The Do's and Don'ts of Sports Nutrition

By Lillian D. Rozanski, MS, RDN, LDN, Sports and Fitness Dietitian, Thibodaux Regional Health System

When it comes to sports nutrition, “when to eat” matters just as much as “what to eat.” Focusing on the timing of nutrients in meals and snacks is important for optimizing performance and recovery from training. Proper nutrient timing provides energy to fuel activity, preserves energy stores, and stimulates muscle recovery.

The body depends on two main nutrients, carbohydrates and protein, for pre and post-activity nutrition. Carbohydrates are the main source of fuel for most types of exercise; they keep the “engine” (i.e. muscles) running. And the harder the engine is working, the more carbs needed to keep going. Protein helps rebuild and repair muscle tissue, and stops muscles from breaking down after exercise.

Pre-sports Nutrition: It Depends on Each Body

How soon before a workout should someone eat? It depends.

Eating before exercise has 3 main functions: (1) it prevents low blood sugar and its symptoms; (2) it fuels muscles to help perform their best; (3) it helps settle the stomach to ward off hunger. Ideally, an athlete should fuel his or her body about 1–4 hours pre-workout, depending on how one’s body tolerates food. Each person should experiment to see what time frame works best. A competitive athlete needs to explore this during training days, not on game days.

Eating 3–4 hours before activity allows plenty of time for digesting food. The meal should be rich in carbohydrates with a moderate amount of protein and minimal fat and fiber. Large amounts of fat and fiber can cause an upset stomach (the last thing someone wants on a game day or before a long run). An ideal meal would have half a plate of carbohydrate sources, ¼ plate of protein, and the final ¼ plate of vegetables.

Examples of this would be:

  • Turkey and cheese sandwich, apple, and low-fat chocolate milk
  • Peanut butter and jelly sandwich with banana and low-fat milk
  • Low-fat Greek yogurt with berries and small salad with chicken

Eating 30–60 minutes before exercise can provide a quick source of energy for the muscles and brain. Because the timing is pretty close to a workout, this snack should be high in carbohydrates with little to no protein, fat, or fiber.

Examples of this would be:

  • Sports drink
  • Fruit, applesauce, fruit snacks
  • Granola bar
  • Pretzels
  • Graham crackers

If exercise lasts longer than 1 hour, it is a good idea to fuel during the workout. Adding a source of carbohydrates during exercise can boost performance and improve recovery. We recommend 30–60 grams of carbohydrate for every hour of exercise.

Examples include:

  • Banana
  • Applesauce
  • Sports drink

Post-activity Nutrition: Within an Hour

The human body uses stored energy (glycogen) in its muscles to power through a workout or game; but afterwards, an athlete needs to replenish the nutrients lost. What to do?

Muscles are like a dry sponge, and they ready to quickly absorb carbohydrates and protein. The two nutrients provide the ability to replenish the glycogen lost through training, and help tired muscles rebuild and repair with the available protein and amino acids. For best results, an athlete should eat within an hour of completing an intense workout.

A great way to remember what and why to have recovery fuel is to think of the three R’s:

  • Refuel with carbohydrates to replace energy lost during exercise
  • Rebuild and repair muscles with protein
  • Rehydrate with fluids and electrolytes lost through sweat

Examples of post-workout meals and snacks include:

  • Chocolate milk and almonds
  • Greek yogurt with granola and blueberries
  • Chicken stir fry, brown rice, and stir-fried veggies
  • Egg wrap with yogurt parfait

Wrapping It up

To summarize, a body needs carbs to fuel its working muscles. Protein helps build and repair. Athletes will see their best results if they get a combination of protein and carbs in their bodies 1–4 hours before a workout and within about an hour afterwards. Last but not least, one should never try anything new on race or game day — it is always best to experiment during training to learn what works best for each individual body.

For more information or to schedule a nutrition consultation with a registered dietitian, contact Thibodaux Regional Health System at 985-493-4765.