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Sports Nutrition

by Gerri French, RD, CDE

Gerri French, RD, CDE Many athletes are drawn to our area because of the ability to participate in outdoor sports and other healthy activities year-round. The fall season kicks off training programs for a number of school sports programs and with the kids in school, many active parents become more involved in the many local sports and activities. In order to keep up and compete, your body needs the right fuel, so Good Health spoke to our registered dietician, Gerri French about the importance of diet and the emerging science of sports nutrition.

Is it necessary to change my diet if I want to compete in athletic events?

Most athletes interested in peak performance will benefit from a wholesome diet. The major difference between sports nutrition and nutrition for others is primarily the need for additional fluid and calories. The specific nutrients that need to be increased should easily be obtained along with the extra calories. Diet can't replace adequate training, sleep and mental focus but it can provide a competitive edge for some. Because of the increased energy expended or "calories burned" from intense activity, many athletes have a difficult time maintaining their weight with a "whole foods" type of diet and benefit from "processed" or "pre-digested" food. Examples include shakes and bars made from fruits and juices, protein and vegetable powders, nuts and seeds which provide necessary concentrated calories.

The major challenges for athletes will be when and how to fit food into their training and competition days and what to eat before and after exercise. The intensity and duration of activity will determine the amounts of food needed and when to eat them. Temporarily keeping a food and activity journal is an ideal way to learn and understand your body.

Major Players:

Carbohydates – the primary fuel source.

Carbohydrates are sugars and starches found in foods like bread, cereals, fruits, pasta, milk, fruit juice, honey, and table sugar. Foods with carbohydrates are like kindling in the fire; they burn hot and fast and are quicker to digest than proteins and fats. Eating carbohydrate foods that you enjoy soon after each workout is recommended. Examples include bananas, dried fruit and whole grain bread products. Healthy sources of complex carbohydrates include beans, whole grains (such as oats, quinoa, barley, brown rice), root vegetables (potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams) and all types of winter squash and fruit. These foods contain natural sources of B vitamins, zinc, magnesium, potassium and chromium.


Competitive endurance athletes and athletes involved in power sports, lifting weights or using heavy equipment need additional protein. Protein is found in concentrated amounts in animal foods such as meat, fish, poultry, eggs, cheese and milk. Vegetarian sources include beans, peas, lentils, soy products, nuts and nut butters. Another benefit of protein is that it keeps us feeling fuller for a long time. Eating proteins and fats along with carbohydrates provides more sustained energy; for example, almond butter or cheese with fruit or bread.


Fats contain concentrated calories needed by athletes. Foods with fats provide fat soluble vitamins and are part of all cell membranes. Fats add flavor, satisfaction and keep us full for a longer time.

What specific nutrients do competitive athletes need more of?

  • Vitamin E – found in whole grains, nuts, wheat germ, quality oils.
  • B complex vitamins – found in whole grains, whole grain breads and enriched bread products, legumes (beans, lentils, peas), nuts.
  • Iron – found in beef and dark meat of poultry, beans and enriched grains.
  • A comprehensive multiple vitamin-mineral supplement is also recommended.

Hydration: Athletes need to drink fluids before, during and after all workouts and events. The golden rule is for athletes to weigh themselves before and after events. Each pound lost is a pint of water needed. Sports drinks may be easier to drink than water and are recommended when workouts or events last for more than 90 minutes, especially in a hot environment. For maximum absorption and to prevent cramps and diarrhea, purchase sports drinks that contain 15–18 gm of carbohydrate in every 8 ounces (about 60 calories). These drinks will contain electrolytes (sodium and potassium) needed for fluid balance and for nerve and muscle function. It is best to experiment with sports drinks during practice instead of on the day of an event.

What should I eat before I compete?

The purpose of food before competition is to:

  • Avoid hunger
  • Stabilize blood sugar and insulin requirements
  • Provide additional calories and energy
  • Hydrate
  • Prevent stomach distress

High fat and excessive fiber-rich foods from whole wheat are usually not well tolerated. However the fiber found in oats, brown rice and sweet potatoes is recommended. The simple carbohydrates found in fruit juice, soda, candy and desserts provide calories without many nutrients but may be beneficial since they are easy to eat or drink. Fresh and dried fruit contains both simple and complex carbohydrates and may be eaten anytime. The many energy bars on the market may provide carbohydrates, proteins, fats and extra nutrients. A consultation with a registered dietitian is always beneficial.

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