The Athletes Guide To Nutrition

The Athletes Guide To Nutrition

Most women seem to have one major concern in relation to nutrition: not overeating. But you’re not most women. As an athlete, your nutrition concerns range from preventing dehydration and bonking in races to minimizing post-workout muscle soreness.

There’s no shortage of sports nutrition information available to help athletes address such issues—which is a problem in itself. Every day, it seems, you hear about a new study proving the performance benefits of some bizarre eating strategy or nutrient you’ve never heard of. To complicate matters further, sports nutrition companies make so many competing claims you don’t know whom to believe. At some point, it all becomes noise.

But fueling your body for maximum athletic performance is not as complicated as it may seem. Everything you need to know to get the results you want can be boiled down to 10 basics.

Rule 1. Keep it Natural

Robust health is the foundation for fitness and athletic performance. Eating for health should therefore be the primary objective of your diet as an athlete. The same principles of healthy eating that apply to the average woman apply to highly active women. The majority of foods you eat should be as natural and minimally processed as possible. As a general rule, the shorter the list of ingredients in a food product, the better. Refined sugar, fried foods and processed oils should have the smallest place in your diet.

Balance is also important. No single food has all the nutrients you need for optimal health, so it’s important to eat a variety of different food types every day. Use these guidelines to ensure your diet has adequate balance.

Food Recommended servings per day What’s a serving?
Fruits and vegetables 7 to 9; strive for more veggies, about one serving more than fruit. 1/2 cup veggies
1 cup leafy veggies
1 apple, banana, orange, etc.
1/2 cup berries
Grains 6 to 8; make most, if not all, of them whole grains. 1 slice bread
1/2 cup cooked rice or pasta
1 cup breakfast cereal
Legumes (lentils, soybeans, chickpeas, kidney beans, etc.), nuts, seeds 4 to 5; limit nuts to 1 to 2 servings. 1/2 cup cooked legumes
1/3 cup nuts
Dairy 3; opt for those low in saturated fats. 1 cup milk or yogurt
1 1/2 ounces cheese
Lean meats, poultry, eggs 1 to 2 3 ounces cooked
Fish 3 to 6 per week 3 ounces cooked

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture,

Rule 2. Let Form Follow Function

Maintaining your ideal body weight is important for all-around health, whether you’re an athlete or a couch potato. For athletes, staying lean is also important for performance. Your best body weight at optimal health is also your best body weight for sports and exercise performance.

That’s good news, because it gives you a simple way to determine how much you should eat each day. Instead of counting calories, which can be tedious and inaccurate, monitor your performance in workouts. If you follow a sensible, progressive training program, your fitness will gradually improve from week to week—unless you’re eating too many calories per day or not enough.

Stagnating performance coupled with rapid weight loss is a likely indication of underfueling, while stagnating performance coinciding with steady or increasing weight may mean you’re getting too many calories. In either case, a slight adjustment to your daily eating amounts should put you quickly back on track.

Rule 3. Balance Your Energy Sources

Athletes often make the mistake of overemphasizing one macronutrient—carbohydrates, fats or proteins—at the expense of the other two. All are equally important.

Carbs should account for at least 50 percent of the total calories in your diet. If you eat less you may experience low energy in workouts due to insufficient stores of glycoge—a carbohydrate-derived fuel—in your muscles.

Fats should account for at least 20 percent of your daily calories (more healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, like nuts and olive oil, than saturated). One study found that runners who consumed too little fat were more susceptible to injuries.

Finally, at least 15 percent of your daily calories should come from protein. Inadequate protein intake will compromise your recovery from workouts and limit the amount of training you can handle without getting sick or injured.

So, what makes up the remaining 15 percent? The distribution of these calories—whether more carbs, fats or proteins—should depend on what works best for you and can vary from day to day without negative consequences.

Rule 4. Gorge on Free-radical Fighters

Free radicals are unstable molecules that attack and damage cells. Due to the high rate of oxygen consumption associated with exercise, athletes experience more free-radical stress than sedentary people. The muscle-repair process that occurs after workouts releases even more free radicals.

Fortunately, exercise also strengthens the antioxidant system the body uses to prevent and limit free-radical damage. But your antioxidant defenses won’t work to their full potential unless you maintain a diet that’s rich in antioxidants—which means one that includes lots of fruits and vegetables. In addition to aiming for seven to nine servings daily, try to eat a wide variety of different fruits and vegetables. Each has its own unique antioxidant profile that benefits the body somewhat differently than others.

Rule 5. Eat Frequently

Athletes in all sports benefit from developing a lean body composition, where muscle is preserved or added and excess fat stores are whittled away. Frequent eating (four to six meals and snacks per day) is a dietary pattern that’s proven to assist athletes in getting leaner, independent of total calories consumed or macronutrient breakdown.

