Eating for Exercise & Sports
Whether you’re a recreational exerciser or an elite athlete, your eating patterns can greatly impact your ability to train hard and achieve your goals. 

Read on to learn…
  • What role do carbohydrate, fat, and protein play in fueling your body?
  • Do you need to consume sports drinks, or is plain water enough?
  • What should you eat (and/or drink) before, during, and after intense exercise for optimal performance and recovery?
  • Will taking extra vitamins and minerals give you a competitive edge?
  • Do fat burner and muscle builder supplements work? And, are they safe?
Fueling Nutrients: Carbohydrate, Fat, & Protein
Your body’s fuel (both at rest and during exercise) comes from three energy-containing nutrients in foods: carbohydrate, fat, and protein. Let’s briefly review each one’s role in exercise performance and how each one contributes to a winning sports nutrition game plan.

Carbohydrate: The master fuel to go and keep going!
The carbohydrate in foods is broken down to glucose (blood sugar). Glucose can be used immediately for energy or converted to glycogen and stored in the liver and muscle tissue. Muscle glycogen provides immediate fuel for exercising muscles. Contrary to popular belief, carbohydrates are NOT fattening. Only if carbohydrate intake exceeds the body’s immediate energy needs and glycogen storage capacity, will the excess be converted to fat and stored in adipose tissue.

Carbohydrate is particularly important for athletes and very active people because it is the body’s preferred and most efficient source of energy. In fact, it is the only fuel your muscles can use during short and/or very intense power and speed activities, like weight lifting and sprinting (since fat breakdown takes too long and requires too much oxygen). In addition, carbohydrate is the “limiting fuel” during long endurance events, like distance running and cycling (since the body can’t break down fat in the absence of carbohydrate). Further, a high carbohydrate eating plan helps preserve lean body mass (since more protein is broken down when inadequate carbohydrate is available for energy). 

So, a high carbohydrate eating plan (about 60-65% of total calories) is critical for maintaining optimal muscle glycogen stores, maximizing performance in ALL types of physical activities, and sparring protein from breakdown. Be sure to include carbohydrate at each meal and also before, during, and after exercise sessions. Nutrient-rich food sources include: 100% whole wheat or whole grain breads, cereals, and crackers; granola bars and sports bars made with whole grains (e.g. Nature Valley granola bars and Clif bars); brown rice and whole wheat pasta; beans, potatoes, corn, and other starchy vegetables; fruits and 100% fruit juices; and low fat milk, yogurt, and pudding. Click here for more info about carbohydrate. 

Fat: A concentrated fuel and important source of essential fatty acids!
The fat in foods is broken down to fatty acids. Just like carbohydrate, these fatty acids can be used immediately for energy and (to some extent) stored in the muscles for later use. Contrary to popular belief, eating fat does NOT make you fat. Fat is only stored as adipose tissue when total calorie intake exceeds daily needs.

Fat provides a more concentrated source of energy than carbohydrate or protein (providing 9 calories per gram vs. 4 calories per gram), so it is especially useful for athletes with very high calorie needs who have difficulty maintaining weight during high volume training cycles. In addition, fat is the body’s primary fuel source at rest and during long, low to moderate intensity activities (like long distance walks or bike rides) when lots of oxygen is available. And, fat is essential for healthy brain function, production of sex hormones, and absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and phytonutrients (like beta carotene and lycopene). 

Athletes and very active people should generally aim for about 20-25% of total calories from fat. For better health, choose mostly unsaturated fats from olive or canola oils, oil-based salad dressings, avocado, nuts, seeds, peanut butter, olives, and fatty fish. Limit foods with a high concentration of saturated and/or trans fats like red meat, chicken skin, whole fat milk, cheese, and ice cream, butter, margarine, sour cream, fried foods, and processed foods made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. Click here for more info on fat.

Protein: The building block for muscle strength & power!
The protein in foods is broken down to amino acids. Usually these amino acids are NOT used for energy, but instead they are used for tissue maintenance, repair, and growth. But, if adequate energy is not available from carbohydrate and fat, then amino acids will be used for fuel. 

Protein provides the building blocks for all the body’s cells, including immune cells, skin cells, blood cells, and muscle cells. Both endurance and strength/power athletes need more protein than inactive people (0.6-0.8 g vs. 0.4 g per pound of body weight). But, most athletes can achieve their higher needs by just eating regular whole foods. In most cases, expensive protein powders, shakes, and bars are not necessary. Many athletes tend to overdo it with protein (especially men trying to build muscle mass), while others tend to barely meet their needs (especially vegetarians and women restricting their calorie intake for weight control). When adequate protein is not consumed from foods, the body starts breaking down its own muscle tissue. This will certainly hurt your strength, power, and performance. 

Athletes and very active people should generally aim for about 15-20% of total calories from protein. To ensure adequate protein intake, it’s a good idea to include a protein-rich food with every meal. It’s also important to include some protein (along with carbohydrate) immediate after intense exercise to promote optimal muscle repair and growth. Good food sources include skinless turkey or chicken breast, fish, very lean meats, beans, tofu and other soy products, egg whites, low fat milk, yogurt and cheese, and nuts. Click here for more info on protein and to calculate your exact protein needs based on your size and fitness goals.

