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Eat Right for Exercise

Jessica Gore
Athletic Woman

Proper nutrition for athletes doesn't need to be as complicated as some would have you think. In general, athletes have similar nutritional requirements to the rest of the population, with a few subtle variations. While sports supplements are a popular cash cow for gyms and health food stores, there is no reason athletes cannot get adequate nutrition from a carefully planned, healthful diet. By making sure you get enough of key nutrients and planning your meals around your training, you can get the most out of your diet and your workout.

Dietary Factors for Eating Right While Exercising

In general, a well-balanced diet that provides all the nutrients essential for good health will meet the needs of all but the most strenuous athletes. There are a few things, however, that may need slight modification. Energy, vitamin and protein needs may be slightly different for athletes, depending on what phase of training you are in and what sport you are training for.


When you are actively training for sports, getting enough energy from your diet is of utmost importance. For female athletes, it can be especially challenging to meet these needs when participating in sports such as figure skating or gymnastics that place heavy emphasis on a small body size. It may be tempting to diet down to lose weight, but reduced caloric intake can result in fatigue and lost muscle mass - two things that don't mix well with competitive sports.

The Zenight Nutrition asserts that competitive athletes who train vigorously for several hours per day may need at much as 23 to 39 calories per pound of bodyweight. For a 135 lb woman, this means as much as 3000 to 5000 calories per day. As a general guideline, ensure all your calories are from nutritionally dense whole foods, and eat according to your appetite. Watch the scale closely, and adjust your daily calories accordingly.


One of the most pervasive myths is that athletes need to eat huge amounts of protein to build muscle mass. While some increase in dietary protein is certainly needed during active muscle building, the American Dietetic Association (ADA) reassures athletes that the average American already consumes plenty of protein to maintain an active training regimen. This does not necessarily need to be meat protein, either. The old assumption that vegetable proteins need to be consumed in specific combinations has not stood the test of time. The official position of the ADA is that, as long as enough calories are consumed to maintain body mass, you are don't need to worry about your protein intake.


Vitamins are even more important for strenuously training athletes than they are for the average person. No matter how much protein you consume, your body cannot properly turn that protein into new muscle mass if you don't get enough B vitamins to convert food into energy, or if you don't get enough vitamin C to build new tissues. As a minimum, aim to get the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of each vitamin from your diet, and consider a multivitamin for those days you might fall short.

Planning Proper Nutrition for Athletes

To get the most out of your diet and your training, it helps to plan the two together. The old adage that breakfast is the most important meal of the day doesn't necessarily hold true for actively training athletes. The meals directly before and after your workout will influence how effectively you are able to train and how easily you recover from training.


Physical energy is fueled by glycogen, a storage carbohydrate within your muscles. For most athletes, topping up glycogen stores is of primary importance to ensure you have full energy for the workout. The ADA recommends a small meal rich in complex carbohydrates with a moderate amount of protein about three hours before your workout. To prevent digestive upset, keep this meal relatively low in fat and not excessively high in fiber. A bowl of oatmeal with almonds or an egg with toast would be a good pre-workout meal.

Closer to your workout, roughly 30 to 60 minutes before you begin, fill up your body's water and energy stores with some simple carbohydrates and fluids. For example, enjoy a sports drink or some water and a piece of fruit.


After training, your focus should be on maximizing recovery. This is, in fact, the most important meal of your day. Your muscles will be damaged from exercise, and your fluids, electrolytes, stored carbohydrates and even vitamins may be low. To maximize recovery, you want to make sure you replace all those lost nutrients so your body has the resources to build new muscle tissue. Ideally, try to have your post-workout meal or at least a snack within 15 to 60 minutes after training.

Aim for a good portion of protein, complex carbohydrates, and vitamin-rich fruit and vegetables as well as eight to 16 ounces of water. For a meal, consider grilled salmon with brown rice and a big portion of steamed vegetables, or a veggie and tofu stir fry. If you are going to have a protein or meal replacement shake, this would be the time to do it. Adding a handful of fresh or frozen peaches or berries will add vital nutrients to your shake and also jazz up the flavor.

Healthy Diets for Exercising

Much has been written about what to eat when exercising, and everyone seems to have an opinion of the subject. The important thing to remember is that a well-nourished body will get the most benefit from any training program, and excess of any particular nutrient is unlikely to provide much advantage beyond that. Choose a healthy diet that addresses your appetite and fulfills basic nutritional requirements and your body will respond accordingly. If you think your level of training necessitates a diet very much removed from this, consult a registered dietician to work out an appropriate diet plan to meet your needs.

Eat Right for Exercise