General Sports Performance Nutrition for Athletes


Carbohydrates: The Master Fuel

What is a Carbohydrate?

·      Carbohydrates in their simplest form are one molecule of sugar called a monosaccharide (glucose, fructose, and galactose). When thousands of sugar molecules are bonded to each other it is called a carbohydrate, although carbohydrates can vary in the number of sugar molecules bonded to each other.


·      A lot of confusion comes from all the different names there are for sugars and carbohydrates (keeping in mind a bunch of sugars linked together is called a carbohydrate). To clear this up here is a list of all the names you may hear for carbohydrates:


         o   Glucose (dextrose): This is the most common simple sugar found in nature; this is your body’s favorite source of energy.


         o   Glycogen: This is what your body’s stored reserves of glucose are called.


         o   Galactose: This is a simple sugar that is found in milk that your body can use.


         o   Fructose: This is a simple sugar that is found in fruits and some vegetables; it is known to taste the sweetest out of all the sugars.


         o   Maltose: Remember that sugars can be linked together; when you link two glucose sugars together it is called maltose.


         o   Lactose: When you link glucose with a galactose you get the common milk sugar lactose which some people have trouble breaking apart leading to lactose intolerance.


         o   Sucrose: When you link glucose and a fructose together you get sucrose; this is what common table sugar is.


         o   Starch (aka amylopectin/amylose): When you link a bunch of maltose together you get starch; so essentially it is long complex chains of glucose. This is a plant’s form of carbohydrates; it’s what you are eating when you have a baked potato, grains, pasta, rice, etc.


         o   Maltodextrin: Short chains (~3-20) of glucose linked together that is easily digested and absorbed; usually found in meal replacement/protein shakes.


Simple vs. Complex Carbohydrates

·      Think of simple carbohydrates as the sugars listed above (glucose, galactose, fructose, maltose, lactose, and sucrose). The main complex carbohydrate you will eat will be starch. The difference being a complex carbohydrate needs to be broken down by the body a lot into those thousands of units of glucose that starch is made of to be used as fuel; it takes longer to get access to energy and recover if you have to break a bunch of bonded sugars versus if you don’t have to break any bonds (in the case of glucose, galactose, and fructose) or only one bond (in the case of maltose, lactose, and sucrose).


When to Eat Simple vs. Complex

·      Consume simple sugars as soon as you can after practice, workouts, and competition to promote recovery.


·      Most other times try to get a majority of your carbohydrates from complex sources.


·      Because 45-65% of your calories for the day need to be carbohydrates it may be necessary to have simple carbohydrates outside of times such as after practice, workouts, and games because complex carbohydrates keep you full longer. If that is the case, it is perfectly fine to consume these additional simple sugars to meet your caloric needs for the day.


So why are Carbohydrates “The Master Fuel?”

·      As you may know a carbohydrate has 4 Calories/gram and fat has 9 Calories/gram. Although you can get more energy (Calories are a measure of energy/work) per gram from a fat than a carbohydrate, it takes longer to get that energy. There is a trade-off between how much energy you can get from a substance and how fast you can get that energy.


·      A gram of fat provides a lot of energy but it takes a while to get that energy compared to carbohydrates. A gram of carbohydrates provides less energy than a gram of fat but it provides our body the energy quicker because our body can metabolize a carbohydrate faster.


·      In general, to get a lot of energy from a fuel source such as fats or carbohydrates, the body needs to use Oxygen to metabolize the fuel source (fat, protein, carbohydrate). If your body were to commit one Liter of Oxygen to metabolizing fat you would be able to do ~4.69 Calories of work, and if you committed the same amount of Oxygen to metabolizing carbohydrate you would be able to do ~5.05 Calories of work. Although 0.35 more calories difference doesn’t seem like a lot over time it adds up. The point being with the same commitment of Oxygen to metabolism you get more bang for your buck from carbohydrates.