When you divide your daily calories into more meals, you’re less likely to consume more calories than you need to supply your body’s immediate energy needs. As a result, fewer excess calories are stored as body fat. Many women are concerned that by eating more often they will eat more calories each day, but research has shown that those who eat fewer meals tend to consume more total calories each day. Here’s a sample six-times-a-day eating schedule:

7 a.m. Breakfast
10 a.m. Healthy snack (fruit, nuts, low-fat yogurt, etc.)
12 a.m. Lunch
3 p.m. Healthy snack
6 p.m. Dinner
8:30 p.m. Healthy snack

Rule 6. Train on a Full Tank

If you want to maximize your fitness, it’s not enough that you simply do your workouts—you also need to do well in your workouts. This requires that you start each workout with muscles that are well stocked with glycogen—their favorite fuel.

Since glycogen comes from dietary carbohydrate, the best way to ensure you train on a full tank is to consume a high-carbohydrate pre-workout meal. But since training on a full stomach is likely to cause GI distress, this meal should be eaten well before your workout.

A meal containing at least 100 grams of carbohydrate consumed three to four hours before your workout is ideal. One example of a perfect pre-workout breakfast is a cup of old-fashioned oatmeal (54 grams of carbs) with banana slices (29 grams) and an 8-ounce glass of orange juice (25 grams) for a total of 108 grams of carbohydrate.

5 High-carb Pre-workout Meals

  • Chicken stir-fry
  • Spaghetti with marinara sauce
  • Grilled cheese sandwich with vegetable soup
  • Cereal with milk
  • Fruit smoothie

Rule 7. Hydrate

When you work out, you sweat; and when you sweat, you lose body fluid that must be replaced. Failure to fully rehydrate between workouts will compromise your recovery and your performance in subsequent workouts. Drinking during a prolonged workout or race (lasting an hour or more), especially in the heat, will help you delay fatigue and reduce the risk of heat illness.

Sports drinks are better than water for hydration during workouts because they provide sodium to replace the salt you lose in sweat, plus carbs for quick energy. Drink at frequent intervals according to your thirst. After workouts, water will do. Drink enough throughout the day to keep your urine pale yellow to clear in color.

Rule 8. Eat for Recovery

When you finish a workout, many of your muscle fibers are damaged from exertion, your muscle fuel stores are low, and you’re at least slightly dehydrated. Nutrition is required to rebuild and refuel your muscles and rehydrate your body. Specifically, you need protein for tissue repair, carbohydrate to restock your muscles with fuel, and water to rehydrate.

The sooner you supply your body with these nutrients, the better. In the first hour after exercise, the muscles in particular are able to use nutrients for recovery much more effectively than at any other time. A study from Vanderbilt University found that the leg muscles were able to rebuild and refuel nearly three times faster when a carbohydrate-protein supplement was consumed immediately after a one-hour stationary bike ride than when the same supplement was consumed three hours after the same workout.

While post-workout recovery supplements such as Endurox R4 and Cytomax Recovery are convenient and ideally formulated for the job, regular foods containing carbs and protein and plain water are probably just as effective. Strive for a 4-1 ratio of carbs to fat.

5 carb-protein post-workout meals

  • Grilled chicken breast and baked sweet potato
  • Vegetable omelet and an orange
  • Beef stew
  • Turkey sandwich and an apple
  • Broiled salmon and rice pilaf

Rule 9. Avoid Common Deficiencies

Female athletes commonly suffer from a handful of specific nutrient deficiencies. These deficiencies have negative consequences not only for athletic performance but also for general health. Fortunately, they’re all easily avoided with a balanced diet.

Nutrient Consequences of not getting enough How to get what you need
B vitamins (particularly B-12) Reduced athletic performance Eat three servings of meat, fish and/or eggs daily. Vegetarians: Take a daily vitamin B-complex supplement.
Calcium Increased susceptibility to bone strains and stress fractures Eat three servings of low-fat/non-fat dairy foods daily.
Iron Fatigue, anemia Make iron-rich foods such as tuna and chicken a regular part of your diet.
Omega-3 fatty acids May compromise recovery Supplement a balanced diet with omega-3-rich fish, flax oil and walnuts.

For more information and Recommended Daily Allowances, see “Dietary Guidelines” on

Rule 10. Reward Yourself

One of the benefits of being an athlete is it gives you a little extra leeway to eat some foods that aren’t 100 percent wholesome without adding on pounds. If you’re sustaining a consistent pattern of vigorous exercise most days a week, you shouldn’t worry about including a few treats (potato chips with lunch, a cookie or a few chocolates for dessert) in your daily eating.

Matt Fitzgerald is a runner, triathlete, coach and author of several books on fitness and nutrition, including Performance Nutrition for Runners (Rodale, 2005). He is also an International Society of Sports Nutrition-certified sports nutritionist.