Fluids: Time out for a drink!
Drinking too little and sweating a lot are HUGE concerns for athletes and very active individuals, especially during the hot summer months. Dehydration can hurt exercise performance and seriously threaten health.

Unlike the general population, athletes need to drink on schedule rather than just rely on thirst. Specifically, athletes should follow these guidelines for drinking before, during, and after exercise:
  • All day, everyday, carry a water bottle with you, and drink often. Check your urine to make sure it’s very dilute and pale yellow, not dark and concentrated. This is a good indicator of whether or not you are drinking enough.
  • Before exercise, drink 16 oz (2 hours before) and then another 8 oz. (15 minutes before).
  • During exercise, drink ~8 oz. every 15-20 minutes.
  • After exercise, drink at least 16 oz. (preferably 24 oz.) for every pound of water weight lost.
Do you need a sports drink?
If you’ll be exercising for under an hour, plain water is just fine. But, if you’re going to be training or competing intensely for longer than an hour, it’s definitely important to choose a sports drink with a little carbohydrate (like Gatorade) instead of just plain water. After 60-90 minutes of intense exercise, glycogen stores become depleted, so the extra carbohydrate is critical for maintaining blood sugar levels and high intensity performance. Another benefit of sports drinks is their sodium content (which keeps you feeling thirsty) and their good taste (which makes you want to drink more). 

Click here for more information about water, along with some helpful facts about beverages containing caffeine and alcohol.

Timing Fuel: What to Eat Before, During, & After Exercise
What can you eat before hard practices that won’t make you feel “heavy” and sick? How should you eat during long games or all-day competitions to stay energized? What’s the best thing to eat immediately after a hard work out to refuel you body and promote muscle repair and growth? Click here to get the latest recommendations on what to eat before, during, and after intense exercise. 

Vitamins & Minerals: Do Athletes Need More?
For the most part, exercise does not increase your vitamin needs. Exercise burns calories, not vitamins. Plus, keep in mind that the more you exercise, the more calories (i.e. food) you need to eat. So many athletes automatically take in extra vitamins with the larger quantities of food they consume.

There is very little evidence to date that vitamin/mineral supplementation (in excess of the normal daily requirement) improves athletic performance. However, if you have a vitamin/mineral deficiency (like iron deficiency), then yes, a supplement will boost your performance. Athletes at high risk for vitamin/mineral deficiencies include those who…
  • eat very poorly (e.g. fast food diet)
  • are following a very low calorie diet
  • have an eating disorder or disordered eating patterns
  • are allergic or intolerant to certain foods (e.g. milk, wheat…)
  • follow a strict vegan diet.
While it IS possible to meet (or even exceed) your vitamin/mineral needs with foods alone, the American Medical Association recommends that all adults take a simple multi vitamin/mineral supplement to ensure adequate intakes. There is no harm in doing this, and there may be significant benefits. 

Keep in mind that mega doses of certain vitamins (and most minerals) are not harmless, but can result in toxic effects. If you decide to take a vitamin/mineral supplement as health insurance, choose a simple multi that supplies close to 100% (or less) of the Daily Value (DV) for most nutrients. Men should look for a multi that contains less (or zero) iron since men only need 8 mg per day (while women need 18 mg per day). The DVs on food/supplement labels are set at the highest level needed for any age/sex group. So, for iron, 100% of the Daily Value is 18 mg. 

IMPORTANT NOTE: When deciding whether or not to take a multi, be sure to consider your intake of fortified foods (especially fortified cereals, sports bars, and meal replacement drinks). These foods may be fortified with 30-100% of the DV for many nutrients. If you regularly consume one or more of these types of fortified products, you may not need a multi on top of that. Remember, in the case of vitamins/minerals, more is not necessarily better.

Click here for more info about vitamins and minerals.

Dietary Supplements & Nutrition/Sport Bars

Muscle Builders
Click on the link above to learn…
  • How much protein and amino acids you really need to build muscle.
  • If creatine is the magic bullet it is claimed to be.
  • Whether or not andro and other pro-hormone supplements offer safe and effective alternatives to anabolic steroids.
  • What are the keys to achieving optimal muscle strength and mass?
  • Is there a genetic limit to how much muscle you can gain?
Fat Burners
Click on the link above to learn…
  • Whether the active ingredients in fat burner products are effective and safe.
  • Are the new “ephedra-free” products really better and safer alternatives?
  • What are the keys to losing body fat and keeping it off for good?
  • Is there a genetic limit to how lean and shredded you can get?
Nutrition & Sport Bars
Click on the link above to learn…
  • Whether nutrition bars are superior to regular whole foods.
  • If there are hidden dangers in some of these bars.
  • How to include nutrition bars in your eating plan.

Sheri Barke, MPH, RD 
COC, Student Health & Wellness Center
Rev. 2005