Nutrition for Athletes: How to Eat for Optimum Performance

While physical exercises and training are mostly recommended to athletes for excellent performance in their respective fields, the power of a healthy meal is just as crucial to achieving this feat. In fact, experts have argued that nutrition for athletes comes before training on the scale of importance as the latter is heavily dependent on the former.

A healthy meal for athletes is as regular as what every other healthy person eats. Only that while doctors tell regular people to avoid calories, athletes need more calories to achieve bodybuilding via physical training and exercises. Essentially, balanced nutrition for athletes means getting enough calories, minerals, and vitamins and staying hydrated always. 

While there are no generally imposed meal choices for athletes, every athlete should take more or less of some food types depending on certain factors. These factors include the following:

  • The Sport Type
  • The Tenacity of the training
  • The training length. 
  • The athletes’ age
  • The athlete’s weight and height.

This article explains how athletes can improve their performance in training and on the field by maintaining a diet and eating habit that meets all their nutritional requirements in the right proportions. 

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How to Improve Your Diet

The factors listed above explain why athletes can have varying requirements regarding food types. However, what all athletes have in common is the need to burn and replace calories. Too many calories have been attributed to extreme weight gain in humans. While non-athletes need between 1,500 and 2,000 calories per day, athletes, because of their intense training, need about 3,000.

It is noteworthy that calories aren’t the only meal component athletes need. They also need vitamins, minerals, and enough water. For complete physical health and optimum performance, these meals must be taken in a balanced measure and at certain intervals.

Why is Nutrition Important?

Healthy nutrition for athletes is not only recommended for sporting sakes. There are several other benefits of eating regular healthy meals. These include:

  • Ability to train for longer periods
  • Reduced fatigue
  • Improved athlete performance
  • Faster recovery from injuries.
  • Athletic body structure
  • Great mental energy.

That said, let’s dive into the details of nutritional requirements for athletes.


These are nutrients the human body demands in large amounts. According to experts, a healthy meal is not complete without at least one macronutrient. Athletes need them to build up the high amounts of energy they burn during training. It is also noteworthy that the amount of these nutrients used depends on the intensity and duration of the athletes’ training. Macronutrients are often referred to as calories and are grouped into three main classes: Carbohydrates, fat, and protein.


Stored as glycogen primarily in the muscles and liver, carbohydrates have the highest concentration of calories needed by the body. They are often referred to as fuel, as they are the primary source of energy needed for intense exercise and training. 

Complex carbohydrates are the best energy provider in the long run because it takes the body more time to break them down. The best sources of these carbs include whole-grain bread, rice, potatoes, yams, and oatmeal. On the other hand, simple carbohydrates are easy to break down. Carbs like fruits, milk, and vegetables fall under this category. Regardless of the type, it is advised that 60% of calories should come from carbohydrates. 


Besides the energy derived from nutrition by athletes for optimum performance, the body also needs proteins to provide the appropriate amounts of amino acids needed to build and repair muscles and tissues. Protein should take up about 15% of calories in a daily meal. However, you must keep your protein intake is kept under check. Contrary to popular opinion, a high-protein diet can harm your body. According to a study, more than 50% of Americans consume double the protein needed for optimal health. Examples of healthy sources of protein are meat, milk, lentils, fish, eggs, beans, seafood, and nuts. 


The body needs fatty acids to complete some metabolic processes for optimum health. To achieve this, the body needs fat to absorb fat-soluble vitamins, including vitamins A, D, E, and K. Fat also acts as an energy source, but the body cannot easily use this energy. Hence, calories in carbs should not be replaced with fat, as this can lead to adverse body effects, especially for an athlete.

Fats should make up only 30% of the source of calories because the body takes more time to break down fat than other food sources. Too much fat or a high saturated fat level can cause health problems for athletes. Healthy sources of fats include nuts, avocados, dairy products, fish, seeds, olives, etc.


Micronutrients are the opposite of macronutrients. They are also highly essential body nutrients, only that they are needed in little amounts. Micronutrients are classified into two main classes: vitamins and minerals, which contain meals rich in calcium, potassium, fiber, and iron. 

Key vitamins such as A, C, and E should be consumed daily as they help in metabolic processes, cell repairs, energy synthesis, blood flow, etc. Conversely, minerals help in bone growth, fluid balance, and meal digestive processes. Both vitamins and minerals help with energy metabolism, oxygen delivery, body structure repair, and oxidative injury protection.

While there are no specific recommendations for the micronutrient intake of athletes, several studies reveal their vitamins and minerals requirement can be met just by consuming a regular balanced diet. 

Staying Hydrated

The campaign on the importance of hydration for optimal health never gets old, and the same applies to athletes. The human body is made up of 60% of water. However, during vigorous exercise, training, and sports activities, the body loses water as sweat. The International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) reveals that a person’s performance is affected if they lose two percent of their body weight via sweating.

One of the best signs of dehydration is colored urine and a thirsty feeling. However, you shouldn’t wait till you are dehydrated before you replace your body fluid. It is recommended that athletes take water every fifteen to twenty minutes. You can also take other drinks like milk to compensate for lost nutrients through sweat. However, you shouldn’t drink too much water and must avoid caffeinated drinks at all costs.

