Nutrition Outline For The Elite Athlete

Proper nutrition is important for every athletes success at any level, although a lack of time, or lack of knowledge may be a road block, building a clear cut attack plan can help lead to success.

Below you will find an outline and background on developing a solid meal plan for your specific needs as an athlete and information for the reasons why we need certain macronutrients in our diets.

Note: this article was compiled using resources from the NCAA, Ohio State, Dartmouth, and Harvard among a few other sources.

Before we dive in Some things to think about:


If you put nutrition at the forefront of your athlete lifestyle, you will recover faster and more completely between training sessions and competitions. This means you can attack each workout just as hard as the last one or feel ready to take on each part of your training (Lift, Practice, Game) without much worry if you have recovered enough.


You will perform better during each training session or competition. For most athletes, you are training daily, or at the very least, practicing and playing multiple games per week. Being properly fueled and recovered will allow you to perform at your peak day to day.


Focussing on Nutrition will lead to higher and more consistent energy levels allowing you to feel better and more alert throughout the day (Yes this means more focus in class).


Lets dive in..



Energy Needs

Proper nutrition can help aid in recovery, decrease fatigue and minimize risk for injury. It is important for athletes to take into account the energy needs for their daily schedules in terms of class, training, practice or games. If an athlete does not take in enough calories, the result can lead to low recovery and an altered metabolism.

Energy requirements can very from athlete to athlete based on their age, training/practice schedule or their level of training.


Macronutrients

Marco's are your carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, these provide fuel for any activity you do as an athlete, including class work and studying..


Carbs

Carbs are a primary fuel source for muscle tissue and the brain during intense exercise, they provide energy for basic functions such as nerve transmission and muscular contractions. Additionally carbs that are nutrient dense provide vitamins, minerals, and other essential nutrients vital for performance.

Carbs are a prime source of fuel.


Carbs should equate to 45-65% of daily caloric intake.

1 g carbohydrate= 4 calories.


Sources Of Carbs

Whole grain bread, pasta, brown rice, wild rice, baked potato, sweet potato, oatmeal, and even whole grain breakfast cereals such as Cheerios, mini wheats, Raisin Bran, and Wheaties.



Protein

Protein aids athletes in their recovery from intense training, this goes for resistance training, endurance training, practice, or games. Proteins are essential in an athletes daily diet, and aid in tissue growth and lean mass gain, but are not the most efficient source for energy.

Lean protein sources provide all of the essential amino acids without any unhealthy fats.


The body can absorb 30-40g of protein at a time which is equal to 4-5oz of meat or one large chicken breast.

Excess protein does not get stored and is either burned for energy or converted to fat.

Diets that have an excessive protein intake can potentially be dangerous and cause dehydration, low energy, bone calcium loss, and even kidney problems.


Protein should equate to 20-30% of daily caloric intake.

1g protein= 4 calories.


Your specific protein intake can vary but this equation can help


Your body weight x 2/3 = daily protein intake

So for example my body weight is 240, I would take 240x2/3 = 160g of protein


Sources Of Lean Protein

Chicken, ham, turkey, fish, milk, egg whites, red meat, lentils, quinoa, beans, almonds, seeds, whole grains, peanuts, and walnuts


Fats

Healthy fats provide protection for our organs, and maintains the function of the cell membrane.

Additionally fats aid in absorption of fat soluble vitamins, and help provide essential fatty acids which aid in development of the brain, nervous system, and hormone production.

Fats can slow down digestion and make athletes feel heavy on the field or even make you feel nauseous.


Fats should account for 15-25% of daily caloric intake.

1 g= 9 calories.


When fats are reduced to below 10% of daily recommended intake or diets with little to no fat will worsen the lipid profile in the body and actually decrease testosterone production limiting metabolism and lean mass development.


Sources Of Healthy Fats

Olive oil, avocado, vegetable oil, fish such as Salmon, Tuna, & Herring, nuts, and seeds.


Vitamins & Minerals

Vitamins & Minerals are important for good health of anyone, not just athletes.

