Sports Nutrition: Eating Basics
Are you an athlete, weekend warrior, or avid exerciser? For anyone who considers themselves a mover, food choice & timing of eating play a powerful role in your ability to show up for your favorite movement-based pursuits. Not only can the way you eat impact how you feel on a given day, but it can also have a profound effect on your overall performance level & ability to continue finding joy in moving for the long term. What we’re talking about here is the vast realm of sports nutrition.
Sports nutrition is defined as the implementation & study of how what you eat affects your athletic performance.1 To put that in real-world context, I’ll share how this concept affects my own life.
For those who don’t know me, I’m Sophie. I’m a certified holistic nutritionist, & though I’m not a competitive athlete, I also identify as a rock climber, a surfer, a yogi, a weight-lifter, & a backpacker. Like many of you reading this post, movement is the thing that brings me immense joy in life, & although simply having a body capable of physical activity is always enough, improving my skills & ability to perform at these various sports fuels my love of these hobbies even more. Striving toward improvement is part of what makes it fun for me, & my eating habits greatly influence my ability to do that!
If I haven’t met my nutrition needs on a given day, I often feel fatigued & unmotivated when the time comes to engage in my active hobbies. This makes going out for a day of climbing less exciting knowing I’m unlikely to climb something that pushes my limits & more likely to be careless & get injured. When it comes to showing up for a training session, that feels next to impossible when I haven’t eaten adequately.
Alternatively, if I eat in a way that caters to my touchy digestion & meets my overall nutrient needs, I’m energized & eager to drive & hike to the crag, paddle out in the surf, or put in the work picking up heavy things & putting them back down (i.e. weight lifting) as a form of training strength & skill-building.
Perhaps even more importantly, if I eat well, I recover better. Without consistently consuming adequate carbohydrates & protein following active days & workouts, I wake up the next day feeling sore, low energy, & perhaps a bit irritable. I’m also at higher risk of injuring myself. Since injuries usually mean cessation of activity & potentially expensive, time-consuming healthcare, I do my best to avoid them.
If I fuel myself adequately during & after workouts, my body bounces back faster.
I avoid feeling low energy or grumpy, & I’m less sore. I also see better results from my efforts in the form of increased lean muscle mass & higher strength output, mobility, & body function over time.
So what does it mean to eat right to support your fitness? It’s of course somewhat individual & depends on the activities you’re doing, but there are a few critical concepts that every mover can benefit from implementing like timing their eating around activites & optimizing the composition of their food for certain circumstances.
As you read through, keep in mind that this post is intended to cover the basics. As with most things, the advice here is a great place to start, & you’ll likely see improvement. Getting more into the weeds can foster even better performance but is probably only needed at an elite level. Also remember that it’s always advised to discuss any major changes to your diet or activity level with your doctor before diving in.
Carbs before any activity can help fuel muscles for a workout. It’s recommended to consume a meal rich in complex carbohydrates like those in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, & legumes 1-2 hours before activity begins.2
Precisely which foods you can eat in that time frame without digestion interfering with your ability to perform will likely take some trial & error, so be patient with your body’s performance while you make these discoveries about yourself. So long as you can maintain a healthy relationship with food while doing this, it’s advised to keep a journal of what you’re eating, when you’re eating, which activities you’re doing, & how you felt given all of those variables. Be sure to include extraneous factors like extreme weather, stress levels, etc. It’s also advised to keep this journal for the other factors we’ll dive into here including protein, timing of eating, & hydration. This journal can help you document various scenarios & bring clarity to what does & doesn’t work for your body.
Consuming quick carbs during a workout is mostly beneficial during long-distance, endurance workouts like running, cycling, dancing, & hiking, & this exclusively applies to activities that last longer than one hour.3–5. This is the one time in most people’s lives that consuming simple carbohydrates is arguably favorable for the body.
You store carbohydrates in your muscles & liver, & you do so by linking single sugar molecules into long chains called glycogen. When you start exercising, your body breaks those glycogen chains down so it can deliver sugars into your bloodstream & get them to your working muscles for fuel. Since your body can store a limited amount of glycogen, if you exercise long enough, you’ll run out, & your body will lose the ability to continue activity. That’s why when you’re working hard for longer than an hour at a moderate to intense level, it’s advised to give your body some carbohydrates in the form of sports gels or chews, even candy can be helpful at this time. Some people are able to handle foods like fruits & crackers, but most do best with those super simple carbs found in products like Gu, Nuun Tablets, Gatorade, & Stingers.