Ideal Meal Intervals

Meal intervals are important for effective athletic performance. Beyond knowing what to eat, you must also pay attention to when and how much to eat. For starters, you must avoid starving before eating your next meal as this could make you eat more than you ought to. You must also avoid exercising immediately after eating. The ideal eating time is one to four hours before and two hours after training. 

Also, the ISSNTrusted Source and ACSM have recommended that athletes’ meals be spaced every three to four hours. Eating within too close intervals can cause indigestion, reducing athletes’ performance in training or on the field. For a game day, the ideal interval is about three to four hours ahead. 

How much food is Ideal for you?

For every person whose goal is to attain balanced physical health, including athletes, the food intake portion is as important as the food itself. The food portion may depend on the athlete’s weight gain or loss journey. Whichever they choose, the meal portion must follow a constant and healthy pattern. Athletes should avoid sudden weight loss and gain, as this may affect their performance and overall health. 

Also, you should reach out to a dietitian for a properly measured food portion, as several factors need to be considered to reach a standard conclusion. These factors include:

  • Gender
  • Sports type
  • Age
  • Weight
  • Height
  • The intensity of your training.

As much as you think you know the amount of food intake your body needs as an athlete, you don’t. Therefore, avoid planning your nutrients yourself, as you will likely take in more or fewer nutrients than your body needs for optimum performance. 

Nutrition for Sport Type

One of the major determining factors of athletes’ nutrition requirements is the type of sport they are involved in. For instance, while athletes who do more intense sports need to consume high-energy foods, they must be careful, as eating these food types immediately before intense sports activity can result in gastrointestinal problems. For instance, the ISSA advises that competitive swimmers avoid easily digestible carbohydrates like bananas or pasta before events to avoid gastrointestinal problems. 

Overall, it is recommended that athletes work with a registered dietician to make sure they eat the right diet required by their sport type in appropriate proportions.

Meal Options

For athletes and every other person who needs optimum physical performance, meals are not meant to be consumed just for eating’s sake but to meet specific nutrient requirements. Athletes are expected to eat whole meals instead of processed food to achieve this. For instance, whole grains and carbohydrates rich in fiber are usually recommended to all athletes regardless of their age and the sports they take. 

However, some people can cut down to simpler carbohydrates with lower fiber immediately before an intense game day or training.

The table below provides a general example of meal combinations of breakfast, lunch, and evening meals for athletes. Note that meal portions may depend on each athlete’s age, sex, weight, and sport level.

Breakfast Lunch Dinner
Eggs: Boiled, poached, or scrambled. Spinach, Bagel, whole grain bread, salmon, Greek yogurt, banana with almond butter. Grilled chicken, brown rice, green beans, cherry tomatoes, apple with peanut butter, and broccoli Turkey with sweet potato, beans, chili, peppers, drizzled avocado salad, whole grain cracker, and smoothie.


Game day nutrition

While athletes usually have selected planned nutrition all year, meal types, timing, and portions may be forced to change as the game day gets near. However, one thing you shouldn’t do a few weeks before your game day is to try a new diet. If for any reason, you want to try a new diet, it should be during the training period. This gives your body enough time to adjust. 

Athletes should generally reduce their meals to smaller portions as game day approaches. Also, they need to reduce the intake of dairy, fibrous carbohydrates, and fatty meals. Many studies have proven that relying on the food benefits from the organizers of sporting events can be a huge meal disaster for athletes. Hence, athletes are advised to pack their meals while traveling to any sporting event.

It is also noteworthy that moving from one location to another takes a lot of physical and mental energy. Therefore, athletes need to constantly refill the energy they burn while traveling by snacking and hydrating in transit. 

For a great energy-filled meal, pack meals with low fat such as low-fat cheese, lean meat, build eggs, vegetables, beans soup, wheat bagels with peanut butter, tortilla wraps with veggies, no sugar cereal, fruits, milk, pasta, and grilled chicken. 

While athletes are often aware of the meal they need when game day draws near, they don’t often know which to avoid. For instance, chicken may be recommended to athletes, but what type? Boiled, fried, or grilled? 

Below is a table that compares healthy meals for athletes and not-so-healthy ones.

Healthy Not Healthy
Grilled chicken, grilled turkey, and grilled fish Fried chicken, fried turkey, and fried fish
Vegetables, fruits, veggie soup  French fries, fried rice, cheese sauce
Nuts, trail mix, peanut butter Chips, pork rinds, cheese curls.
Lean beef or pork Sausage, hotdogs, Burgers, Bacon
Rice, whole grain bread White bread
Dairy with little or no sugar Dairy with excess sugar



As an athlete, you must not underestimate the place of a well-planned diet in optimizing your physical and mental health for optimum performance in your field. As you develop a plan for consuming required nutrients in appropriate proportions, you should also remember that hydration, meal timing, and meal portions are important. 

Overall, every athlete will make the most of their nutrition by seeking the help of a registered dietician to help them plan balanced meals tailored to individual specifications.