Vitamins act as regulators and catalysts of for many functions of the body and can assist in the utilization of other nutrients. Much like Vitamins, minerals also aid in catalysts for body functions such as nerve transmission, digestion, and utilization of other nutrients.


Eating a wide range of colorful foods will help ensure you get all the vitamins you need daily, additionally consuming a multi vitamin can help as it will insure we are getting vitamins we may be missing in our diet.


Calcium

Calcium is important for bone health, it normalizes enzyme activity, aids in muscle contraction, is involved in blood clotting, and nerve impulse transmission.

One injury commonly seen in athletes are stress fractures, which can be minimized by proper calcium intake; the recommended daily intake is 1000mg+ per day.


Calcium is especially important for female athletes, weight restricted sports, and weight class sports such as wrestling, weightlifting or powerlifting.


Great sources of calcium

Milk, cheese, yogurt, leafy greens such as collard greens or spinach, broccoli, figs, oranges, or kiwi


Calcium is best absorbed in small frequent servings in addition, vitamin D & C aid in absorption of calcium.


Iron

Iron is also a must have for athletic performance.

Iron aids in metabolism, oxygen transport, and balancing of acids in the body. Athletes in their teen years require a bit more of Iron intake each day to support growth, increase blood volume, and build lean mass.

Plenty of research shows that athletes growing rapidly in addition to participation in competition or training may require higher bioavailability (Iron available in the bodies system) and can lead to lower Iron levels, this is especially true for female athletes.

Lower Iron levels can lead to an iron deficiency and possibly anemia which can impair athletic performance and cause intense fatigue


Great Sources of Iron

Heme Iron (readily absorbed)

- Red meat, dark poultry, and fish

Nonheme Iron (less readily absorbed)

- Leafy greens, whole grains, lentils, peas, dried beans, nuts, and seeds


With Iron, more is not always better and you should focus on eating iron rich foods listed above. You should not supplement iron into your diet unless you are deficient.


Hydration

As any athlete knows, fluid intake and hydration is a big key in success as an athlete every day.

Fluid intake aids in regulation of the body temperature during training, especially in hot environments, additionally fluids replace sweat lost during exercise.

As an athlete, you need to look at the factors that could play a role in your hydration or dehydration; things like how long you're competing or training, how hot will the game or facility you are training in be, is it humid or not? All these things could be factors in how aware you need to be when rehydrating during and post training or competition.

Electrolytes are key for athletes during/post competition and training so sports drinks such as gatorade or Powerade can be helpful in rehydration but also looking at healthier options such as an electrolyte powder such as LMNT or Ironwolf Intra-workout.


Believe it or not, mild dehydration can impact an athletes ability to physically and mentally perform in competition or training. Something to remember, the amount of volume of fluids consumed is more important than the type of fluid.


Before a competition or training, athletes should look to consume 16oz of fluids and during training/competition continue to hydrate by drinking anywhere from 6-10oz of fluids.

Post training/competition athletes should focus on replenishing what was lost; to do this you can weigh yourself pre and post competition/training. For each pound lost, athletes should consider consuming 16oz of fluid.


Signs You Are Dehydrated

Thirst, dark colored urine, weakness, dry sticky mouth, mental changes such as loss focus or increased dizziness, not sweating, or increased heart beat.



Timing of Meals & Snacks Throughout The Day

The timing of meals and/or snacks is just as important for an athletes success in training and competition as it is to their daily nutritional needs.

Athletes should eat 5-6 meals per day every 2-3 hours with the most important meal being BREAKFAST.


- Eating at this rate will help keep metabolism high which will aid in calories being burned throughout the day and keep you lean.

- Will help build lean muscle mass by ensuring the nutrients are always available in your system to recover, build, and grow.

- Will aid in providing consistent energy to help you attack every part of your day (class, training, practice, homework).

- Will allow you to eat a wide range of foods making sure daily goals are met and nutrients are taken in that will help you recover quicker.


Eating only 2-3 times per day can make it difficult to meet nutrition needs, especially as an athlete.


