Sports Nutrition: Why Athletes Need to Plan Their Diet

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A fit man with a breakfast plate, and a lot of workout supplements

Sports, athletics, and intense-workout based lifestyle call for specific nutrition and diet plans. This is where sports nutrition comes in. It ensures the supply of the right amounts of nutrients at the right time to enhance performance, decrease fatigue, and improve recovery.

It is no secret that each body is unique in its strengths, weaknesses, needs, and requirements. Nutritional requirements often vary from person to person, depending on factors like age, vitals, gender, and levels of physical activity. The nutrition requirements of an adolescent, a clerk, a runway model, an adventure sports specialist, and an athlete cannot be the same.

An average person can live a healthy lifestyle with an average balanced diet and moderate physical activity. But a person whose lifestyle includes more than average physical training and activity will have specific nutritional requirements. This is where the field of sports nutrition comes in.

If you are a person who is into sports and athletics or are hoping to step into these fields, read on.

Principles of sports nutrition

Sports nutrition is a fast developing and highly specialized field. It brings together the fields of human anatomy, the science of exercise, and nutrition studies. Heavily technical as it sounds, the basics of sports nutrition are pretty simple to grasp.

All our food and fluid intake is comprised of six basic nutrient groups: carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, and water. Of these, the first three are classed as macronutrients and the next two as micronutrients. Water is considered a separate class altogether.

An ideal combination of these elements is necessary for healthy living. But sportspeople have specific physical needs that require modifications in their diet plan. We will look into these requirements and dietary modifications in a moment.

Importance of balanced diet in sports nutrition

People involved in athletic activities and training burn a lot of calories and energy every time they work out. Their intense workouts can drain their bodies out in more ways than one, if not combined with a nourishing diet.

According to a report [1]Nation Wide Childrens: The Importance of Sports Nutrition for Young Athletes by an expert, A well-planned balanced diet for a sportsperson helps to:

  • Maintain strength and energy through increased physical activity
  • Decrease continued soreness and weakness of muscles
  • Build muscle
  • Prevent injury
  • Promote muscle recovery, healing, and regeneration
  • Improve overall immunity

A well-planned diet can help to bring out the best in a sportsperson. It can improve their performance and help to sustain that performance over a longer period.

Good, wholesome, well-sourced food provides better mental health, quality sleep, and enhanced focus. These can go a long way in bringing the best out of a sportsperson.

Constituents of sports nutrition diet

A good sports nutrition diet calculates the ideal amount of nutrients a sportsperson needs to consume each day. It also stands apart from normal nutrition plans in calculating how much one eats and when to eat what.

For instance, it is essential to have a customized pre-workout, mid-workout, and post-workout meal plan. This will ensure that the body has enough fuel to burn during an intense workout session and is nourished well afterward.

Here is a break up of the nutrients that athletes’ diet plans need to pack into their sports nutrition diet charts:


Macro-nutrients refers to the set of nutrients that are required in larger quantities and provide caloric value. Macronutrients primarily consist of:

Carbohydrates: These form the biggest chunk of our daily caloric intake, roughly 60-70%. Depending on the intensity of physical activity, one might require anywhere between 45-65% carbs in their diet. Carbs for a significant portion of pre and mid-workout food intake.

A healthy, high-carb meal 3-4 hours ahead of workouts or a smaller snack 1-2 hours ahead can fuel the body just enough.

Consume around 30-60 grams of carbs mid-workout if you workout for more than an hour. If you are required to work out for 4 hours or more per day, you might need around 90 grams of carbs per hour. This will top up your blood glucose levels and keep you from feeling tired and drained out.

Proteins: Proteins constitute about 12-15% of our daily caloric intake. Proteins are required for muscle growth, recovery, and regeneration. Your body needs a certain amount of protein per day to produce tissues and fluids. Proteins maintain the nitrogen balance in the human body, which is necessary for maintaining muscle tissues.

An average person’s daily requirement may range from 0.8-1.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. But a professional athlete or sportsperson expends more energy in a day (proteins constitute roughly 5% of the energy we burn).

Consume 1.0-1.2 grams of protein per kilo of bodyweight if you are someone who works out for about an hour a day.

People who work out for more than an hour must consume roughly 1.2-1.7 grams of protein per kilo of their body weight.