The exact amount of carbohydrate needed during this type of activity has been recommended by The International Society of Sports Nutrition. They advise consuming ~30-60g carbohydrate every 10-15 minutes of activity.6 They also recommend consuming these carbs in liquid form, mixed with electrolytes (aka salts, yes like table salt).6 Nuun tablets are a great product to add to water for this purpose. Alternatively, honey added to water is a more natural option that could be more health-promoting overall.
Engaging in movement that doesn’t benefit from carb intake during activity? There’s still benefit to be gained from carbs! It turns out that just the taste of carbohydrates improves athletic performance.7 Consider adding citrus juice or a modest amount of natural sweetener like monkfruit or honey to your water & consume it during your workout. It will likely help you perform better regardless of activity type.
Once you’ve finished your workout, carbs are also necessary for replenishing glycogen stores, which is essential for you to recover & avoid feeling low energy levels later that day or the next day. Eat meals rich in carbohydrates especially following intense workouts like these. Once your exercise session has ended for the day, it’s best to revert back to more complex carbohydrate.
Let’s apply this to my activity habits again for an example. Since I’m not an endurance athlete, my carbohydrate intake doesn’t often involve consumption of simple sugars. I like to have electrolytes and a touch of sugar from fresh citrus juice in my water, since I tend to get sweaty, no matter what type of exercise I’m doing. The carbs here are mostly helping me stay hydrated & give me that performance boost that comes from tasting carbs as I’m working. Following a workout, I like to have carb-rich protein bars or fruit mixed into smoothies. In a pinch, I’ll eat a few dates or a banana. On long weekend days when I’m being active for most of the day, instead of eating three meals, I’ll opt for 6-8 bigger snacks throughout the day that are all rich in carbohydrates to keep a continuous stream of carbs entering my bloodstream, preventing glycogen depletion & exhaustion.
Being the building block of muscles, your protein intake is crucial for muscle recovery after workouts & for maintaining & growing muscle mass. Determining your protein needs isn’t an exact science, but it can give you a ballpark estimate of how many grams of protein you need each day. I recommend trying to consume within 20 grams of that goal every day.
The chart below can help you calculate a protein consumption goal to aim for daily. The left column of the chart identifies the type of activity you engage in most regularly. If you routinely engage in more than one type, use the number associated with the more intense exercise that you engage in at least 3 days/week. The column on the right indicates the grams of daily protein you need per kilogram (kg) of your body weight. To find out your daily protein needs, multiply your weight in kg by the number in right column that best coincides with your activity type & intensity level. To verify if it’s the best amount for you to eat, it’s recommended to work with a certified nutritionist.
Let’s use me as an example for this calculation. A typical week for me includes 3 days of weight lifting for 45-75 minutes, 2 days of rock climbing for 1-3 hours, 1-2 days of running for 30-60 minutes, 2 days of working on my feet for 7 hours, a variable amount of yoga & mobility training (at leat 1 hour/week), & 1 day or two of yard work, surfing, hiking, or outdoor climbing that lasts a majority of the day.
How do I categorize this type of activity on this chart when what I’m doing is so varied? I use the activity that warrants the highest protein intake. Since I’m resistance training, & factoring in the sheer volume of activity I engage in, I guesstimate that my gPROTEIN/kg/day is 1.7. I can calculate my weight in kilograms (kg) by dividing my weight in pounds by 2.2. Then I take that weight in kg & multiply it by 1.7. The answer is my daily protein goal.
Be mindful that I’m an extremely active person because this much movement truly brings me so much happiness. It’s also important to know that I always take at least one rest day/week where the most activity I’ll do is a short walk &/or gentle mobility work. Comparison is the biggest robber of joy, & the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity & 2 days of resistance-based strength training per week to sustain your health & prevent disease.8 The most important thing is that you regularly engage in physical activity & choose activities that fill you with joy!
As you begin to be intentional about your protein intake, take into account that the body can only absorb on average between 30-45 grams of protein per meal, so you can’t eat all that protein all at once. Do your best to space your intake out throughout the day9, & check out the coming section, “Timing of Eating” for information about how to further strategize your protein intake to support your active body.
