Fuel Up to Perform Your Best
Sports nutrition supports the unique challenges faced by athletes outside of training, as well as just before, during and right after the training session. Training stresses the body, and in response, the body adapts by becoming faster, stronger and more efficient so it is better prepared the next time it is exposed to that training stimulus. This is how the body improves performance, whether that means pushing heavier weights in the weight room, throwing faster or jumping higher.
The amount of benefit gained from training is highly dependent upon how we fuel our bodies. A properly fueled body is able to perform better and train harder, which translates into more robust training outcomes such as faster speed, greater endurance, and more strength and power.
Before Training or Exercise
The goal of pre-workout nutrition is to provide energy to power your workout, practice or game. Think of this as topping off the body’s gas tank. You would never leave for a road trip on an empty tank of gas, and similarly, you shouldn’t start your workout without any fuel (or with low fuel stores).
Carbohydrates are nutrients found in fruit, grains, milk and starchy vegetables such as peas, squash, potatoes, sweet potatoes and beans, which release energy when broken down in the body. They provide an essential energy source for the brain and red blood cells, and power working muscles during moderate to high-intensity exercise. The body’s stores of carbohydrates are limited, so it is necessary to consume enough carbohydrate on a daily basis, as well as just before practice or games.
It is equally important to start the session adequately hydrated. Depending on your digestion, tolerance and the nature of the activity you are about to perform, it may also be helpful to avoid lactose, high fat or high-fiber foods in your pre-workout meal or snack. There is nothing bad about those nutrients, but during exercise, blood is diverted away from the digestive tract to the working muscles, making it harder to digest high fiber, high-fat meals, which can lead to upset stomach and other gastrointestinal symptoms during exercise. Outside of training, it is beneficial to your overall health to consume a diet rich in fiber and balanced with healthy fats. Everyone is different and tolerates foods differently, so experiment with pre-workout meals and snacks before game day to find what works best for you, what your body is able to digest, and what gives you the best energy. Game day is never the time to try something new.
Below are some guidelines to help you plan your pre-workout nutrition game plan. You will need to know your athlete’s weight in kilograms (kg) for the calculations. To determine weight in kilograms, divide your weight in pounds by 2.2:
Weight in lbs / 2.2 = weight in kg
Daily carbohydrate needs
Low Intensity or skill-based training (baseball, basketball, football, etc.): 3-5 g/kg of body weight per day
Moderate training program (~1 hour/day): 5-7 g/kg of body weight per day
Endurance training or >1-3 hours/day moderate-high intensity: 6-10 g/kg/day
>4-5 hours/day, moderate to high intensity: 8-12 g/kg of body weight per day
2-3 hours before training or games: Eat a normal meal along with 5-10 mL/kg of fluids to achieve pale yellow or clear urine (250 mL = 1 cup or ~8oz).
30-60 minutes before training or games:
Easily digestible carbohydrates
Small amount of protein
The key nutritional consideration during exercise is to stay adequately hydrated. Research has demonstrated that physical and cognitive performance declines when you lose as little as 2-3% of our weight in water loss. There are a couple ways to determine if you are staying hydrated. First, your urine should be clear or pale yellow. Another way to check your hydration status is to weigh yourself before and after you exercise. Your weight afterward should be as close as possible to your weight before training, and no more than 2% lower than your pre-exercise weight. For example, a 150-pound athlete should aim to weigh 150 pounds, and no less than 147 pounds, after a training session. If his or her post-workout weight is less than 147 pounds, then a water weight loss of more than 2% has occurred and could compromise athletic performance.
Most of the time, water will be sufficient to keep you hydrated. There are, however, some situations where it is necessary to replace not only fluid loss, but electrolytes as well. As a rule of thumb, water is sufficient for general daily hydration as well as when training for one hour or less, or in very low-intensity training (e.g., yoga, golf). If training for more than 60-90 minutes, or if training is intense or in extreme heat, water alone is not enough to replace the electrolytes lost in sweat, and a sports drink would be appropriate. Sodium is the major electrolyte lost under these conditions, so when choosing a sports drink, look for products that contain at least 110-240 mg of sodium per 8 oz serving. When extra fuel is needed, especially when training more than two hours, products containing 15-20 g of carbohydrate per 8 oz will provide an optimal amount of carbohydrates to sustain you during long or very intense training sessions.
1. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine. (2016). Position of the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: nutrition and athletic performance. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 116(3), 501-528.
2. Dunford, M. & Doyle, J. A. (2012). Nutrition for sport and exercise (3rd Ed). Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning.
3. Jeukendrup, A. E. (2011). Nutrition for endurance sports: mrathon, triathlon, and road cycling. Journal of Sports Sciences, 29(sup1), S91-S99.
4. Jeukendrup, A. & Gleeson, M. (2010). Sports nutrition: An introduction to energy production and performance. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
5. Kerksick, C., Harvey, T., Stout, J., Campbell, B., Wilborn, C., Kreider, R.,…Antonio, J. (2008). International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: Nutrient timing. J International Society of Sports Nutrition, 5(17), 1-12.
Noel Williams, MS, RD, CSSD, LD is a Performance Dietitian at Children’s HealthSM Andrews Institute Sports Performance Powered By EXOS. She earned both her BS in Nutrition and Dietetics and her MS in Exercise Physiology and Sports Nutrition from Montana State University. She conducted her Master’s research on cardiovascular and metabolic demands of Rocky Mountain Elk Hunting. Noel is a Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics, and has taught workshops on developing positive eating behaviors in children in partnership with Montana Team Nutrition. She is also a part of the following professional organizations:
•Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
•Texas Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
•Sports, Cardiovascular, and Wellness Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group (SCAN)
•American College of Sports Medicine