Sports nutrition: the ultimate guide for athletic performance
Are you interested in learning more about sports nutrition? Here’s everything that a sports dietitian needs to know about supplements and dietary recommendations to boost their clients’ athletic performance.
If you have an athletic client who is looking to take their performance to the next level, then it’s important to have a good grasp on sports nutrition. Sports nutrition recommendations will look different for every athlete, but by working with your clients on an individualized basis, you can help them reach their goals and perform their best.
Here is everything you need to know about sports supplements and dietary recommendations to boost your clients’ athletic performance.
What is sports nutrition?
By definition, sports nutrition is the application of nutritional principles and strategies to enhance sports performance. Sports nutrition is also the foundation of athletic success since a well-designed plan allows athletes to perform their best.
The importance of sports nutrition
Fueling properly can help athletes prepare and recover from training sessions and competitions, which helps improve their overall performance. Furthermore, adequate energy intake is important to maintain body weight and maximize the overall training effect.
Sports nutrition focuses on specific dietary needs for performance. Let’s start off by discussing which nutrients are important for athletes and if certain supplements are necessary.
Healthy eating habits are important for everyone, but this rings even more true for athletes. They should be consuming a well-balanced, healthy diet from a variety of different foods.
Here are the key macronutrients (and subsequent foods) that dietitians should focus on for athletic performance:
Carbohydrates are required to provide energy during exercise, and are stored primarily within the muscles and liver. They are also important to maintain blood glucose and replace muscle glycogen.
While carbs are important for energy, they are not all created equal when it comes to health benefits. Let’s briefly break down the different types of carbohydrates and their dietary sources.
- Simple carbohydrates: Simple carbohydrates are broken down quickly by the body to be used as energy. They naturally occur in dairy products and fruits, but are often added to foods in the form of refined sugars. Some examples include candy, baked goods, sugary beverages, breakfast cereals, fruit juice concentrate, and cookies.
- Complex carbohydrates: Complex carbohydrates are digested more slowly and supply a lower more steady release of glucose into the bloodstream. Foods that contain complex carbohydrates provide a higher nutritional value due to the presence of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Moreover, complex carbohydrates play a crucial role in digestion, heart disease, weight, satiety, blood sugar regulation, and a reduced risk of certain chronic diseases. Some dietary sources include whole grains, legumes, and starchy vegetables.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that 45% to 65% of total daily calories should come from carbs. However, this number can vary for active people.
Depending on the sport or duration of a workout, it’s recommended that athletes time their carb intake to enhance performance. Here are some general recommendations surrounding carb intake for athletes:
- Pre-workout: Try to consume complex carbohydrates (like whole grains) 2–3 hours before exercise, and simple carbohydrates (like white bread) 30–60 minutes in advance.
- During exercise: The amount of carbohydrates needed will vary depending on the length of workout.
- 30-60 minutes: it is not necessary to ingest large amounts of carbohydrate.
- 1-2.5 hours: 30 - 60 g of carbohydrates per hour to keep energy levels up.
- Post-workout: A high dose of carbs (8 - 10 g/kg/day) may stimulate muscle glycogen resynthesis if taken within 30 minutes after a workout.
- Daily intake: Carb intake will vary depending on the intensity, duration, and frequency of exercise, but it's suggested that 6-10 g/kg/day can support daily energy output.
Note: experts have found many athletes fail to consume enough carbohydrates to fully replenish muscle glycogen stores.
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Fat is the primary fuel for light to moderate intensity exercise, and provides fuel for muscles during endurance exercise. It also helps to absorb fat-soluble vitamins, provide essential fatty acids, protect vital organs, and enhance satiety.
The dietary reference intake is 20-35% of total calories from fat. Out of that, it’s suggested that 15-20% and 5-10% come from mono- and poly-unsaturated fats, respectively.
Some nutritious dietary fat sources include nuts, seeds, fatty fish, avocados, and extra-virgin olive oil.
Tip: pair vitamin D with a fat source to enhance absorption and boost athletic performance.
Protein has been positively associated with weight management, bone health, and metabolic health. It’s also been found to increase performance, recovery, lean body mass, and strength in athletes. Moreover, studies have shown eating protein after a workout may maximize muscle repair and optimize strength.
For building and maintaining muscle mass, studies show that 1.4–2.0 g protein/kg body weight/day is sufficient for active adults and athletes. However, it’s suggested that higher protein intakes (>3.0 g/kg/d) may have positive effects on body composition.
Some dietary sources of protein include poultry, red meat, fish, dairy, legumes, eggs, tofu, and fortified foods.
