How Sports Nutrition Can Up Your Game

How Sports Nutrition Can Up Your Game

Publish Date March 17, 2023 4 Minute Read
Author Kroger Health Registered Dietitians

Whether you’re new to fitness or you’re a seasoned athlete, sports nutrition can power your performance, speed up recovery and prevent injuries. Read on to learn how to use food as fuel and take your fitness game to new heights.

What is Sports Nutrition?

Sports nutrition is the strategic application of nutritional science to fuel peak athletic performance and recovery. It focuses on nourishing the body with optimal energy, nutrients, electrolytes and fluids so you can function at your highest potential. Sports nutrition should be tailored to an athlete’s specific sport as well as their personal food preferences, goals and lifestyle.

Sports Nutrition Basics: Meet the Macronutrients

There are 3 types of macronutrients that fuel athletic performance: carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Each macronutrient plays a unique role in fueling the body.

Carbohydrates deliver 4 calories per gram, are the body’s preferred source of fuel because they’re quickly digested and absorbed, delivering fast-acting energy. Our bodies store carbohydrates as glycogen in our muscle and liver, and glycogen can be broken down into glucose and converted into energy. Carbs come in the form of “complex carbohydrates” (whole grains, root vegetables, lentils and beans) or “simple carbohydrates” (fruit, some vegetables and dairy, and sweeteners like honey, maple syrup and sugar). Most athletes aim for 50% of their energy to come from carbohydrates.

Fats are the most energy-dense macronutrient, packed with 9 calories per gram. Our bodies digest fat slowly and store it as a secondary fuel reserve for when our carbohydrate stores have become depleted. Unsaturated fats come from plant-based sources such as olive oil, nuts, seeds and avocado. Saturated fat is found in animal products such as butter, cream and red meat. Most athletes aim for 30% of their intake to come from fat.

Protein contains 4 calories per gram, similar to carbohydrates. However, the primary role protein plays is supporting muscle repair and growth. That’s because proteins are comprised of amino acids, which are the building blocks of our muscle tissue. For this reason, the body prefers to rely on carbohydrates and fats for fuel. Protein comes from both animal sources (meat, poultry, eggs, seafood and dairy) and plant-based sources (tofu and tempeh, lentils, beans, nuts and seeds). Most athletes aim for 20% of their intake to come from protein. However, daily protein requirements can vary from 0.8g/kg of bodyweight to 2.0g/kg bodyweight, depending on the athlete’s sport and goals.

How Does Sports Nutrition Affect My Athletic Performance?

Athletes can leverage sports nutrition to enhance speed, endurance and strength.

Speed - For athletes competing in activities that require short bursts of speed work, such as sprinters, carbohydrates are king thanks to their ability to be digested, absorbed and converted into fast-acting energy.

Endurance - When it comes to endurance activities (1-3 hours of high-intensity exercise), such as long distance running, athletes need to fuel for both the short and the long term. For the short term, they should focus on getting adequate carbohydrate intake (6-10g/kg body weight per day). For the long term, they should focus on getting adequate fat, which will act as a secondary energy source once carbohydrate stores are depleted. Ample hydration is also critical for endurance athletes to replenish the body with fluids and electrolytes that are lost through sweat.

Strength - Resistance training is all about building and strengthening our skeletal muscles. With that in mind, adequate protein intake is key to fueling our bodies with the building blocks needed to repair and grow our muscle tissue. Additionally, it’s critical to consume adequate energy from carbohydrates and fat, so the body can prioritize the use of protein (mostly for muscle building).

What Are 3 Key Strategies to Mastering Sports Nutrition?

1. Adequacy & Balance

Not only can inadequate nutrition lead to reduced muscle mass and weaker bone density, but it can hinder speed, power and stamina; delay recovery; and increase the risk of injury. Athletes should aim for a balance of all 3 macronutrients (carbs, fat and protein) so they can reap the benefits that each has to offer.

2. Timing & Personalization

What you eat is important, but so is when you eat. Experiment with nutrient timing to discover your optimal fueling schedule. This includes pre-workout and post-workout. Another key part of your success will be personalizing your nutrition regimen. Nutrition is highly personal, and what works for one person may not work for the next. For example, the same foods can vary by the rate of digestion, as well as how they’re tolerated and the impact they have on performance. Work with a Sports Dietitian to find what works best for you.

3. Hydration & Replenishment

Replacing both the fluid as well as the electrolytes lost through sweat during physical activity is critical to avoiding dehydration, and to ensure your body functions properly.

Can Nutritional Supplements Enhance My Athletic Performance?

Sports nutrition supplements can be a helpful tool, but keep in mind that supplements are intended to supplement a nutritious diet, not replace it. Additionally, nutritional supplements remain unregulated, and only a few are backed by clinical research. The supplements with the most promising scientific evidence include fish oil (joint health and neuromuscular functions), branch chain amino acids (muscle building and recovery), vitamin D (bone and muscle health, injury prevention), caffeine (energy) and creatine (muscle contraction, growth and strength). Be sure to work with a sports nutritionist to determine whether incorporating supplements into your routine is right for you.

What is a Sports Nutritionist, and How Do I Work with One?

A sports nutritionist collaborates with athletes to understand their goals and design a personalized nutrition program to fuel their bodies for peak performance and recovery. When searching for a sports nutritionist, seek one who’s a registered dietitian to ensure you’re getting your information from a credible expert. A dietitian who’s a Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD) is regarded as the subject matter expert in sports nutrition.

Dietitians who are CSSDs are proficient in integrating cutting-edge sports nutrition research into personalized programs and product recommendations, and they’re highly effective at applying coaching styles that drive action and results.

Getting Started

Sport nutrition can fundamentally transform your athletic performance, but it can feel daunting to take on by yourself. At Kroger, we have a team of registered dietitians who offer telenutrition services, so you can jumpstart your sports nutrition journey virtually and get the professional support you need to compete at the next level.

Disclaimer: Please note that this information is educational only and doesn’t provide individualized healthcare recommendations. Please work with a doctor or healthcare provider when necessary.