What Are the Nutritional Needs of an Athlete?

Medically Reviewed on 3/31/2022
What Are the Nutritional Needs of an Athlete
As an athlete, your nutritional needs vary depending on the type and amount of training you do, as well as your overall health

As an athlete, your nutritional needs vary depending on the type and amount of training you do, as well as your overall health. What you eat and how much you eat before and between athletic events can significantly impact your performance.

What are the macronutrient needs of an athlete?

Table. Nutrients recommended by American Dietary Association
Nutrient Quantity
  • 6 to 10 grams of carbohydrates per 2.2 pounds of body weight per day
  • 1.2 to 1.4 grams per 2.2 pounds of body weight per day for an endurance athlete
  • 1.6 to 1.7 grams per 2.2 pounds of body weight per day for a strength training athlete
  • About 20% to 25% of daily calories (similar to nonathletes)
Fluids and electrolytes
  • 5 to 7 mL per 2.2 pounds of body weight approximately 4 hours before an event
  • If a workout lasts longer than 90 minutes, consume one Gatorade® or Powerade® for electrolyte replacement and water
  • Before, during, and after exercise:
    • Before exercise: 14 to 22 ounces of water.
    • During exercise: 6 to 12 ounces of water every 15 to 20 minutes as tolerated.
    • After exercise: 16 to 24 ounces of water for every 0.5 pounds lost during exercise.

In addition, athletes should make sure their diet includes B complex vitamins, including thiamine, riboflavin, and niacin as well as vitamins C, D, and E. Minerals such as sodium, magnesium, potassium, iron, and calcium are also crucial for muscle and bone health. 

Female athletes and athletes between ages 13-19 should get their blood hemoglobin and iron levels checked. They may have inadequate iron levels due to menstruation and strenuous exercise. Supplements for nutrient deficiencies should only be taken after consulting a physician.

Should athletes restrict their caloric intake?

Most people need between 1,500-2,000 calories a day. Athletes, however, need to consume about 500-1000 more calories a day.

A strict dietary regimen does not mean restricting calories, doping, or starving. Performance enhancers or so-called ergogenic or nutrient boosters are a huge no-no when it comes to nutrition

Restricting calories during periods of high activity for any reason can lead to vitamin and mineral deficiencies, which negatively impact athletic performance. It can also have adverse repercussions on general health and well-being. Athletes who want to lose weight should do so during the off-season (when there are no events) and only under professional supervision.

How do nutrition needs differ for each type of athlete?

Depending on whether you perform strength or endurance training, how frequently you compete, and the intensity of your physical activities, your nutritional needs may differ from that of other athletes.

High-carb vs. low-carb diets

Studies have shown that endurance athletes on a high-carb diet can exercise longer than athletes on a low-carb, high-fat diet. However, constantly eating a high-carb diet is not advisable because it can cause weight gain. Nutritionists therefore recommend customizing a diet plan specific to your needs.

Carbs, fats, and protein as fuel sources

For continuous activities of 3-4 hours (such as a marathon), sip carbohydrate-containing solutions along with electrolytes. This helps replenish glycogen stores in the muscles and liver

Fats can also act as a fuel source, but it depends on the intensity and duration of the exercise, as well as your body composition. For activities such as rowing, judo, soccer, baseball, swimming, and gymnastics, you need carbohydrates as your main energy source, but stored fats will help you reach the finish line.

Eating protein after an athletic event has been shown to support muscle protein synthesis and reduce the breakdown of protein. However, eating more protein than your nutritional needs will cause the protein to be stored as fat.

Avoiding dehydration

To avoid dehydration, keep sipping water, coconut water, or electrolyte drinks to replenish fluids lost through sweat. Chilled fluids are better because they get absorbed faster and help lower body temperature, thereby reducing the risk of heat exhaustion and stroke.

If you gain weight during exercise, this is a sign of excessive hydration, which can lead to electrolyte imbalances and potentially hyponatremia.

Post-training meals

Regardless of age, gender, or sport, post-game meal recommendations for most athletes are the same. After a training session or competition, eating a small, balanced meal that contains carbs, protein, and fat within 30 minutes is highly beneficial. If eating within the 30-minute window is difficult or makes you nauseous, have liquid smoothies and beverages high in protein and carbs.


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Can athletes go on a vegan diet?

You can build significant muscle mass even while on a vegan diet, but it will require a bit more effort.

Vegetarian and vegan diets are typically low in calories, which may not be enough for athletes with increased calorie needs. These diets also tend to restrict essential nutrients that are primarily found in animal sources: protein, iron, calcium, vitamin D and B12, zinc, and omega-3 fats. 

Because these nutrients are important for post-exercise muscle recovery, adequate hemoglobin levels, and skeletal repair, make sure to find other sources through foods and supplements. Vegan athletes require slightly more protein in their diet because the higher fiber content in plant-based proteins may inhibit protein absorption. Vegan protein sources include:

  • Soy
  • Quinoa
  • Buckwheat
  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Split peas
  • Nuts
  • Seeds

Plant-based foods rich in iron, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids should also be eaten on a daily basis. Additional supplementation in the form of pills or powders may be required, but only under the supervision of your doctor or nutritionist.

What are pre-workout and post-workout meals for athletes?

Pre-workout meal

Eating a meal of about 500-1000 calories 3 hours before an athletic event can positively affect performance. This meal should be high in complex carbs, which breaks down more easily than protein and fats. 

Stay adequately hydrated and avoid caffeine consumption because it can lead to dehydration.

Post-workout meal

Post-workout nutrition is a huge priority because it allows the body to prepare for the next training session. Skipping this meal may lead to a post-exercise slump, poor performance the next day, joint and body pain, and protein loss. Make sure to eat a snack immediately after a workout. Replace fluids and electrolytes before, during, and after exercise.

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Medically Reviewed on 3/31/2022
Image Source: iStock Images

Clifford J, Maloney K. Nutrition for the Athlete. Colorado State University. https://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/nutrition-food-safety-health/nutrition-for-the-athlete-9-362/

Nutrition and athletic performance Journal of ADA. How do I eat to improve athletic performance? https://www.k-state.edu/paccats/Contents/Nutrition/PDF/How%20do%20I%20eat%20to%20improve%20athletic%20performance.pdf