Protein is often found in foods that provide carbs. This is why it is easy to meet the daily requirement of proteins or even exceed it.

Remember, the body cannot burn out excess proteins and ends up storing them in the form of fats. Moreover, there are added risks of nitrogen imbalance and negative impacts on kidneys to watch out for.

Fats: Ideally, athletes should consume roughly 30% of their daily calories in the form of fats. At 9 calories per gram, fats are a calorie-dense nutrient source. This makes it very easy to overshoot the recommended calorie consumption.

Fats perform multiple functions. They provide energy, insulation, aid in the formation of new cells, production of hormones, and absorption of vitamins. Omega-3 and Omega-6 are particularly important forms of fatty acids for a good sports diet.

It is important to find healthy sources of fat to supply the body’s daily recommended fat levels. Lean meats, poultry, fish, nuts, dairy products, and certain oils like canola and olive can provide healthy fats.


Micro-nutrients refer to vitamins and minerals that the body requires in very small amounts. This includes all vitamins and minerals such as calcium, iron, iodine, and so on. With the sole exception of vitamin D, the body doesn’t produce any of the micronutrients on its own (endogenously).

The most important micronutrients that need to be incorporated into the diet of a sports person are Calcium, Iron, and vitamins B, C, and D.

While it is well known that calcium is important for bone health, it is also vital for muscular health and efficient enzyme and hormone function. Calcium is particularly important for women athletes. Both bone density and hormonal health are important concerns for women athletes, and calcium helps with that.

The recommended daily intake of calcium for athletes is anywhere between 12000-1500 mg per day.

Iron is another important mineral for sportspeople. Athletes tend to deplete iron reserves faster than non-athletic people. Again, women athletes need to be particular about incorporating enough iron into their diet.

The recommended daily amount of iron is 10-15 mg per day. Athletes must ensure that the minimum required level of iron is maintained in their bodies. Iron is needed for the supply of oxygen to the body tissues and maintenance of healthy blood volume.

Other minerals such as magnesium, selenium, and potassium are necessary to prevent fatigue, muscle damage in athletes.

Several B-vitamins are necessary for the metabolism of macronutrients such as carbs, fats, and proteins. Vitamins C and E act as antioxidants preventing damage at the cellular levels. Studies have shown that athletes who consume enough vitamin E suffer less cellular damage.

Vitamin D is essential for bone health since it aids the absorption of calcium in the body. The daily requirement of Vitamin D for athletes can vary due to factors such as geographical location, and type of sports and physical activities in question(indoor vs outdoor activities).

Fluids/Sports Hydration

Hydration is very important for people who indulge in sports, athletics, and rigorous workouts. Water is the most important and the most basic form of hydration. People who work out for more than an hour need supplemented fluids and sports drinks that contain carbohydrates, and electrolytes.

Regular replenishment of fluids is necessary for the maintenance of the body’s core temperature while working out. It also regulates the transportation of nutrients and increases lubrication in the joints.

Sports nutrition and supplements

Energy bars, protein shakes, multivitamins, or electrolytes; the world of sports foods and supplements is no stranger to us. The entire industry of dietary supplements is mostly unregulated by FDA. As a result, they sit brightly packaged, one aisle after another in every medical store and supermarket.

The industry is huge and the marketing is more or less unrestrained. Some of you who aren’t sportspeople or athletes may have felt the need to buy supplements for yourself. Let’s take a closer look at who really needs supplements and what place they hold in the world of sports nutrition.

According to a study [2]Australian Sports Commission: Benefits and risks of using supplements and sports foods, Sports performance supplements can be broadly grouped into the following categories:

  1. Sports Foods: sports drinks, energy bars, protein and electrolyte supplements, meal replacements.
  2. Medical Supplements: individual or multi-vitamins, probiotics, mineral supplements.
  3. Performance Supplements: creatine, caffeine, beta-alanine, glycerol, dietary nitrate.

The general consensus among health professionals is that it is best to get all of one’s nutrition from a well-balanced diet. Easier said than done, right?

How regularly can one plan a meal that comprises every required micro and macronutrient? What if one has a lifestyle that leaves out specific food groups from one’s diet? For example, vegetarians, vegans, weight watchers, or people on different forms of diet.