1st Choice Carbohydrates

2nd  Choice Carbohydrates

3rd Choice Carbohydrates

Baked/Lima/Pinto/Black/Kidney Beans


Baked Potato/Tater Tots/Hash Browns

Brown Rice



Whole Wheat/Multi-Grain/Rye Bread

Sweet Potatoes

Fruit Juices/Pop/Sports Beverages



White Bread

Pita Bread

Cornbread/White Rice


Whole Grain Cereal

Whole Wheat Crackers

Highly Processed Cereals


Sweet Corn

Mashed Potatoes


***The first choice carbohydrates are the ones that have high vitamin/mineral nutritional content as well as a good deal of fiber. These can keep you fuller longer than simple carbohydrates so they may be ideal for helping you lose weight***


***The third choice carbohydrates are not necessarily bad for you; remember simple carbohydrates after workouts/practices/competitions are ideal. Additionally, some athletes have high needs for carbohydrates and will not have the desire to eat if they are full all the time. These have their place for gaining weight and promoting recovery post-activity just keep in mind that some of these choices are also high in fat content***


Protein: More doesn’t mean Better

·      Proteins are made up of a bunch of connected amino acids. There are 20 different amino acids and 10 of them our body cannot make so they must be consumed from outside protein sources.


·      Essential amino acids come from animal sources (milk, meat, cheese, etc.) or from complementary protein pairing which is where you eat a plant source that has some of the essential amino acids and another plant source that has others. Examples of complementary protein pairing would be beans and rice or peanut butter toast.


·      Our muscles as well as the transporters that move nutrients into/around the body and waste out of the body are all made from proteins. Our body is constantly replacing and repairing damaged proteins caused by working out, high temperatures and acidic conditions from working out.


·      In an attempt to sell more protein supplements supplement companies have done a good job of convincing athletes that more protein is better and it has gotten to the point where it is not uncommon to see a post-workout shake have a serving of 50-60 grams of protein in it. Your body can only utilize 20-30 grams of protein at a time; too much more than that and your body either stores it as fat or starts using the extra protein as fuel.


1st Protein Choice

2nd Protein Choice

3rd Protein Choice

90%+ Lean Ground Beef

2% Milk

75-85% Lean Ground Beef

90%+ Lean Ground Turkey

Baked Chicken Strips


Lean Ham

Peanut Butter

Beef/Pork Ribs

Low Fat Cottage Cheese

Fat Trimmed Pork Chops

Fried Chicken/Fish

Baked/Broiled/Grilled Fish

Canned Tuna in Water

Regular Cheese

Greek Yogurt



1% Milk


Chicken Patty/Nuggets


***The choice in protein is based on the protein quality, the vitamin/mineral nutrition content, as well as the fat content. Ideally you want to consume the 1st choice protein as often as possible but it is likely that will get boring so the occasional 2nd and 3rd choice protein won’t kill you, but keep those options few and far in-between***


Fat is not the Enemy:

·      Fats have gotten a bad reputation over the years because of the obesity epidemic and the health consequences of consuming too much of the wrong kinds of fats. Like most things with the human body, having too little fat in your diet is just as bad as having too much fat in the diet. Here is a list of some of the important roles fat plays in your body:


         o   Fat carries important vitamins into the body such as vitamins A, D, E, K as well as other important phytochemicals important for health and performance.


         o   Fat is an important source of energy during rest (60-80%) and low to moderate intensity exercise


         o   Fat protects your vital organs and provides insulation during cold competitions, practices, and workouts


         o   Fat in foods makes food taste better and makes you feel fuller longer; ironically you may need to consume fat in order to feel fuller in order to eat less Calories and lose weight.


·      There are several kinds of fats all of which are not created equally. They are, trans-fats, saturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, and monounsaturated fats. In general those fats are listed from the worst for you to the best for you.


         o   Trans-fats in general are rarely found in nature. Manufacturers make trans-fats because they are a cheap way to increase how long it takes for a food to go bad. Trans-fats raise your LDL (bad for you) cholesterol and lower your HDL (good) cholesterol. Most processed foods have trans-fats in them. If a food has less than 0.5 grams of trans-fats in it per serving the manufacturer is allowed to say there is 0 grams in it. If you look on a label and there is anything listed as “partially hydrogenated” then that product has trans-fats in it. You want to keep trans-fat intake to less than 1% of your daily Calories (i.e. if you are on a 2,000 Calorie diet you can have 20 Calories come from trans fats which is only 2 grams).


