Building a Quality Sports Diet

May 20, 2019

Lee Hyrkas, a registered dietitian and performance nutrition specialist at Bellin Health, writes about improving one’s diet for optimal performance.

I often have clients ask, “How can I improve my diet?”

To keep up with your daily training regimen, you must consume an adequate amount of fuel. In order to build a quality sports diet, we must know the main sources of fuel (calories) that make up our diet. If your goal is to optimize health and performance, it’s essential to balance your intake of the main fuel sources, which include 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.

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:
o Lightly Active (30-60 minutes/day)
   1.4 – 2.3 g/lb/day  Ex: 150 lbs x 1.4 g = 210 g/day

o Moderate Intensity (60 minutes/day)
   2.3 – 3.2 g/lb/day  Ex: 150 lbs x 2.3 = 345 g/day

o Moderate to High Intensity (1-3 hours/day)
   2.7 – 4.5 g/lb/day  Ex: 150 lbs x 2.7 = 405 g/day

o Moderate to High Intensity (4-5 hours/day)
   3.6 – 5.5 g/lb/day  Ex: 150 lbs x 3.6 = 540 g/day

Carbohydrates Sources
(~15 grams of carbohydrates per serving)

• 1 slice whole grain bread
• 1 6” tortilla
• 1/2 English muffin or hamburger bun
• 3/4 cup whole grain cereal
• 1/2 cup cooked oatmeal
• 1/3 cup pasta or rice
• 1/2 sweet or baked potato
• 1/2 cup corn or peas 
• 15 grapes
• 1 medium apple
• 1/2 large banana
• 2 tangerines 
• 3/4 cup berries
• 1/2 cup 100% juice
• 1 ¼ cup milk or plain yogurt
• 1/2 cup chocolate milk 
• 1/2 cup beans
• 3 cups popcorn
• 1 whole grain granola bar
• 1/4 cup granola
• 5 Triscuit-type crackers

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:
o Endurance Athlete (0.55 – 0.65 g/lb/day)
    Ex: 150 lbs x  0.55 g = 83 g/day

o Strength/Power Athlete (0.7 – 0.8 g/lb/day)
    Ex: 150 lbs x 0.7 = 105 g/day

o Teenage Athlete (0.7 – 0.9 g/lb/day)
    Ex: 150 lbs x 0.8 = 120 g/day


Protein Sources
(~7 grams of carbohydrates per serving)

• 1 oz cheese
• 1 string cheese
• 1 oz beef, chicken, pork, turkey, etc.
• 1 oz fish
• 1/4 cup cottage cheese
• 1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt
• 3/4 cup kefir
• 1 cup milk or plain yogurt
• 2 Tbsp. peanut butter
• 1/4 cup nuts
• 1/2 cup beans (black, kidney, etc.)
• 1/2 cup shelled edamame
• 1 whole egg
• 2 egg whites
• 2 oz tofu
• 1 cup soymilk

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:
o Athletes/Active Individuals (0.36 – 0.45 g/lb/day)
    Ex: 150 lbs x 0.36 g = 54 g/day

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, please contact me to schedule a one-on-one session.

In Health,
Lee Hyrkas

Lee is a registered dietitian and performance nutrition specialist at Bellin Health. Lee’s goal is to assist every athlete and active individual in maximizing his or her athletic potential and performance.  For additional information contact  [email protected]