Rachel Brewer, MD

Fueling for optimal performance – nutrition tips for athletes

It’s no secret that a healthy diet will help your child power through their games, but what does a healthy diet entail? Kids need enough fuel to participate in sports and they need enough of what’s called energy availability, says Brooke Pengel, MD. A proper balance of carbohydrates, proteins and fats is the most important part of a healthy diet because it allows young athletes to perform and recover. And when it comes to encouraging a healthy diet — planning is key.

What are the risk factors for poor performance?

Along with other factors, inadequate energy availability and poor nutrition can cause you to never reach your performance potential in any sport you pursue. Poor nutrition also lends to inadequate recovery and ongoing fatigue, which will never allow you to perform to the best of your ability.

How can proper nutrition help my performance?

Enhancing and practicing the nutritional aspect of your sport will decrease recovery time, increase your energy/stamina, improve your overall health, and allow you to perform at the top of your game. Nutrition can ultimately be your “secret weapon.”

How many calories do I need?

The answer to this depends on your daily activity level as well as size/weight. The important principles to remember are that an athlete’s caloric needs change from day to day depending on the current intensity of training, type of sport, and body size.

How much protein, carbohydrates, and fat?

As a general rule, athletes need 60 percent of their caloric intake from carbohydrates, 15 percent from protein, and 25 percent from fat. This can vary depending on your type of training and sport.

What is so important about carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are an essential element of the athlete’s diet and are the basis for your fuel tank. They are easily digestible and prevent early fatigue and energy. If your fuel tank is light on carbohydrates, your body will break down muscle to use protein as fuel.

When should I eat a more protein rich diet?

Protein is a key component in the recovery phase of your diet after hard workouts or competition. Also, higher intensity sports typically require higher protein needs. However, more is not always better. Your body can only digest approximately 20-30 grams of protein every 3-4 hours. Athletes need a wide range of protein depending on sport (0.5-1.1 grams per pound of body weight per day).

Should I cut fat from my diet?

No. Fat is also a fuel source during exercise, and eating too little fat (less than 25-30 grams per day) is detrimental. You should focus on eating the healthier fats such as unsaturated fats.

How should I eat during competition or game day?

In general, you should focus on fueling your tank with carbohydrates during competition. Continue to take in calories during your actual sport, with the goal of consuming 100-300 calories/hour depending on your weight and sport. These calories can be from liquid or solid sources.

Helpful resources

  • Eatright.org: find registered dieticians in your area.
  • Myplate.gov: create individualized meal plans based on weight, height, sex, and activity level at no cost.

Estimated Daily Calorie Needs for Competitive Athletes*

Training Intensity Calories per pound of body weight Example: 160 lbs
Low (minimal exercise or injured) 13-15 2080-2400 calories/day
Limited (training 30- 60min, 5-6 times/week) 16-18 2560-2880 calories/day
Moderate (training 1.5 hours, 5-6 times/week) 19-21 3040-3360 calories/day
High (training 1.5-2 hours, 5-6 times/week) 22-24 3520-3840 calories/day
Very High (training 2-3 hours, 5-6 times/week) 25-30 (or more) 4000-4800 calories/day

Estimated Daily Carbohydrate Needs for Competitive Athletes*

Training Intensity Grams of carbohydrates per pound of body weight
Moderate duration/low intensity 2.3-3.2 grams
Moderate-heavy duration/high intensity 3-4.5 grams
Heavy duration/high intensity (longer than 4-5 hours) 3.6-5.5 grams

Game Day Nutrition Strategy*

Timeline Nutritional Focus
Day prior –Focus on complex carbohydrates
–Limit fat, fiber, hard to digest foods
4-6 hours before competition –Focus on complex carbohydrates
–Hydrate well
2-3 hours before competition –Complex carbohydrates, moderate sized snack
1 hour before competition –More simple carbohydrates, small snack
30 minutes before competition –Simple carbohydrates
During competition (greater than 1 hour) –Simple carbohydrates
–100-300 calories/hour
Post-game recovery –Increase protein intake
–4:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio

Hydration Strategy

Timeline Hydration Intake
Assess level of hydration –Intake
–Urine color: light (lemonade) vs dark (apple juice)
Before activity –2 hours prior: drink 2 cups (16oz)
–15min prior: drink 1 cup (8oz)
During activity –1 cup (8oz) every 15 min (32oz per hour)
After activity –Within 2 hours: 2 cups (16oz) per lb of weight loss
Sports drinks are beneficial if exercise exceeds one hour.  

*These are estimated needs and can vary by sport and individualized athlete. Consulting a registered dietician is recommended.