Foods and fuel for performance

Athletes recognize the importance of training for their sport. What some fail to recognize is that their nutrition is just as important as their physical training. An athlete's body needs the proper fuel, both food and fluids, to perform.

Foods an athlete consumes should come from a variety of sources. Carbohydrate, protein, and fat are all keys to a fueling diet.

Healthy carbohydrates for athletes

Carbohydrate is the body's main fuel during physical activity.

Foods that contain healthy amounts of carbohydrates

  • Fruits 
  • Vegetables 
  • Milk
  • Yogurt 
  • Whole grains

These can be part of pre- and post-competition meals and/or snacks. The time after exercise is crucial for replenishing the stores of energy used during exercise.

Adequate protein for athletes

Protein is also important for athletes. Protein should be part of each meal. 

Good sources of protein include

  • Fish 
  • Lean meats (loin or round cuts)
  • Poultry 
  • Eggs 
  • Dairy
  • Nuts 
  • Soy 
  • Peanut butter

Healthy fats for athletes

Finally, fat is an important component of a healthy diet as well. Fats provide lasting energy.

The best fats are unsaturated 

  • Canola oil
  • Olive oil 
  • Avocado 
  • Nuts 
  • Seeds

Eat food over taking supplements

Foods, not supplements, are the best sources of fuel. Supplements are generally expensive, have a poor taste, and still don't measure up to the nutrient quality of foods. Supplements such as energy bars can be used if an athlete is struggling to maintain weight during intense training or when balancing school and practice. However, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich can provide just as much energy as a bar.

Energy drinks generally contain large amounts of sugar and caffeine. The sugar gives an athlete quick energy but usually causes them to "crash" at the end of practice or competition. The caffeine can have sideeffects as well, such as feeling anxious or jittery.

Hydration is the key to success

Fluids are also a key to peak performance. To stay fully hydrated it's best to stick to a schedule that includes two cups fluid at least two hours before practice or competition, one cup 15 minutes before, 1/2 to one cup every 15 minutes during practice or competition, and post exercise two to three cups for each pound lost during exercise. In general, active teens will need nine to as much as 15 cups of fluid each day. All fluids are hydrating so a glass of juice with breakfast and milk with other meals is part of the total recommendation.

Consuming sports drinks

Sports drinks can also be used as part of fluid intake. Their advantage is taste. Many athletes prefer the flavor of a sports drink to plain water and will therefore drink more and stay hydrated. Sports drinks are necessary when activities last 60 minutes or longer and also work well during activities that have multiple events in one day. When choosing a sports drink, look for one that contains 14 grams of carbohydrate, 100 mg sodium, and no carbonation for eight ounces of total content.

Last reviewed: 
February 2017

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