Timing of eating
An open-access review article from 2013 analyzed a broad body of research to investigate this long-debated topic. Despite highlighting how there’s conflicting evidence as well as currently uninvestigated factors to explore, they drew some practical conclusions based on the knowledge we currently have.2
Both before & after a workout, it’s recommended to consume .4-.5 g/kg body weight of protein.2 For example, a 57kg female would need ~28g protein before & after a workout. When should they consume this protein? Generally speaking, it’s best to consume pre-workout protein 1-2 hours before your workout, & post-workout protein 1-2 hours after.2
What I’ve observed personally & in my practice with clients is that when I fuel within 1-2 hours before my workout & within an hour after, I experience an increase in overall energy level, less muscle soreness, & an improvement in gains over time. Foods I typically reach for before a workout, depends on the timing. If I’m eating 2 hours before, I can get away with eating a regular meal that’s made from fresh, colorful, whole foods that includes at least 20g protein. If I’m closer to an hour or less before I’m about to exercise, I’ll eat a couple of dates & maybe a spoonful nut butter, a small handful of nuts, or protein powder mixed with ~6oz of plant-based milk. After a workout, I’ll at least eat a whole-food-based nutrition bar with 15-20g protein, or I’ll have a smoothie with 30g protein & fresh fruits ready to go. This isn’t enough to sustain me long-term though. I make sure to eat a regular meal within 3 hours of the bar or smoothie. If I’m able to go home & have a meal prepared right away, then I’ll skip the bar or shake & eat a protein-rich meal.
Scientists are actually quite unsure exactly how much water people need in different scenarios.10 Buy & large, aiming to drink half of your body weight in ounces each day is a good baseline. If you get sweaty, aim to drink 8-32oz more than that, & consider adding electrolytes to your water as they help your body absorb it. Additionally, electrolytes are lost in sweat, & they’re needed for many metabolic processes. You don’t want to be low on electrolytes.
My favorite way to replenish electrolytes is to add fresh citrus juice & a pinch of pink Himalyan salt to water. If I’m doing something sweatier like a hot yoga class or an intense hike, then I’ll also add honey as sugar helps your body absorb water just like electrolytes do.
If you’re engaging in long-distance, endurance sports for longer than an hour at a time, especially if it’s hot, hydrating during activity with the addition of electrolytes is a must!10 When you run, bike, swim, hike, etc. your body excretes electrolytes in order to make you sweat. Since these are two of the most important substances in the body to keep you moving, you’ll need to consume both while you’re still moving as well as after you finish. Nuun tablets are optimized for these types of activities, containing more sodium than brands like Trace Minerals, with the exception of their product Endure, which is great for these scenarios. You’ll also likely need to support your body with more than an extra 8-32oz of water as is generally recommended.
Experiment to find what adequate hydration feels like for you. During activity, it’s advised to drink as much as you can tolerate. Following activity, experiment with the level of fluid & electrolyte intake. Don’t forget to keep a journal & document the types of activities you’re doing along with what you’re doing to stay hydrated. Make note of how well you recover, including energy levels in the days after workouts.
Have questions about this article or are curious to work with a nutritionist to hone your eating choices with regards to exercise performance? Reach out to me, Sophie, MScN, CN, CNS Candidate, at email@example.com I offer free 20-minute calls to all new clients. Book yours today!
1. Whitton E. Sports nutrition - nutritionist resource. https://www.nutritionist-resource.org.uk/articles/sports-nutrition.html. Accessed March 23, 2023.
2. Aragon AA, Schoenfeld BJ. Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window? J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2013;10(1):5.
3. Bergström J, Hermansen L, Hultman E, Saltin B. Diet, muscle glycogen and physical performance. Acta Physiol Scand. 1967;71(2):140-150.
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5. Coggan AR, Coyle EF. Reversal of fatigue during prolonged exercise by carbohydrate infusion or ingestion. J Appl Physiol. 1987;63(6):2388-2395.
6. Kerksick CM, Arent S, Schoenfeld BJ, et al. International society of sports nutrition position stand: nutrient timing. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017;14:33.
7. Carter JM, Jeukendrup AE, Jones DA. The effect of carbohydrate mouth rinse on 1-h cycle time trial performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2004;36(12):2107-2111.
8. Arnold MJ, Harding MC, Conley AT. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025: Recommendations from the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services. Am Fam Physician. 2021;104(5):533-536.
9. Loenneke JP, Loprinzi PD, Murphy CH, Phillips SM. Per meal dose and frequency of protein consumption is associated with lean mass and muscle performance. Clin Nutr. 2016;35(6):1506-1511.
10. Jeukendrup A, Gleeson M. Sport Nutrition-3rd Edition. Human Kinetics; 2019.