         o   Saturated fats come primarily from animal sources (meat, cheese, milk, butter, etc.) and from plant oils (palm oils, palm kernel oils, and cocoa butter, and coconut oils). Saturated fats will raise your LDL (bad for you) cholesterol but will raise your HDL (good) cholesterol, so it is not as bad as trans-fats. You want to try to limit your intake of saturated fats to 7-10% of the calories you need each day (i.e. if you are on a 2,000 Calorie diet you can have 140-200 Calories or 15-22 grams of saturated fats).


         o   Monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats are two of the better fats for you. Under these classes of fats are Omega-3’s (linolenic acid) and Omega-6’s (linoleic acid). Omega-3’s form hormones called eicosanoids which help dilate blood vessels, reduce inflammation in the body, and blood clotting. Omega-6’s while being essential tend to do the opposite causing increased blood clotting, inflammation, and constricting blood vessels. We have no shortage of Omega-6’s in the diet so we want to increase our Omega-3 intake. Good sources are wild rice, ground flax seeds, walnuts, salmon/tuna (fish/krill Omega-3 oils do not count), & chia seeds.


Vitamins & Minerals:

·      Vitamins and minerals play important roles in the body that help with your ability to optimally perform and without many of them your body would not even be able to function. Here are some of the things vitamins and minerals allow your body to do:


         o   B Vitamins: Assist in the break down glucose and glycogen for energy, maintenance of a healthy nervous and immune system, muscular and nervous system function (important for performance), develop hemoglobin so your body can carry Oxygen, and synthesize amino acids.


         o   Vitamin C: Helps form connective tissue such and tendons, ligaments, cartilage, bones, and teeth, acts as an antioxidant helping prevent damage to tissues from free radicals, and helps the body produce adrenaline.


         o   Vitamin E: Helps protect the body by acting as an antioxidant helping prevent damage to tissues from free radicals.


         o   Calcium: Helps maintain body weight, allows muscles to contract and nerves to function, assists with blood clotting, and bone formation.


         o   Magnesium: Is involved in the function of hundreds of enzymatic reactions, blood clotting, bone health, and possibly preventing muscle cramps.


         o   Iron: Plays a critical role in the formation of compounds that allow the body to carry Oxygen (extremely important for endurance performance).


         o   Zinc: Plays a role in healing wounds, immune system function, growth and maintenance of tissue, and synthesizing hormones and proteins


         o   Chromium: Is thought to play a role in enhancing the action of insulin and insulin sensitivity (important for the body to be able to take up nutrients).


·       If you consume a well-rounded diet you typically will not need to take any vitamin or mineral supplementation. However, as a student-athlete in college it may not always be possible to have a well-rounded diet or your dietary choices (vegetarian, vegan, etc.) may not always easily supply all the necessary vitamins and minerals. Fortunately many of the foods you eat are fortified with these vitamins and minerals and several fitness supplements are usually extensively fortified so the risk of deficiency with many of these vitamins and minerals should be minimal.


·      Although it is not common to have a vitamin and/or mineral deficiency they still happen. Here are some of the common ones and information to help with you deficiency:


         o   Many athletes, especially female athletes or vegetarians are deficient in iron and have to take iron supplements. It is important to know that iron does not absorb very well (and consequently your supplement won’t be very effective) if you take it with calcium rich foods (i.e. most dairy products), coffee/tea, and legumes (beans, peas, peanuts)/whole grains. You can increase your body’s ability to absorb iron by consuming vitamin C with an iron supplement, good sources are orange juice (if not fortified with calcium), citrus fruits, bell peppers and pineapple.


          o   If an athlete is vegetarian they are also at an increased risk of being deficient in zinc. Many plant sources are good sources of zinc but it does not absorb well with coffee, tea, legumes (beans, peas, peanuts), and whole grains. As with iron, you can increase absorption with vitamin C.


          o   Additionally, if an athlete is vegetarian they are also at an increased risk of being deficient in vitamin B12. Because vitamin B12 comes from animal sources you will need to consume fortified sources.


         o   Although creatine is not a vitamin or mineral vegetarian athletes may have a deficiency because creatine comes from animal sources. If you are a vegetarian power athlete you may need to supplement with creatine.


