Building a Quality Sports Diet

Maintaining a good diet is an important part of training. To optimize performance, runners must consume an adequate amount of fuel (calories) and balance their intake of the main fuel sources: carbohydrate, protein and fat.
The following sections will tell you about each fuel source and help you determine how much you need to help support your training.

Hydration

Rehydrate before, during and after each training session. Fluids prevent dehydration and allow the body to perform efficiently. Water is preferred.

• Drink 3-4 cups (24-32 oz.), 2-4 hours before activity

• Drink 2 cups (16 oz.), 1 hour before activity

• Drink during training as tolerated, and after training until satisfied

• Drink 10-12 cups (80-96 oz.) daily during training

Nutrition

Carbohydrate

Individuals participating in endurance sports (running, biking, triathlons, etc.) rely heavily on carbohydrates for fuel. If you have ever tried a low-carb diet, you may have experienced irritability, fatigue and even some trouble concentrating. This is common because our brain and central nervous system prefer to use carbohydrates for fuel.

The body has the ability to store limited amounts of carbohydrates as glycogen. During exercise, glycogen is used by the muscle for fuel. Further, consuming adequate amounts of carbohydrate has a protein sparing effect, which allows the protein that we eat to be used for rebuilding purposes and not as a fuel source.
You should adjust your daily carbohydrate intake based on your current training demands (time, intensity, etc.). For instance, on high-intensity training days, carbohydrates (breads, whole grains, pasta, rice, potatoes, beans, etc.) should fill a third of your plate. Another third of your plate should contain lean protein (skinless chicken, fish, trimmed beef, eggs, egg whites, etc.) and the last section of the plate should consist of non-starchy vegetables (salad, carrots, broccoli, peppers, etc.). Fruit can be used as a dessert after the meal.

By comparison, make sure to reduce your carbohydrate intake during periods of lower-intensity training. This can help us avoid unwanted increases in weight and body fat.
On low-intensity training days, carbohydrates should make up only a quarter of the plate or less at meals. Non-starchy vegetables and fruit should make up half your plate and lean protein should fill in the other quarter. Use the carbohydrate guidelines below to estimate the amount of carbohydrate needed to support your current training demands.

Carbohydrate Guidelines

Carbohydrates Sources
(~15 grams of carbohydrates per serving)

Protein

Protein is made up of amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks for our body’s tissues such as our hair, skin and nails. Our body also utilizes protein to make hormones, enzymes and antibodies. It’s important to consume enough protein daily to replenish our body’s amino acid pool.

Along with performing regular resistance training, consuming protein at frequent intervals throughout the day can help maintain and increase your lean body mass (muscle). You can optimize your protein intake by consuming a protein-rich meal or snack about every two to four hours. Aim for 15-25 grams of protein per meal and 10-15 grams at snacks. If you are looking to enhance your recovery time, strive to consume 20-30 grams of protein within 45 minutes of your workout. The guidelines below will help you determine the amount of protein to aim for daily.

Protein Guidelines

Protein Sources
(~7 grams of protein per serving)

Fat

Fat is a major source of fuel for athletes and active individuals. During low- to moderate-intensity exercise, the body utilizes both fat and carbohydrate for fuel. Dietary fat helps your body absorb the fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. In addition, fat is needed for producing hormones, along with providing insulation and cushioning for your vital organs.

You should determine your daily fat intake after your carbohydrate and protein needs are met. Generally, a sports diet should contain about 25 percent of calories from fat daily. Focus on consuming more monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats such as olive oil, canola oil, nuts, seeds and fish. Limit your intake of saturated fats and avoid trans-fat (partially hydrogenated fats).

Fat Guidelines

Building the Diet

After you determine the amount of fuel (carbohydrate, protein, fat) you need, it’s best to split your fuel between five or six meals daily. To maximize performance and recovery, strive to consume one of these meals approximately one to two hours pre-exercise and another meal within 30-45 minutes post-exercise. The amount of carbohydrate and protein consumed at your pre- and post-exercise meals will depend on your training intensity.

If you are looking to turn your daily fueling needs into a practical meal plan, contact Lee Hyrkas, Bellin Health registered dietitian and performance nutritionist specialist, to schedule a one-on-one session. He can be reached at Lee.Hyrkas@bellin.org.

