Julie Stefanski, MEd, RDN, CSSD, LDN, CDCES
National Spokesperson, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
Athletes may need to push their bodies to the limit to reach their performance goals, but their bodies can only succeed with the right kind of fuel. Athletes should eat a variety of nutritious foods to maintain peak performance and stay well hydrated.
Support a healthy weight
Because athletes expend large amounts of energy during training, they need additional protein and carbohydrates to power, build, and maintain muscles. But some athletes, often female participants, might try to lose weight in hopes of improving athletic performance. This desire can make them susceptible to food restrictions and rigid dieting.
Unhealthful eating patterns can lead to mineral and vitamin deficiencies, such as calcium and vitamin D, which contribute to bone growth. Poor bone health can lead to stress fractures and even early osteoporosis, in which bones become fragile and more likely to break.
Low iron intake can lead to fatigue and anemia, which can cause dizziness, headaches, and weakness. In addition, poor eating habits and low body weight can result in insufficient estrogen levels, which can cause irregular or missed menstrual cycles.
Avoid fad diets and support a healthy weight all year long with the following tips:
- Follow a regular eating schedule of three meals a day with healthful snacks in between.
- Eat a variety of foods including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins, as well as calcium-rich foods like low-fat milk and yogurt.
- Fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables, and limit sources of added sugars.
- Choose snacks with both carbohydrates and protein, such as an apple with peanut butter, Greek yogurt, raw vegetables, and cheese.
- Before taking any dietary supplements, consult with your coach to make sure your sport does not prohibit supplements. Check with your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian nutritionist to help you select what’s best for you.
Athletes are at risk for dehydration and heat-related illness, especially during times of increased activity and warm weather. Feeling thirsty can be a sign of dehydration, but don’t just rely on thirst — drink water throughout the day to stay well hydrated.
Although it’s not common, it’s possible to become overhydrated, especially in people with certain medical conditions. Symptoms of severe overhydration are often similar to dehydration, so it’s important to listen to your body and monitor your fluid intake.
Keep yourself hydrated with these general tips:
- Drink at least 16 ounces of water four hours before your event.
- Drink water at least two hours before the game, 15 minutes before, and every 15 to 20 minutes throughout.
- Choose a sports drink for intense activities or those that last longer than 60 minutes, or if it’s a very hot day, to replace electrolytes, fluids, and carbohydrates.
- Rehydrate after exercising by drinking enough fluid to replace the fluid lost during your activity. Eat a piece of fresh fruit postgame to rehydrate and refuel.
Athletes’ nutrition and hydration needs highly individualized. Visit the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ online Find an Expert service to find a registered dietitian nutritionist who specializes in sports nutrition to help determine what nutrients you need to stay at the top of your game.