Whether you’re a competitive athlete or just exercising for general health, you need the right kind of fuel to perform your best. Here are 3 simple nutrients to eat for better athletic performance and to help you get the most from your workouts.
If you’re already eating a nutrient-dense diet and you’re well hydrated, your body and mind are primed and ready. But if you follow a few simple sports-nutrition tips, you can make sure you’re fueled with energy to excel to a new level. You’ll get better results from your workouts and sports competitions if you’re well fueled with these three nutrients:
- Complex carbohydrates
Continue reading below for strategies on how to use these nutrients based on the duration and intensity of your exercise or sports competition.
Carbohydrates are the fuel which provides the energy your muscles need for maximum performance.
The carbohydrates you eat are stored as glycogen in your muscles and liver. As you exercise, you’ll use up this supply. Exercise lasting longer than 90 minutes requires that you eat more carbs (see below for eating strategies).
The best fuel source is “complex” or “low glycemic” carbohydrates. These types of carbohydrates are slow to digest and provide a sustained amount of energy. These foods include:
- Sweet potatoes
- Brown rice
- Whole wheat bread and pasta
Being hydrated is a must for any serious athlete. Optimal performance for exercise and sports events is simply not possible if you’re dehydrated.
Begin your day with a large glass (16 ounces, or 2 cups) of water. Then continue to drink enough water throughout the day to stay hydrated. You’ll know if you’ve had enough fluids if your urine is mostly clear.
For working out and sports competitions, your water needs increase. Don’t wait until after you begin exercising to drink water.
Be proactive with drinking water. You’ll need more for longer-duration exercise. Even more is needed in hot weather when you’re sweating a lot.
How much water do you need to drink? See our complete guide to hydration here.
If your workout or sports event is longer than 90 minutes, if you’re sweating a lot, or you’re exercising in hot weather, consider drinking a sports drink to replace lost electrolytes.
Electrolytes are minerals including sodium, chloride, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. These minerals are lost through sweating during strenuous and prolonged athletic activity.
Proper levels of electrolytes ensure proper fluid balance, muscle contraction, and neural activity. If your electrolyte levels are low, you may notice muscle cramping. This may be caused by low levels of sodium (simple table salt).
During strenuous activity, you should drink a sports drink to maintain blood sugar and add electrolytes lost through sweating. Sports drinks are basically water with added salt and sugar.
Sports Nutrition Strategies
How do you know how much carbohydrates, water, and electrolytes to eat? It depends on how long you plan to be exercising. You can greatly reduce your chances of running out of energy, or “hitting the wall,” if you follow these tips on sports nutrition:
For Exercise Lasting LESS than 90 Minutes
For short-duration exercise, like your normal workout, you can use these smart tips to perform at your best:
- Eat a small meal about 1-2 hours before exercising. This meal should include a serving of complex carbohydrates and a large glass (16 ounces, or 2 cups) of water.
- Drink water throughout your workout. Drink enough water to replace all that you lose through sweating. Sport drinks are generally not needed for exercise lasting less than 90 minutes.
For Exercise LONGER than 90 Minutes
For long-duration and intense exercise like running events and triathlons, extra nutrition is required. Competitive athletes are advised to make nutrition part of your training regimen to learn what works best for your body, your sport, and the weather conditions. Start with these strategies:
- The body’s glycogen stores are sufficient to supply energy for events lasting up to 90 minutes. But for exercise lasting longer than this, extra consideration should be given to fueling the body. In the days leading up to your sports competition, your meals should include extra servings of complex carbohydrates. You should also consume extra water during this time to hydrate your body.
- About 1-2 hours before your competition, eat a small meal. This meal should include two servings of complex carbs and a large glass (16 ounces, or 2 cups) of water.
- During long-duration exercise or a sports competition, eat an easily-digestible form of sugary carbohydrate while exercising. There are commercially available packs of sugar gel (like this brand). Gel packs containing caffeine are not recommended because of their diuretic effect. Other helpful carbohydrate foods include bananas and snack bars. Experiment with how your stomach handles each of these fuel options.
- During and after your competition, turn to sports drinks. Your goal is to not only stay hydrated by replacing all of the water you’ve lost, but also replenish electrolytes lost through sweating. Drink more in hot, sunny, dry conditions.
3 Simple Nutrients to Eat for Better Athletic Performance