Basics of Sports and Exercise Nutrition

Annette McDermott
Max Wettstein doing push ups on dip bar
Max Wettstein

Nutrition is key to the success of any exercise protocol, but it's not a one-size-fits-all venture. According to fitness professional Max Wettstein, 10 time Men's Health magazine cover model, author, and Four El magazine's Fitness and Health Advisor, optimal nutrition varies by athlete. It also varies by age, physical activity levels, and fitness goals. Luckily, there are some general guidelines to consider for different levels of exercise intensity.

Basic Nutrition for Athletes

Max Wettstein points out that if you are an elite or professional athlete, your exercise nutrition plan is most likely performance driven. "High intensity exercise prefers carbohydrates for fuel, while slower, endurance-type (purely aerobic) exercise tends to access stored fat," he says.

The IDEA Health & Fitness Association's (IDEA) "Basics of Sports Nutrition" handout indicates that there are four macronutrients (nutrients the body needs in high quantities) that are critical to the success of any serious athletic sports nutrition protocol. These include:

Woman athlete preparing to run
Woman athlete preparing to run
  • Carbohydrates: IDEA suggests athletes "get 55 to 60 percent of their total calories from carbohydrates."
  • Protein: A study published in Nutrition, determined that low to moderate exercise intensity has little effect on protein requirements. However, the study also showed that protein requirements for endurance and top sports athletes may be higher than those of sedentary individuals. IDEA lists lean meats, shellfish, poultry, fish, soy and eggs as good protein sources.
  • Fat: Athletes should get up to 25 percent of their total calories from fats, recommends IDEA. These should be healthy, unsaturated fats from sources such as nuts, olive oil, avocados, and fish oil.
  • Water: Proper hydration is critical to any nutrition plan, but if you are an athlete who burns thousands of calories, it's especially important. IDEA suggests drinking a minimum of 64 to 80 ounces of water per day. You may need even more if you train in humid conditions or consume caffeine (which is a natural diuretic).

For more information, visit IDEA's website for a selection of training and nutrition related articles.

Nutrition for Bodybuilders

Bodybuilders, especially competitive ones, need to build muscle in order to develop their ideal physiques.

Protein Intake Recommendations

According to an article by Jacob Wilson, PhD on Bodybuilding.com, understanding the role of protein and carbs is key. When it comes to protein, he recommends bodybuilders focus not on how much protein to eat per day, but on how much protein per meal and how often. He states that for a 180 pound man, 30 to 40 grams of protein per meal will "optimize the muscle building response." That amount will be higher or lower depending on weight and gender.

Wilson recommends eating four to five times daily, and he also stresses the importance of eating high-quality proteins such as the ones listed above, as well as whey and casein.

Carbohydrate Intake Recommendations

Max Wettstein throwing medicine ball
Wettstein throwing medicine ball

Since carbohydrates are fuel for the body, their daily intake is determined by the amount and intensity of training. You can help avoid blood sugar spikes and plummets by opting for low-glycemic, complex carbohydrates such as oatmeal, nuts, sweet potatoes, and legumes. Wilson suggests balancing carbohydrates with fiber, keeping the ratio around 5:1.

High-glycemic carbohydrates can be consumed post workout. In Wettstein's article on Building Muscle, he stresses the difference between aerobic and anaerobic/strength training exercise. He states, "Unlike aerobic exercise which mostly burns fat for fuel, anaerobic/strength exercise, especially weightlifting, uses carbs/glycogen (a polysaccharide that stores glucose, aka the body's fuel) and muscle ATP for fuel."

Post-Workout Meal Recommendation

Wettstein also stresses the importance of topping off your stores of glycogen and recommends eating a post-workout meal that consists of 20 grams whey protein and 60 grams simple carbohydrates or sugar. Check out Bodybuilding's website to learn more about nutrition for bodybuilding.

Exercise Nutrition for Weight Loss

If weight loss is your primary exercise goal, your nutrition needs don't have to be complicated. Everything you eat contains calories, and exercise burns calories so the more you exercise, the more calories you'll burn.

Calorie Calculators

The Mayo Clinic offers a calorie calculator to help you determine the number of calories you need (based on your exercise level) to maintain your current weight. To lose weight at the safe rate of one to two pounds per week, you need to either reduce that calorie number by 500 (for one pound) or 1000 (for two pounds), increase your exercise level, or do a combination of both. Once you've identified your calorie intake number, eat as many of those calories as possible in the form of whole, fiber-rich, healthy foods.

Workout Snacks

Even for moderate exercise, pre and post-workout snacks are still important. A pre-workout snack might include whole wheat crackers and nut butter or cottage cheese and a banana. A post-workout snack might consist of yogurt and fresh berries or a protein shake and fruit.

Recommended Macro-Nutrient Ratio

Wettstein recommends a starting macro-nutrient ratio of 40% carbohydrates, 30% proteins and 30% fats. However, he stresses the need for flexibility. "Daily caloric intake and macro-nutrient ratios should never be set in stone," he says, "but rather should be flexible and able to vary day to day, based on our relative activity level. The more active we are, the more calories we burn, so therefore the more food we can eat while maintaining the same weight."

