Why is good nutrition important for athletes?
As an athlete, your physical health is key to your active lifestyle. In the heat of the game, you depend on your strength, skill and endurance– whether you're going for the ball or making that final push across the finish line. Being the best you can be takes hours of dedicated training and practice.
But that's not all. Like a car, your body won't run without the right fuel. With your demanding exercise needs, you must take special care to make sure you're taking in enough calories, vitamins and other nutrients to keep you going strong.
How much should I eat?
The amount of food you need varies based on your age, size and sport or activity type and level. Generally, you need to consume foods that replenish the high amount of energy you burn each day.
The amount of energy provided by a food is measured in calories. Most people need between 1,500 and 2,000 calories a day. However, for many athletes, this number can increase by as much as 1,000 to 1,500 calories or more. Teen athletes, who need enough fuel for both intense training and rapid growth and development, may need as many as 5,000 calories daily.
While everyone's needs are different, you can learn over time how to balance your calorie needs in order to perform at a high level, and avoid excessive weight loss or gain.
What kind of calories should I eat?
Calories come in different forms, including carbohydrates, fats and proteins.
Carbohydrates are your body's best source of calories. Carbohydrates are found in everything from sugar to bread. There are 2 types of carbohydrates: simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates are easier for your body to break down, so they can give you a rapid burst of energy. Complex carbohydrates take longer to break down in the body. They are a better source of energy over time, just as a log burns longer and makes a better source of heat than a piece of paper. The complex carbohydrates found in whole grain products are considered the most beneficial. Examples of complex carbohydrates include whole-grain bread, potatoes, brown rice, oatmeal and kidney beans. Health professionals recommended that 55% to 60% of your daily calories come from carbohydrates.
Fat is another important source of calories. In limited amounts, fat is a necessary fuel source and serves other important functions for your health, such as supporting healthy skin and hair. However, too much fat can lead to heart disease and other health problems. Further, replacing carbohydrates in your diet with fat can slow you down, as your body must work harder to use fat for energy. Generally, fats should make up no more than 30% of your daily calories. When possible, choose unsaturated fats, such as those found in olive oil and nuts. These fats are better for your heart.
You should limit saturated fats and avoid trans fats altogether. These fats can raise your low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels, which increases your risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Nutritionists recommend that protein make up the remaining 10% to 15% of your daily calories. Protein is found in foods like meat, eggs, milk, beans and nuts. Some athletes, especially strength trainers, are often encouraged to consume large amounts of protein. While protein does play a role in building muscle, extra amounts will not cause you to bulk up. And high levels of protein consumed over time can be dangerous to your health, because metabolizing excess protein may strain your liver and kidneys.
What nutrients do I need?
You need the same 50 vitamins and minerals as everyone else. Although athletes may benefit from additional nutrients, medical professionals have not offered any specific set of guidelines. To stay healthy, just be sure the extra calories you take in each day are nutrient dense– full of calcium, iron, potassium and other healthy vitamins and minerals. Although it can be tempting to reach for junk food as an easy source of calories, focus instead on lean meats, whole grains and a variety of fruits and vegetables to fuel your body.
How should I prepare for games and events?
On game day, staying hydrated is the most important thing you can do for your performance. Your body is made up of nearly 60% water. During a workout, you can lose that fluid rapidly when you sweat.
Don't wait until you feel thirsty to drink, as thirst can signal that you are already becoming dehydrated. Taking a drink at least every 15 to 20 minutes is a good rule of thumb, but don't drink so much that you feel overfull.
Water is generally the best way to rehydrate. If your event lasts less than an hour, water is sufficient for replacing what you've lost by sweating. If you're competing for a longer period of time, you may benefit from the extra electrolytes and carbohydrates found in sports drinks. While competing, avoid energy drinks that contain caffeine, because caffeine can actually make dehydration worse, and may make you feel jittery or anxious.
Try to eat a pre-game meal 2 to 4 hours before your event. A good pre-game meal is usually higher in complex carbohydrates and lower in protein and sugar. Avoid rich and greasy foods, which may be more difficult for you to digest and cause an upset stomach. Many people find it helpful to avoid food the hour just before a sporting event, as the digestion process uses up energy.
What if I want to lose weight?
Your body needs a lot of energy, vitamins and minerals to keep you at optimal performance. Because of this, restrictive diet plans can harm your abilities and damage your health.
Without the calories provided by both carbohydrates and fat, you may not have the energy and endurance to remain competitive. Further, less food often leads to malnutrition.
Female athletes, who often face extra pressure to stay thin, can experience loss of periods and temporary infertility. Women also face an increased risk of osteoporosis, a fragile bone condition that can result in part from a lack of calcium. If you or your coach feels you need to lose weight, be sure to talk to a doctor before making major dietary changes. Your doctor can help you make good dietary choices– both for your game and your long-term health.
- KidsHealth. A Guide to Eating for Sports. Accessed 08/11/11
- LIVESTRONG.COM. he Nutritional Needs Of An Active Teenage Athlete. Accessed 08/11/11
- President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition. Questions Most Frequently Asked About Sports Nutrition. Accessed 08/11/11
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Sports Nutrition - Your Orthopaedic Connection. Accessed 08/11/11
- WebMD. What Is the Female Athlete Triad? Accessed 08/11/11
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.