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Sports Nutrition for Athletes and Active People

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By: Caitlyn Campbell MPH, RD

Sports nutrition isn’t just for collegiate and professional athletes. Everyday people who lead an active lifestyle can benefit from the knowledge of fueling for sport. Lack of proper nutrition can have long-term, devastating impacts on the body, whether intentional or not. People often are sold this idea that they have to “earn” their food through exercise and that could not be further from the truth. Think about the energy that it takes to think, pump blood through your body, the energy it takes for your intestines, liver, and kidneys to regulate your body’s intake of nutrients and excretion of waste, and the energy required for every muscle contraction involved in getting through the day, no matter how small. All of these bodily functions add up! 

We often hear the word, “metabolism” just thrown around, but really it’s just another way of referring to all the chemical processes that turn food and drinks into energy for our bodies. Our basal metabolic rate, thermogenic effect of food (the energy it takes to digest food, yes that’s right, eating also requires energy), and physical activity all come together to create our total energy needs. Basal metabolic rate (BMR) is the energy we would need if we were basically confined to a bed all day. BMR is also the greatest contributor to our total energy needs (roughly 70%). What does that mean? Even if you were not engaged in regular daily activities and were confined to a bed, you would still need a lot of energy to lay there.

How does this all relate to sports? Total energy needs from physical activity is only about 20%. However, when we move more, that needs to be accounted for. Physical activity isn’t just defined by going to the gym. It’s the daily movement we engage in to get through the day. If you are someone who chooses/is able to engage in movement beyond activities of daily living, there are things you can do nutritionally to improve your energy levels and athletic performance. Below are some sports nutrition basics to try out!

Nutrient Timing

Nutrient timing is extremely important for those engaging in frequent physical activity such as running, weight lifting, cycling, hiking, or other sports. Nutrient timing can help ensure that you are fueling your body appropriately so that your body can perform its best at the activities you love.

3-4 hours Before Exercise: Enjoy a Meal

  • Eat a combination of foods high in carbohydrates, moderate in protein, lower in fat and fiber 
  • Fat and fiber are necessary nutrients but before a practice, exercise class, lift, or run, a high fat or fiber meal can cause gastrointestinal distress
  • Hydrate with at least 16-20 oz of fluids

30-60 Minutes Before a Workout: Enjoy a Snack

  • Focus on simple, easily digestible carbohydrates

During Exercise: Hydrate and Carbs

  • For brief or low intensity workouts of 45 minutes or less, you can stick to water
  • For longer workouts of 45-75 minutes like a run or a field sport, it is smart to incorporate a carbohydrate containing electrolyte beverage such as Gatorade
  • For sustained endurance activities lasting 1-2.5 hours continue the sports drink and consider adding additional easily-digested carbohydrates like energy chews/gels, candy, bananas, raisins, etc. Aim to have 30-60 grams of carbs per hour: 1 packet of energy chews or gel, 1-2 bananas, 1-2 handfuls of raisins.

Post-Exercise 30-60 Minutes Later: Get that Glycogen!

  • Glucose comes from starches which can be found in grains, fruit, legumes/vegetables, candy, etc.
  • Glycogen is the storage form of glucose, stored in our muscles and liver
  • Glucose is our body’s preferred energy source and we rely on glycogen to maintain stable, safe, blood glucose levels
  • Low blood glucose can lead to fainting and seizures
  • During exercise, often that heavy, sluggish feeling can be the result of not having enough glycogen stored in our muscles
  • After endurance activities, you have roughly 60 minutes to replenish your glycogen stores otherwise your body won’t store it as effectively and you risk that tired, sluggish feeling at the next day’s practice/workout. The sooner you eat the better.
  • Aim for high-carb snacks with a protein element
    • The goal is to: Refuel (carbs), Repair (protein), and Rehydrate (water, electrolyte beverages)
    • Salty snacks are great post workout for extra electrolytes 
    • Example snacks include a chocolate milk and trail mix, banana with pretzels and cheese sticks, or Gatorade with a protein bar

Post-Exercise 3-4 Hours Later: Enjoy a Meal and Hydrate!

  • Meals should contain carbohydrates, protein, and fats. It’s important to prioritize carbs as about half your plate on those higher-intensity days. Protein and produce should each take up about ¼ of your plate. Get fats in where you can, adding them into starches or cooking your proteins and produce with oil or butter. Consider adding yogurt or a glass of milk for bone health.

Under Fueling

If you notice you have lost your menstrual cycle, are getting frequent injuries, are feeling lethargic, noticing decreases in strength or performance, are experiencing frequent light-headedness or dizziness, having difficulty concentrating or experiencing memory loss, consider reaching out to a registered dietitian. These are some of the possible indications that you are under-fueling for your sport. You don’t need to be a professional athlete to prioritize your health and nutrition.  Experiencing one or more of those symptoms is your body communicating to you that it’s in need and registered dietitians are here to help.


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