Maximize Athletic Performance by Eating Right

If you find yourself running out of energy on the treadmill, don’t blame the machine! The key to maximizing your performance may depend on what you eat before or after the gym. Proper sports nutrition will help you maintain energy throughout your workout and ensure muscle recovery and development after your workout.


Before you decide what to eat, think about what you need to drink. When you deplete your body of fluids during exercise, it’s especially important to replenish those fluids to realize your maximum potential in the gym.  Remember: by the time you feel thirst, you’re already dehydrated.

The amount of water needed is dependent on the athlete, so pay attention to your body. The average endurance athlete will sweat 32-48 oz of fluid per hour, and 500-1,500mg of sodium.  These levels will vary significantly based on factors such as heat, altitude, and exercise intensity, however.  To determine your individual fluid needs during training, some experts suggest taking a “sweat test”:  (1) weigh yourself one hour prior to a one-hour, moderate intensity bike or run; (2) note the amount of liquid you consume during your workout; (3) weigh yourself again after the workout; (4) add up the weight change (in ounces; remember 1 pound lost=16 oz) plus the fluid consumed during your workout.  That total number represents your hourly fluid losses.

Sports nutritionists make the following general recommendations with regard to fluids on a training day: pre-hydrate with 17-20 oz of fluid about 2 hours before training, then drink 7-10 oz fluid every 15-20 minutes during training.  And don’t forget to replace sodium, too!  Guidelines are about 500-700mg of sodium for every liter of fluid you drink per hour.  After training, drink 20-24oz fluid–and 500mg of sodium– for each pound of weight lost.  While sports drinks are one way to replace sodium, snacking on salted pretzels with plain water can also do the trick!

Eating for Athletic Performance

In regards to sports nutrition, two key elements help your athletic performance: carbohydrates and protein. Carbohydrates give the body the energy it needs to start and sustain both cardiovascular and strength conditioning. Carbohydrates come in many forms, including breads, grains, cereals, fruits, and vegetables.

Proteins promote muscle recovery. Optimal forms of protein for athletes include lean meat/poultry, fish and eggs. The vegetarian athlete can depend on beans, nuts, peanut butter, soy or dairy for protein.


Although you won’t want to do a heavy workout on a full stomach (you wouldn’t want to eat a plate of fettucini alfredo before a 5K!), eating a light snack an hour before exercising will help you maintain energy during your workout. A snack containing a combination of mostly carbohydrates and some protein (a 4:1 ratio) is ideal for maximum energy and recovery. For instance, a few celery sticks with almond butter or a couple handfuls of trail mix with dried fruits and nuts are some good choices for a pre-workout snack. For more ideas for good energy choices, see these recommendations.


After your workout, make sure to drink enough water to replenish what was lost during exercise (see above guidelines). Within the first 30 minutes, have a snack that contains 6-20g of protein, then in the next 2 hours, eat at least a small mixed meal containing both carbs and protein. This can be as easy as a 4 ounce piece of lean meat (chicken or fish), brown rice and a generous portion of steamed vegetables.  While many athletes choose to use protein supplements, such as whey protein, the amount of extra protein required by endurance athletes is easily met with food alone; a single post-workout snack of a 6oz container of greek yogurt, a half of a turkey sandwich, an energy bar or a tall glass of chocolate milk will provide the recommended 6-20g of protein after a workout.  And the typical American mixed diet provides more than enough protein to meet an endurance athlete’s protein needs during the other 3 meals of the day.

Preparing yourself for your workout with a combination of good carbs, protein, and proper hydration is an easy way to reach your workout goals. Be sure to test your nutrition and hydration strategy during training to make sure you can tolerate it… race day is NOT the time to experiment with new ideas!

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