The nutritional requirement changes massively when we talk of a professional athletic lifestyle. People who work out for more than 60 minutes up to 4-6 hours a day expend far more energy, nutrients, and muscle mass than average health freaks. Such lifestyles require continuous replenishment of all forms of nutrition.

According to a research [3]PubMed: American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Nutrition and athletic performance, physical activity, athletic performance, and recovery process can improve and enhance by the optimization of one’s nutrition. An appropriate selection of food, fluids, and supplements along with proper planning and regulation of quantity and timing of intake can bring out the best performance.

Experts note that people involved in intense training regularly require vitamins that regulate energy production, cell and tissue recovery, and so on.

Sportspeople or heavy trainers are often required to watch what they eat. This inevitably leads to the elimination of certain types of food. As a result, such people might not get some nutrients from their regular diets.

This is where dietary supplements enter the sports nutrition diet plan. An intense, athletic fitness lifestyle requires consultation with trainers, doctors, and nutritionists. So, go ahead and plan a healthy and wholesome side of sports nutrition supplements along with their sports nutrition diets.

Balanced diet chart for athletes

Below is a balanced diet chart for athletes and sportspersons. It includes a customized pre-workout, mid-workout, and post-workout meal plan that incorporates all the essential macro and micronutrients.

1) Overall calories: 2,500-4,000

2) Protein: 0.5-0.8 grams per pound of body weight

3) Carbohydrates: 2-4 grams per pound of body weight

4) Fats: 20-30% of total calories

5) Important Vitamins: A, B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, biotin, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, folate), C, D, E, K

6) Important Minerals: calcium, potassium, magnesium, zinc, iron

Daily pre-workout meal options

1) Protein shake with 20-30 grams of protein

2) 1 banana, sliced

3) 1 cup of unsweetened Greek yogurt

4) 2-3 cups of berries (strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, etc.)

5) 1 cup of green tea or water

Daily mid-workout meal options

1) Smoothie with 1 cup of almond milk, 1 scoop of whey protein powder, 1 banana, and 1 cup of spinach

2) Turkey wrap with 2 ounces of turkey, 1 tablespoon of hummus, and ½ avocado

3) Handful of nuts (almonds, cashews, pecans, etc.)

4) Sports drink or electrolyte beverage

Daily post-workout meal options

1) Grilled chicken breast with 1 tablespoon of olive oil

2) Mixed green salad with 2 cups of leafy greens, 1 cup of chopped vegetables (such as cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, etc.), and 1 tablespoon of olive oil or balsamic vinegar

3) Quinoa bowl with ½ cup of cooked quinoa, 1 cup of cooked lentils, and ½ cup of chopped vegetables (such as bell peppers, onions, etc.)

4) Protein bar or recovery supplement

5) Steamed or roasted vegetables with a drizzle of olive oil and fresh herbs, such as parsley or cilantro

6) 8-10 ounces of water or sports drink to replenish electrolytes and rehydrate the body.

Sample daily balanced diet chart for athletes(breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack)


– 1 cup of Greek yogurt topped with ½ cup sliced berries

– 1 slice whole grain toast topped with 2 tablespoons of almond butter

– 1 cup of green tea or water


– 1 protein shake with 20-30 grams of protein


– ½ roasted sweet potato topped with grilled chicken and 1 tablespoon of tahini sauce

– 1 cup of steamed broccoli

– 8-10 ounces of water or sports drink


– 1 banana or apple


– Quinoa bowl with ½ cup of cooked quinoa, 1 cup of black beans, and ½ roasted red pepper

– 1 mixed green salad with 2 cups of leafy greens, 1 cup of chopped vegetables (such as cherry tomatoes and carrots), and 1 tablespoon of olive oil or balsamic vinegar

– 8-10 ounces of water or sports drink


Athletes need to be aware of what they are eating and drinking to maintain their energy levels throughout the day. It is important to consume a balanced diet with the right mix of macro and micronutrients. Planning ahead with healthy snacks and meals will help athletes perform at their best and recover quickly.

If you are a professional athlete or a sportsperson, it is recommended that you consult a registered dietitian or nutritionist to develop a personalized plan that meets your specific needs. With the right diet and nutrition, you can fuel your body for optimal performance, reduce the risk of injury and illness, and improve muscle recovery.

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