Fitness and Nutrition Plan

You can learn more about assessing your fitness level and nutrition at MedLine Plus Sports Fitness.

The Importance of Hydration

Stay hydrated during workout
Staying hydrated

As indicated earlier, the importance of hydration for any exercise program cannot be emphasized enough. Dehydration leads to serious health complications, and staying hydrated helps boost the metabolism and provides a sense of fullness. Even being slightly dehydrated can affect your exercise performance and metabolism.

Pure Water Is Best

Says Wettstein, "When it comes to hydration, the answer is simple; pure water is always best, with nothing added. The only time someone should consider adding electrolyte replacements to water is for endurance-type workouts that last over an hour or during long races."

Workout Hydration Plan

MedLine Plus recommends:

  • Drinking 16 ounces of water two hours prior to a workout
  • Drinking 4 to 8 ounces of water every 15 minutes during the workout
  • Drinking 24 ounces of fluid within six hours of your workout for every pound lost

It's Okay to Cheat a Little

Unless there's a competitive or medical reason for sticking to a regimented diet, consider cheating every now and then. Adding a weekly cheat meal can help keep you satisfied, especially on special occasions or holidays. " Cheat days can help squash cravings and binge attacks," says Wettstein. Just don't go completely overboard. Avoid deep fried foods and foods that contain dangerous hydrogenated fats. Too many of these foods will quickly sabotage your weight loss and fitness objectives.

General Sports and Exercise Nutrition Tips

No matter which sports nutrition plan you choose, Wettstein offers these six tips to help you reach your goals.

1. Eat Clean

Buy organic and unrefined foods as much as possible. In addition, try to identify food sensitivities or allergies and avoid foods that trigger them.

2. Avoid Sugar

Choose complex, slow-digesting sources of carbohydrates over sugar. If you do eat sugar, do it within thirty minutes of a workout when glucose is quickly used by muscles for glycogen replenishment.

3. Eat More Fiber

Most adults fall short of the FDA's daily recommended fiber intake of 30 grams. This can lead to digestive problems which can make it uncomfortable or difficult to exercise and follow a healthy eating plan. Aim for a balance of soluble and insoluble fiber.

4. Eat Heart-Healthy Fats

Many people think of fat as a diet saboteur and avoid it like the plague, but all fats aren't the enemy. What matters is the type of fat you eat. As mentioned earlier, try to eat plant-based unsaturated fats. Wettstein advises, "Adding healthy fats to a meal is a good way to lower the overall glycemic load of the meal and to slow digestion, which makes the meal more satisfying."

5. Combine Adequate Sleep With the Right Nutrition

Athlete sleeping
Athlete getting his rest

Regular sleep is necessary for the body to repair itself and function optimally, but how you eat before you fall asleep can help make or break your fitness goals.

"By not eating two hours before bedtime, dieters and those who desire to lose fat can further the overnight fasting/fat-burning period," says Wettstein. "On the other hand, elite athletes and others who want to build muscle or maximize recovery should consume some slow-digesting protein before bed, such as casein or cottage cheese. This helps prevent the breakdown of muscle tissue overnight, and it also optimizes muscle growth."

Wettstein also mentions that athletes who need to carb load for a race or intensive workout will want to eat some complex carbohydrates before bedtime.

6. Consider Supplements

In today's fast paced, eat-on-the-go world, many people struggle to get the recommended level of nutrients through diet alone. As a result, Wettstein supports using supplements when needed. "Having a tub of high-quality whey protein powder or a vegan protein powder in the kitchen helps ensure you have access to a clean protein supply when there is not time to prepare whole food sources or when you are in a hurry," he says. Take a close and honest look at your diet to determine if you need other supplements such as fish oil (Omega-3), vitamin D, calcium or magnesium.

Adopt a Healthy Lifestyle

The saying, "you are what you eat" is true. The foods you eat either nourish your body and give you stamina and vitality, or they sap your energy and make you sick. Whether you're a professional sports player or training for your first 5K, nutrition is key to your success.

Practice Diversity, Moderation and Balance

"When it comes to nutrition, diversity is key for all of us, as is moderation and balance," says Wettstein. "The more active we are, the more we can eat and better metabolize carbohydrates. As we age, we need to swap out those carb calories for additional protein and healthy fats." He believes the optimum exercise diet isn't really a "diet" at all; it's one part of an overall healthy lifestyle approach.

Exercise and Proper Nutrition Are Inseparable

Some people believe that as long as they eat healthy, they don't need to exercise. However, you can't have one without the other. "Remember, without consistent exercise, your nutrition will never be enough!" says Wettstein. Whether your goal is to lose weight or win the Ironman Triathlon, according to Harvard School of Public Health's website, regular exercise helps the body function better and helps prevent diabetes, heart disease, and many other illnesses.

Consult Your Physician Before You Begin

The first step in any nutrition and exercise plan is to consult your doctor to discuss your physical condition and nutrition needs. Do this before starting any exercise and/or nutrition program or taking supplements, especially if you have an underlying medical condition.

Basics of Sports and Exercise Nutrition