Nutrition for Athletes


Last Updated: Apr 19, 2019

Eat the right foods for maximum sports performance.

It doesn't matter what sport you play, if you don't get the right fuel for your body it will be impossible for you to reach your maximum potential as an athlete. Athletes need a balanced, nutritious diet which includes all the food groups to be successful in his/her sport. Proper fueling and a lot of practice will get you scoring points to win, and feeling great doing it!

As with all sports, there are rules to follow in order to get the right nutrients you need to succeed. Athletes especially must eat a varied diet, which equates to plenty of energy in the form of carbohydrates (grains, fruits, vegetables, and beans), essential proteins (lean meats, low fat dairy or soy products), good fats (nuts, avocados, olive oil), vitamins and minerals (water). This computes to 55%–60% of calories from carbohydrates (less than 15% from sugars, the rest from starches), 10%–15% of calories from protein, and less than 30% of calories from fat.

Why are carbohydrates so important to the athlete?

Carbohydrates in the form of sugars and starches are turned into glucose in the body, the only source of carbohydrate the muscles can directly use for fuel. Eating carbohydrates is also important for brain function, as glucose is the brain's source of fuel as well. As all athletes know, the mind is a critical aspect of optimum sport performance. A good athlete has to constantly make tough and quick decisions.

The body uses blood glucose for energy, but most glucose is stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen. During exercise, this muscle glycogen is broken down to be used as energy. The muscle usually has enough glycogen to provide fuel for anywhere from 90–120 minutes. Because the majority of athletic events do not require 90–120 minutes of constant, hard activity, carbohydrate intake during exercise is not required, but can be useful to maintain glucose in the muscles and energy levels. As long as athletes are eating plenty of carbohydrates and a varied low-fat diet daily, carbohydrate loading is most likely not necessary.

Is a diet high in protein important for athletes?

Athletes typically do not need any extra protein than the average individual. Lifting weights and training builds muscles, not protein. Left over protein, unlike carbohydrates, cannot be stored in the body; therefore excess will be burned for energy or stored as body fat. A balanced diet consisting of a few servings of lean meats/beans/egg whites (because the whites have 80% of an egg's protein and the yolks have all the saturated fat) and a few servings of low-fat dairy products daily will provide all the protein an athlete needs to build and maintain muscle mass.

Last, but certainly not least, proper hydration is imperative in successful athletic performance. A dehydrated athlete can be the difference between a win and a loss. Perspiration and exertion deplete the body of essential fluids so rehydration is crucial. Proper hydration means at least eight glasses of water per day, and drinking a half cup of cool water every 15–20 minutes of exercise. If it helps to get the fluids in, you can add a little flavoring such as a teaspoon of sugar, small amount of fruit juice, or powdered drink mix to your water. Sports drinks and taking in carbohydrates during exercise is only necessary in hard, continuous events lasting more than 90 minutes. See more about fluid intake during an event in Nutrition for Athletes Part II.

Resources: The President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports

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