The Importance of Water & Fighting Dehydration

·      Nearly all major systems in the body rely on water. In fact, behind only Oxygen, water is the most important thing for maintaining life. When it comes down to it water is the essential medium required for all the metabolic chemical reactions to occur; decreased water=decreased ability of body to do its job.


·      Outside of the vital role water plays in maintaining life, some of the roles water plays in maintaining optimal performance of athletes is temperature regulation, lubricate joints, supply nutrients, and remove waste. Considering the body is ~60% water it is safe to say it is important to stay hydrated. Here are some specifics of what water does to help athletes perform optimally:


          o   Maintain balance of electrolytes (salt, potassium, and calcium) which is important considering those are needed for proper nervous system and muscular function. If you are dehydrated your muscles and nervous system will not work as efficiently


          o   Plays a role in acid-base balance in the body meaning that it plays a role in taking care of all the lactic acid you produce when you are performing hard. If you are dehydrated your body will not be able to take care of lactic acid as well and performance will suffer.


          o   Cardiovascular output during exercise will decrease because blood is mostly water; if you are dehydrated your heart will pump less blood with each beat and will have to pump harder with each beat because your blood becomes thicker resulting in decreased performance especially in aerobic sports.


          o   Temperature regulation is primarily handled through sweating which is comprised mostly of water; because most metabolic processes required for high level performance have an optimal temperature at which they can occur, if your body cannot keep your body in that optimal temperature range your performance will diminish.


          o   Storing glycogen in the body requires water to do so. If you want to store just 10 grams of glycogen in the body it will required one ounce of water to do so. If you do not have the water to do this you cannot store fuel for future performance which will set you up for diminished performance down the road as well as well as increased risk of danger to your body.


Outside of Decreased Performance Dehydration Leads to:

·      Muscle cramps

·      Increased risk of sprains and strains

·      Reduced ability to recover between workouts/competitions/practices

·      Chronic fatigue/lack of energy

·      Headaches, lightheadedness, and dizziness


Things Athletes Should Know:

·      Female athletes try to get 3 liters of water a day and male athletes 4 liters a day at a minimum.


·      On hot days with practice/performance/workouts you will need to consume significantly more water


·      Try to get 20 oz. of water a few hours before activity and an additional 8-10 oz. of water 10-20 minutes before any activity


·      When trying to reach your minimal 3 liters (females) and 4 liters (males) per day remember that you don’t have to make all of that water. Fruits, sports beverages, milk, soup, etc. are comprised mainly of water, and to an extent can go towards your fluid intake just keep in mind that there is no substitute for water and you should try to get a majority of your fluids from water.


·      Contrary to popular belief you do not want your urine to be perfectly clear you want to have a little color to it. If it is perfectly clear like water you are likely overhydrated and may be urinating out vitamins and minerals.


·      If you are taking vitamins they may make your urine yellow or darker which can mask your hydration status.


Pre-Workout Meal

·      In general, a pre-workout meal should consist of plenty of complex carbohydrates, some protein, and minimal fat.


·      This will help your body avoid a major blood sugar spikes followed by a crash at the onset of exercise.


·      You want to eat this meal 1-4 hours before your workout. There are some general guidelines for how much you should eat depending on how far away your workout is. Eat 1 gram/kg of bodyweight if the workout is one hour away, 2 grams/kg of bodyweight two hours beforehand, etc.


·      To find your bodyweight in kg take your weight in pounds and divide by 2.2.

·      As mentioned some protein is fine with this meal (~15-20 grams) while keeping fat to a minimum since both protein and fat can cause an upset stomach.


Post-Workout Meal

·      For a lot of athletes this will be a protein shake and Gatorade or some other sports drink. You want to get your post-workout feeding in as soon as possible after a workout (ideally within 30 minutes).


·      Contrary to popular belief that more is better, you only need 20-30 grams of protein after a workout regardless of size. There is a limit to how much protein your body can use at one time to recover, beyond the 20-30 grams you consume; your body will start converting additional protein to fat stores or burning it as fuel.


·      You will need to take in 3-4 times the simple carbohydrates as you did proteins. So if you took in 20 grams of protein you will need 60-80 grams of carbohydrates. An easy way to get close to this is to consume one quart (32 oz.) of regular Gatorade (not the low carbohydrate variety) which has 55 grams of sugar in it.