Sample Meal Timing

8:00am Breakfast (Eat Within 1 Hour Of Waking)

10:00am Snack

1:00pm Lunch

4:00pm Snack/Small Meal

7:00pm Dinner

10/11pm Late Night Snack


PLAN AHEAD

As an athlete, you are always on the go, it is vitally important to plan ahead, pack a snack or small meal to take on the go. This will be sure you are locked in and staying on track when meal/snack time hits.


BREAKFAST

Eating breakfast is they key to kick starting everything, especially your metabolism after a long night fasted while asleep. Breakfast will also help you have more energy throughout the day.



Pre Training Or Competition Meal Timing

A pre training/pre competition meal for example, should be made up of foods high in carbs that will be easy for the body to digest pre competition. These foods can be things such as fruit, pasta, breads, or energy bars (not the typical protein bar).

The goal with loading the body with carbohydrates is to give the muscles a ton of stored energy (glycogen) to go through intense training or a long practice or competition.

Again, planning ahead will be crucial to be sure your body is fueled for competition and in addition to food, fluids will be key to be sure you are hydrated.


The pre training/pre competition meal can be ingested as early as 4 hours before training/competition and as late as 2 hours before to allow time for digestion/absorption. Anything within an hour before competition should be minimal.


Suggestions for pre training/competition:

3 to 4 hours before competition

- Fruit

- Juices

- Bread, bagel, or toast with a small amount of meat, peanut butter, or light cream cheese

- Pasta (if you want sauce, it should be a red sauce)

- Baked Potato

- Sports Drinks


2 to 3 hours before competition

- Fresh fruit

- Juices

- Bread or a bagel

- Low fat or non fat yogurt

- Sports drinks


1 Hour or Less

- Fresh fruit

- Juices

- Low fat or non fat yogurt

- Energy bar/gels


Foods that are higher in fat and fiber can slow down digestion making it tougher for an athlete to compete as they can feel lethargic or "heavy"


Meal Ideas Pre Training/Competition

- Grilled chicken & rice, fruit/veggie

- Pasta with meat sauce, fruit

- Breakfast sandwich with lean meat, an egg, and muffin with some fruit


Snack Ideas Pre Training/Competition

Dried fruit, Banana, pretzels, graham crackers, bagel, white bread, granola bar, fruit juice


Foods To Avoid Pre Competition/Training

The pre training/pre competition meal needs to be low in fat because fats are harder to digest and will make you feel heavy or lethargic. Things like this could be fast food, chips, fried foods, candy, etc.



Post Training Or Competition Meal Timing

The window for post training/post competition meals for recovery are just as important for the pre competition meal. Athletes have up to two hours to intake a meal or protein shake post strength training sessions and up to 20 minutes post conditioning/cardio exercise to refuel energy stores in the body.

A protein shake or meal high in protein will refuel the body with what it needs to recover and build lean muscle while carbs will help refuel glycogen stores and help prevent muscle soreness.


A few things to think about post training:

- Replace fluids lost during training/competition

- 16-24oz of fluid for every pound lost during training/competition

- Refuel with protein to aid in recovery, rebuild muscle tissue, build lean mass


If you are sore post training or competition, you probably did not refuel properly or intake enough nutrients to recovery before your next session.


Meal Ideas Post Training/Competition

Protein shake, chocolate milk & fruit, fruit smoothie with protein, or a bagel with cream cheese & fruit.



What Do Meals Look Like?

A good place to start is the My Plate by the USDA..

The plate should be filled with:

- 1/2 colorful fruits and veggies

- 1/4 lean protein

- 1/4 whole grains

- 3 Servings Of Daily Per Day


Athletes With A Higher Protein Need:

- 1/3 colorful fruits and veggies

- 1/3 lean protein

- 1/3 whole grains

- 3 Servings Of Daily Per Day


Athletes should eat 5-6 meals per day every 2-3 hours with the most important meal being BREAKFAST.


Breakfast should account for almost 1/3 of your daily intake while your last meal can be smaller and a bit lighter in terms of caloric volume.

Eating 2-3 large meals a day when you are hungry can cause the body to store more fat whereas eating the smaller meals throughout the day can provide the body with more energy and the fuel it needs to recover, build, and grow.


