Sports Nutrition Basics: Special Considerations for Athletes
Sports nutrition is a branch of nutritional sciences that helps athletes determine the optimal nutrient intake and timing to meet their individual nutrition needs. A well-planned diet can support training and recovery which helps athletes meet their sport performance goals.
However, planning a diet can be a challenge for many athletes.
In this post, we are going to break down some of the basics of sports nutrition and provide you with recommendations to help you optimize your sports performance and overall health!
Step 1: Determining Your Energy Needs
The first step in diet planning is to determine how much energy (or kilocalories) you should be consuming on a daily basis in order to support your training.
This can be challenging for a couple of reasons:
Energy expenditure equations are typically used to estimate energy needs for the general population, meaning that they have limited generalizability for athletes.
Calorie requirements vary substantially depending on which phase of training or competition an athlete is in.
For example, during the off-season, athletes may be less active, and therefore, require less energy to support their training in comparison to the in-season when their energy requirements are elevated.
If you are interested in periodizing your energy intake based on your training, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine provide more in-depth literature on how to go about estimating your energy requirements as an athlete.
In contrast to energy requirements, dietary prescription provides an individualized nutrition plan that dictates the specific amounts of each macronutrient (carbohydrate, protein, and fat) that an athlete should aim to consume in order to support their training.
Step 2: Determining Your Dietary Carbohydrate
Carbohydrate plays an incredibly important role in sports nutrition, providing fuel for your muscles and brain during intense exercise. Evidence suggests that carbohydrate availability (ie. having enough stored carbohydrate to meet the demands of exercise) improves performance during prolonged and intermittent high-intensity training. Therefore, consuming enough carbohydrates is an important consideration for athletes.
Here is a general guideline for determining how many grams of carbohydrate you need per day to support your training based on your activity level.
For example, a 70kg soccer player who trains at high-intensity (ie. interval running and heavy weight-lifting) for 2 hours per day needs between 420g-700g of carbohydrate per day to support her training.
Step 3: Determining Your Protein Needs
Protein gets a lot of hype in sports nutrition, and for good reason! Dietary protein is essential for metabolic adaptation to training, repair/ recovery, and remodeling of muscle tissue.
Current evidence suggests that athletes need between 1.2-2.0g of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.
For example, our 70kg soccer player needs roughly 84g-140g of protein per day to support her training.
Step 4: Determining Your Fat Needs
Fat is a largely overlooked macronutrient when it comes to sports nutrition, however, it's essential for facilitating the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, maintaining healthy cell membranes, and providing energy.
Athletes should aim for roughly 1.0 g/kg/day.
Putting it all together
Recommendations in grams per day are useful, but most people don't have any idea what those numbers actually look like without tracking their food.
If you've ever wondered how much you should be eating, the USDA's MyPlate.com offers a great starting point to determine how much protein, carbohydrates, fruits, and veggies you should be eating per day based on your gender, height, weight, and activity level.
On a side note, these recommendations are just a guideline. Ultimately, do what feels best for you and of course, include the foods you love!
Special Nutrition Considerations for Athletes
It’s important to fuel yourself before exercise. Studies have found that athletes who don’t consume meals prior to exercise show an overall decrease in sports performance. The amount of time you have between your meal and your work-out will impact which foods you should consume prior to exercise.
In my experience, this should be very individualized to mitigate gastrointestinal discomfort during your workout!
In general, consuming carbohydrate-rich meals 1-4 hours prior to exercise helps bump up glycogen stores in your body.
Nutrition During Exercise
Only athletes participating in high-intensity exercise that lasts longer than 60 minutes need to worry about nutrition during exercise. This includes sports like marathon training, triathlon, and ultra-endurance athletes. These athletes deplete their glycogen stores very quickly and need to replace them with food.
The goal of consuming nutrients during exercise is to provide quick energy and hydration. You want minimal distress to your stomach and gastrointestinal tract, therefore, the foods you consume should be very easy to digest, like simple sugars.
Lots of athletes choose sports drinks because they are convenient, but there are other ways to get the energy you need through food.
Recovery begins! After exercise, your body gets busy repairing muscle, replenishing glycogen stores, rehydrating cells, and topping up electrolytes.
Your body is most sensitive to nutrition immediately after exercise. At this time, it's primed to absorb nutrients, which is why it’s best to eat right after you train, if possible.
Vitamin and Mineral Supplements
In general, most of your essential vitamins and minerals should come from a balanced diet. However, there are some exceptions where supplementation could be needed.
Some examples are iron supplements for female athletes who are struggling with iron-deficiency anemia and B12 supplements for vegan athletes.
If you are concerned that you have a vitamin or mineral deficiency, speak to a Registered Dietitian to see how you can better optimize your nutrition.
Protein supplements are popular amongst athletes, but they may not be necessary in many cases.
There are three main kinds: Whey protein, casein protein, and vegan proteins, such as a pea and rice protein combo. There are some things to consider before taking a protein supplement:
Whether or not you can meet your protein requirements through diet alone.
Your sex: males use more amino acids for fuel and less fat than females
If you're vegan or vegetarian: these athletes have an increased need due to the lower bioavailability of plant-based proteins.
Budget: protein supplements can add extra $$ onto your grocery bill.
Illness: stressed states require higher protein (ex: injury, burns, illness).
Hopefully, you found this post interesting and informative. If you are interested in learning more about how you can optimize your diet for sports performance, visit the Dietitians of Canada Sport Nutrition Network or consider speaking to a Registered Dietitian about your unique needs.
Thomas D et al. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics; 2015. Volume 116 (3) p.501 - 528. Available from: https://jandonline.org/article/S2212-2672(15)01802-X/fulltext
Dunford M, Doyle AJ. Nutrition for Sport and Exercise. Cengage Learning; 2014. 624.
Chiropractic economics [Internet].Flordia: Chiropractic ecnomics; c2018; [updated June 2016; cited November 2 2018]. Available from: https://www.chiroeco.com/vitamin-and-mineral-deficiencies-athletes/.
Nutrition and athletic performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2016;48(3): 543-568. doi.org/10.1249/MSS.0000000000000852.
MyPlate [Internet]. United States: United States Department of Agriculture; [updated July 2018; cited November 3 2018]. Available from: https://www.choosemyplate.gov/.