Nutrition for Recovery

Nutrition is a critical component of a well-balanced exercise program. Research continues to reveal the importance of consuming a combination of carbohydrate- and protein-rich foods after exercise. The goals of a post-exercise meal include replenishing carbohydrate (glycogen), fluid and electrolytes, and promoting muscle repair.

Individuals should strive to consume a meal within 45 minutes after exercise. This 45-minute timeframe after exercise is often called the “window of opportunity,” due to the body’s ability to absorb nutrients more efficiently. A well-planned post-exercise meal can help optimize your results and reduce recovery time between workouts.

Post-Exercise Guidelines

After exercise, endurance athletes require a carbohydrate to protein ratio of roughly 3:1 to 4:1. Aim to consume roughly 15-25 grams of lean protein to optimize muscle building and repair.

Sample Meals:

~60 grams carbohydrates, 20 grams protein (3:1)
• 1/2 cup cottage cheese or Greek yogurt
• 1 cup sliced peaches
• 1/2 cup low-fat granola

~60 grams carbohydrates, 15 grams carbohydrates (4:1)
• 16 oz low-fat chocolate milk
• 1 banana

~75 grams carbohydrates, 25 grams protein (3:1)
• 2 oz. sliced turkey or chicken
• 2 slices whole grain bread
• 1 large apple
• 1 cup low-fat milk

Protein & Carbohydrate Sources

Fruits and Vegetables: Natural Recovery Enhancers

Regular exercise is an important factor in promoting health and preventing disease. However, exercise also has the tendency to produce free radicals (damage-producing compounds) within the body. Free radicals have the ability to damage healthy cells and muscle tissues, which can slow recovery time.

Individuals who participate in moderate- to high-intensity training programs generate higher levels of free radicals than those who do not. Thankfully, exercise and proper nutrition can enhance our body’s ability to fight these free radicals.

It is important to fuel up with foods that are high in antioxidants. Antioxidants have the ability to rid the body of free radicals before they can do damage. Well-known antioxidants include vitamins A, C and E and minerals selenium and zinc.   

Antioxidant-Rich Foods

Fruits and vegetables are one of the best sources of antioxidants. Choose a variety of colorful fruit and vegetables weekly.

The varying colors represent the different phytonutrients and antioxidants found in these foods. For example, blueberries, cherries, grapes, strawberries, raspberries, eggplant and blackberries contain a phytonutrient called anthocyanin. Anthocyanins are responsible for the color of these fruits and vegetables and can help neutralize free radicals. This phytonutrient may also reduce inflammation and increase our “good” HDL cholesterol.

Advice for Improving Recovery

Strive to eat at least 2-3 servings of fruit and 3-4 servings of vegetables per day. A medium (tennis ball)-sized piece of fresh fruit or a half cup of canned or frozen fruit is considered a serving. A serving of vegetables is equal to a half cup cooked vegetables, 1 cup raw vegetables or 2 cups of salad greens.

Consuming a diet rich in fruits and vegetables will help replenish the body’s limited stores of antioxidants. Fruits and vegetables are also a great source of carbohydrate, which is a foundation of a quality sports diet. Here are a few simple tips for increasing your consumption of fruits and vegetables:

Practical Tips:

  • Begin to pack fruits and vegetables for snacks daily
  • Blend 1-2 cups of spinach or kale into a fruit smoothie
  • Enjoy a large salad with lunch or dinner daily
  • Use fruit as a dessert most often
  • Grill vegetables to enhance flavor
  • Incorporate fruit into your pre, during and post-exercise meals
  • Bake vegetables into casserole dishes
  • Add chopped or sautéed vegetables into eggs or omelets
  • Top cereal or yogurt with fresh fruit
  • Add beans (black, kidney, pinto, etc.) to soups and casseroles

Sport Bars

Sport bars, also known as energy bars, can be used as a meal replacement or as a quick source of energy pre- or post-exercise.

With hundreds of different bars on the market, it’s difficult to know what type of bar to choose. Most have differing amounts of protein, carbohydrates and fats.

The guidelines below can help you select the right type of bar for the right circumstance. Popular brand names include Quest Bars™, Rise Bars™, PowerBars®, Strong & Kind Bars™ and Clif Bars®.

It’s important to note that sport bars should be used only as a supplement to a balanced diet. Aim for the majority of your calories to come from whole foods.