Athletes Looking To:

Maintain Lean Mass & Weight

Male: 17-23 calories per pound of bodyweight. Example 200 lb. x 17 calories= 3,400 calories to maintain bodyweight depending on activity level.

Female: 16-30 calories per pound of bodyweight. Example 130 lb. x16 calories= 2,080 calories to maintain bodyweight depending on activity level.


Gain Lean Mass & Body Weight

Eating every 2-3 hours throughout the day with proteins and carbs spread evenly throughout the day in each meal. Over eating during the day or skipping a meal can inhibit the body from not using the proteins or carbs efficiently and can slow lean mass growth.


Eating within an hour on both sides (1 hour before, 1 hour after) of your training session has shown to increase lean mass gain and enhance muscle growth.


Suggestions show that eating at the least 10-20g of protein post workout along with carbs in a 3-1 ratio (3-1 carbs to proteins) help with lean mass gain.


Consuming nutrient dense foods high in calories has been shown to help build lean mass. Eating a higher calorie diet does not mean fast food..


They key to gaining muscle is through strength training; the protein and carbs are needed for muscle repair and growth.


You should take in 1.2 -2.0 grams of high quality protein per kg body weight per day. 


An extra 350-700 calories a day would support a 1-2 lb. weekly gain in lean tissue as well as meet the energy requirements for training.


Lose Weight & Gain Lean Mass

Eating every 2-3 hours throughout the day with proteins and carbs spread evenly throughout the day in each meal. Over eating during the day or skipping a meal can inhibit the body from not using the proteins or carbs efficiently and can slow lean mass growth.


Eating within an hour on both sides (1 hour before, 1 hour after) of your training session has shown to increase lean mass gain and enhance muscle growth.


Suggestions show that eating at the least 10-20g of protein post workout along with carbs in a 3-1 ratio (3-1 carbs to proteins) help with lean mass gain.


Reducing 350-700 calories a day would support a 1-2lb. weekly loss. The maximum rate of fat loss is about 1% of body mass per week.

Predicted energy needs are typically your body weight x10 so for example for myself,

weight 240x10 would require about 2400kcal for my estimated base energy needs.


Key Take Aways

Consistency is key!

Being consistent with your diet will help you understand more of what your body needs and when, this will allow you to troubleshoot issues as they arise when you feel your performance has dipped or you feel a little more lethargic than normal.


Failing To Prepare Is Preparing To Fail

If you don't plan ahead, whether it be before practice, or games when you are on the go, you could be in a situation where you are lacking nutrients to perform at your highest level.


Breakfast

Breakfast is key in you starting out your day. Breakfast provides key nutrients after sleep and can help boost metabolism and kick start some energy for the day,

MAKE TIME FOR IT!


Meal Timing

Athletes should eat 5-6 meals per day every 2-3 hours with the most important meal being BREAKFAST. Eating only 2-3 times per day can make it difficult to meet nutrition needs, especially as an athlete.


Fluids

Before a competition or training, athletes should look to consume 16oz of fluids and during training/competition continue to hydrate by drinking anywhere from 6-10oz of fluids. Believe it or not, mild dehydration can impact an athletes ability to physically and mentally perform in competition or training.




Resources

“Sports Nutrition Manual - Ohio State Buckeyes.” Ohio State Sports Nutrition Manual, Ohio State University, https://ohiostatebuckeyes.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/SportsNutritionManual.pdf


Parcon, Abby. “College Student-Athletes, Food, and Nutrition.” CollegeXpress, https://www.collegexpress.com/articles-and-advice/athletics/articles/essential-athlete-tips/nutrition-athletes/.


“Athlete Nutritional Guidelines.” Dartmouth College Athletics, Dartmouth College, https://dartmouthsports.com/sports/2019/3/18/210545801.


“Learn How to Eat Healthy with Myplate.” MyPlate, USDA, https://www.myplate.gov/.


Evita Basilio, RD. “A Guide to Meal Planning for Student Athletes.” That Clean Life, Blog, 13 Apr. 2022, https://blog.thatcleanlife.com/nutrition-planning-for-student-athletes/.


“Healthy Eating Plate.” Harvard Healthy Eating Plate, Harvard, https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-eating-plate/.











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