Nutrition for Athletic Performance

Two athletic people

Dr. Jonene Ford, CNS, LDN

When it comes to living a healthy lifestyle, two of the most critical components are nutrition and physical activity. They contribute to a lowered risk of many diseases and conditions and improved mental health and well-being. Everyone must consume the right amounts of protein, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals. But nutrition for athletic performance is a little different, whether you’re competitive or recreational.

Fueling your body for performance is crucial in helping you reach your fitness goals. Regarding activity, the 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend about 30 minutes of exercise 5 days weekly (or about 150 minutes per week). Athletes usually have far more physical activity than this!

The nutrition recommendations in this post apply to dedicated, competitive athletes looking for an edge over the competition and recreational athletes who exercise just for health and fun. Whichever group you’re in, if you are active, you need to know these. Read on to learn about foods filled with the energy and nutrients necessary for training and adequate recovery—and the ideal timing so you know when to consume them.

Nutrition for Athletic Performance

There are several nutrients to pay attention to when you’re very physically active. They are fluids, calories, carbohydrates, and protein.


Water is essential for athletic performance because it keeps the body hydrated and at the right temperature. During one hour of vigorous exercise, your body can lose several liters of sweat. As little as a two percent drop in hydration can lead to muscle cramps and negatively impact your performance.

How do you know how much fluid to drink? A basic rule of thumb is to drink at least half of your body’s weight in ounces of water daily, but for athletes, this is likely not enough. In general, clear urine is a sign of adequate hydration, so keep this in mind and drink plenty of fluids even if you won’t be exercising right away. And when you are exercising, drink the recommended amounts at the recommended times outlined in the section below, even if you don’t feel thirsty.


If you’re very physically active, you’re going to need more calories than someone who is not very active. You need fuel to provide your body with the strength and energy it needs to perform. People tend to overestimate the number of calories burned during their workouts, so be sure not to take in too many extra calories.

For example, a competitive male athlete needs 2,400-3,000 calories per day, and a competitive female athlete needs 2,200-2,700 calories per day. If you’re not competitive, you don’t need this many. If you need a really good food tracker, click here to download the Ford Wellness app!


Carbohydrates are the fuel your muscles burn when they are working.

There are two types of carbohydrates: simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates are sugars in refined grains, sodas, juice, and sweetened foods. They often provide a lot of energy but rarely provide many vitamins or minerals. On the other hand, complex carbohydrates are whole grains and starches that contain more nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Examples of foods with complex carbohydrates include fruits, starchy vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds.

For your everyday carbohydrate needs, stick to complex carbohydrates. However, simple carbohydrates can be used before, during, and after an intense workout or endurance exercise because these exercises require more immediate energy to burn for fuel. Having simple carbohydrates helps you feel more energized before a workout, work harder, and recover faster, but they’re not recommended as your primary source of carbohydrates.


Protein is an essential component of muscles (in addition to its importance for other functions such as tissue repair, bones, immunity, enzymes, neurotransmitters, etc.), and that’s why your protein intake is vital if you’re focusing on muscle-building resistance exercises. Also, once carbohydrate stores are used up, your body can turn to protein as an alternative fuel source. That’s why some athletes need more protein than non-athletes. For example, many athletes need up to 2 grams protein/kg/day, or if doing intense training, then up to 2.2 grams protein/kg/day. Recommended protein sources include lean meats, eggs, dairy, nuts, and legumes, but many athletes choose to use protein supplements to ensure adequate daily protein intake.

Nutrition for Athletic Performance

By consistently eating a range of nutrient-dense foods and staying hydrated, you can improve your performance (and health) over time. Here are a few key nutrition recommendations on fueling yourself for your athletic event, depending on your workout and how long it will last.

Before any workout

To avoid dehydration, drink about 2 cups of water about 2 hours before your workout.

PRO TIP: If you want to measure the approximate amount of fluids you are losing by working out, weigh yourself immediately before and after your workout. The difference in weight will be primarily due to the amount of water lost. For every pound you lose exercising, drink about 3 cups of fluid within the next 6 hours.

When it comes to food, if your goal is to improve your athletic performance, say for a big game, don’t exercise on an empty stomach. Have a small meal, ideally with complex carbohydrates and only small amounts of fat, about 60-90 minutes beforehand.

If you’re going to work out for less than one hour

Water is your fluid of choice. Drink up to 1 cup every 15-20 minutes throughout your workout.

If you’re going to work out for more than one hour

Before you get started, eat foods with some simple carbohydrates and limit the amount of fat you consume. That might look like a banana or an English muffin with fruit jam.

If your 60+ minutes of activity is going to be an intense aerobic workout (say a 10-mile run), you’ll also need lots of fluids and some carbohydrates during that time. Drink water every 15-20 minutes for the first hour.

For the following hours, you should replace lost electrolytes and carbohydrates. You can switch your water to a sports drink like RARI Amino Mend. Aim for 5-10 ounces every 15-20 minutes. If you choose to stick with water (instead of a sports drink) for your second hour and beyond, add in some food sources of electrolytes and carbohydrates such as 2-3 handfuls of pretzels or a half of a cup of low-fat granola.

After any workout

If you were active for less than 60 minutes, you can replace your lost fluid weight with water. If you trained for more than 90 minutes, you’d want to have more carbohydrates with a bit of protein two hours later. This can be a sports bar, trail mix with nuts, or yogurt with granola. [Insert your related recipes here.]

Nutrition for Athletic Performance

Whether you’re a seasoned competitive athlete or a “weekend warrior,” fueling your body correctly can improve your performance.

If you’re wondering whether you need to change how you’re hydrating and fueling your physical activities, consult a licensed nutritionist or dietitian who can review your activity levels, health goals, and nutritional status. I’d be happy to help – here is a link to book a free video call so we can chat about making sure to meet your dietary needs!