Eating for Athletes

Spring is a great time of year for participating in athletic events or gearing up for different races. I’ve recently been talking to a few guests who are training for various events like marathons or triathlons and are wondering the best way to properly nourish their bodies for such events. In light of this, I wanted to share some general tips on healthy eating for athletes.

Get the Balance Right—Key Tips for Overall Eating:

  • Eat a variety of foods from all the different food groups
  • Eat plenty of carbohydrate-rich foods, focusing on higher fiber options (whole grain breads, whole wheat pastas, brown rice, whole grain cereals, etc.)
  • Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables (aim for 7-10 servings per day)—this will help you get all the vitamins and minerals that are important for the body to function properly during exercise
  • Eat protein-rich foods at each meal, focusing on low-fat varieties (fish, poultry, lean cuts of beef and pork, eggs, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, low-fat milk, cheese, yogurt, etc.)
  • Focus on eating healthy fats (nuts, seeds, avocado, olive and canola oils, natural nut butters, fatty fish like salmon)
  • Drink plenty of fluids throughout the day, especially before, during, and after exercise

Fluid and Electrolytes—Key Tips:

Before exercise:

  • Drink generous amounts of fluid in the 24 hours prior to an exercise session
  • 2 hours before exercise, drink 400-600 mL fluid (14-20 oz)—this optimizes hydration while allowing time for excess fluid to be excreted in the urine

During Exercise:

  • Drink 6-12 oz of fluid every 15-20 minutes of exercise, beginning at the start of exercise
  • For exercise lasting less than one hour, plain water is sufficient, although fluids with carbohydrate concentrations of 4-8% can be used (e.g. Gatorade, Powerade, etc.)
  • For exercise lasting more than one hour, beverages containing 4-8% carbohydrate concentrations are recommended

After Exercise:

  • Drink adequate fluids to replace sweat losses (until urine is pale clear)
  • Drink at least 16-24 oz fluid for every pound of body weight lost during exercise

Eating for the Event—Key Tips:

Pre-event meal:

  • Eat a meal that won’t leave you hungry, but won’t leave undigested food in the stomach
  • Meal should be high in carbohydrate, moderate in protein and low in fat and fiber (e.g. White bread toast with peanut butter and a banana, an energy bar that has less than 3 grams fiber and a banana, etc.)
  • Eat foods that are familiar, not new foods you’ve never tried

During the event:

  • For events lasting less than one hour, water is usually adequate. Use sport drinks if you are exercising in the morning after an overnight fast and have not had any calories before the exercise
  • For events lasting more than one hour, consume 30-60 g carbohydrates per hour
  • Consume carbohydrates every 15-20 minutes, beginning at the start of exercise
  • The carbohydrate should be primarily glucose or a glucose/fructose mix
  • Avoid fructose as the first ingredient
  • Avoid anything too concentrated like undiluted juice or soda

Post-event meal:

  • 15 minutes after the event, consume a high carbohydrate beverage (energy drink, etc.)
  • 2 hours after the event, eat a high carbohydrate snack with a moderate amount of protein (e.g. energy bar and fruit, toast with peanut butter and a fruit, etc.)
  • 4 hours after the event, consume a balanced meal that provides carbohydrates, protein and fat

Vitamin/Mineral Supplements—Key Tips:

  • In general, vitamin/mineral supplements are not needed if you eat a diet with adequate calories from a variety of foods to maintain your body weight
  • You may need a multivitamin if: 1) You are losing weight/restricting calories, or 2) You avoid one or more food groups
  • Choose a multivitamin/mineral supplement that contains 50-100% of the Daily Value (DV) or Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) and avoid those that provide many times the recommended amounts
  • Choose a multivitamin/mineral supplement from a reputable, well-established company and look for supplements that carry the USP notation

For those of you who have entered or are planning to enter a race or event, I hope your training goes well. Good luck on race day!

Rachel Cope MPH, RD, CD