated by looking at the color of your urine. A light yellow, somewhat clear color is a sign of good hydration. However, if you see a darker yellow color, this means that you need to drink more fluids. You can drink fluids until you notice your urine is light yellow or clear. You can also weigh yourself before and after exercise. For each pound lost, you should drink 2 ½- 3 cups of water. To restore hydration, you should try to regain the fluids within the 2 hours after you finish the exercise.

Should I drink sports drinks?

In general, water is the best fluid to drink before, during, and after exercise. Sports drinks such as Gatorade® or Powerade® help replace water, carbs, and electrolytes. It may be useful to drink an energy drink when you’re playing a high intensity sport. However, remember that these all contain calories as well. If you are exercising for 30-60 minutes it is likely that water will be the best source of fluid unless exercising vigorously or in the heat.

Remember: Athletes need more food and fluids than non-athletes. Regular meals and healthy snacks will help fuel your body before and after exercise. It’s important to give your body enough of the right fuel in order to feel good and have the energy you need to perform your best.