Tip: learn more about how protein impacts athletic performance with this article.
Sports nutrition supplements can improve athletic performance of clients who play sports or participate in physical activity. Here are some of the most commonly used supplements for athletes.
Note: Supplements are not a substitute for poor eating habits, and should be used in conjunction with a nutritious diet.
Creatine is a compound formed of amino acids that supplies energy to your muscles. Some benefits include improved exercise performance, faster recovery after intense exercise, and increased fat-free muscle mass during training.
Research has found it takes 1-3 g of creatine/day to maintain normal stores, but athletes may need to consume 5-10 g/day. If your client wants to increase muscle creatine stores, an intake of 5 g of creatine monohydrate (or 0.3 g/kg body weight) four times daily for 5–7 days may prove beneficial.
Some dietary sources of creatine include red meat and fish. For instance, one pound of uncooked beef and salmon has around 1-2 g of creatine.
Protein powder is a powdered form of protein that comes from milk, egg white powder, or plant sources. It is often used as a convenient, quick, and portable source of protein.
Protein powder can help bridge the gap for any protein deficiencies your client may have. However, if they already meet their protein needs, then protein powder may not be necessary.
Sports drinks contain carbohydrates in the form of glucose, as well as electrolytes such as sodium, potassium and chloride. Sodium replaces lost fluid from sweating and enhances rehydration, and the glucose present in the drink can replenish glycogen stores.
Furthermore, sports drinks have been shown to help endurance performance and recovery with endurance exercises lasting 60 minutes or more.
TIP: Read our article with the best tips to create meal plans for athletes.
The Goal of Sports Nutrition
The overall goal of sports nutrition is to make your athlete better equipped to excel at their sport. Here’s a brief breakdown of what you need to know for endurance, strength, and competitive athletes.
Eating for Endurance
Endurance athletes most likely undergo one to three hours per day of moderate to intense exercise. As such, they will need a high-energy intake in the form of carbohydrates.
According to research, carbohydrate consumption for endurance athletes may vary:
- 5–7 g/kg/day (1 h/day of moderate exercise)
- 6–10 g/kg/day (1–3 h/day of exercise)
- 8–12 g/kg/day (4≥ h/day of exercise)
Endurance athletes also lose additional body water and sodium from sweat, so replacing fluids and electrolytes can help to prevent dehydration.
Eating for Strength
Resistance training (such as weight lifting or bodyweight exercises) helps to build the strength of skeletal muscle. Protein is especially important during strength training to increase and maintain lean body mass. It’s recommended that daily protein intakes should be between 1.6 - 2.2 g/kg/day.
Eating for Competition
Your nutrition plan will vary depending on the event your athlete will compete in. For example:
- Strength athletes tend to have the goal of increasing lean mass and body size.
- Endurance runners may want to reduce their body weight and fat mass.
Be sure to work with each client individually to help them reach their goals.
TIP: Intuitive eating is a flexible style of eating that emphasizes listening to your body and choosing foods accordingly. Athletes can greatly benefit from this method, learn how with this article!
Hydration and weight management: How can a sports nutrition professional help?
Here’s how a sports nutrition professional can further enhance athletic performance with hydration and weight management.
- Hydration: It’s vital that your athlete client stays hydrated since dehydration strongly decreases athletic performance. While water is important, you can also encourage your client to rehydrate with a sports drink. This will have essential electrolytes (sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium, phosphate, and magnesium) to replenish those lost through sweat.
- Weight management: Athletes have a high daily energy expenditure, which is why the emphasis on weight management (or loss) is usually placed on dietary needs. If your client wants to lose weight, avoid severe energy restriction, monitor their protein intake, try a high-fiber, and time their daily food intake around exercise.
Carbohydrates, protein, fat, fluid levels, and certain supplements can all be beneficial when creating a sports nutrition plan. While your recommendations will differ for every athlete, these strategies can help your clients reach their goals and perform their best.
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High-Quality Carbohydrates and Physical Performance. Retrieved September 13, 2022 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
Protein timing and its effects on muscular hypertrophy and strength in individuals engaged in weight-training. Retrieved September 13, 2022 from http://www.jissn.biomedcentral.com
International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise. Retrieved September 13, 2022 from http://www.jissn.biomedcentral.com
International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: safety and efficacy of creatine supplementation in exercise, sport, and medicine. Retrieved September 13, 2022 from http://www.tandfonline.com
Nutrition for sports and exercise. Retrieved September 13, 2022 from http://www.nutrition.org.uk
Sports Nutrition Supplements. Retrieved September 13, 2022 from http://www.my.clevelandclinic.org