Nutrition for Athletes — How to Eat for Muscle and Performance 


Professional athletes — from bodybuilders to Major League Baseball players — have the best equipment, training facilities, and coaches in the world at their disposal, so it makes sense that their nutrition has to be top-of-the-line as well. 

Just look at living football legend Tom Brady. Yes, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback possesses the natural talent. Still, there’s also no doubt his meticulously planned nutrition regimen has helped him win Super Bowl titles at 43 — an age where most players have already called it a career. 

We can’t promise these nutrition tips will make you a six-time Super Bowl champion, but they certainly can help make you stronger and faster for your next competition — whatever that may be.

Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it shouldn’t take the place of advice and/or supervision from a medical professional. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended to diagnose, prevent, and/or treat health problems. Speak with your physician if you have any concerns or before beginning any new workout regimen.

Caloric Requirements for Athletes 

An athletes’ caloric requirements, and their macronutrient split, will depend on what competition they’re preparing for. A CrossFitter, for example, will need a lot more fuel in the tank (and therefore have to eat more) than, say, a Classic Physique bodybuilder preparing to step on stage during show day. 

We recommend working alongside a nutritionist and personal trainer to determine your overall caloric needs for training and competitions. If you’re looking for a starting point, here’s a macronutrient calculator to help you determine how much you should roughly eat. 

Dr. Theodore Shybut, a sports medicine expert at Baylor College of Medicine, notes on the college’s website that some athletes may require two- to three times more calories than the average person. 

“If you’re actively working out, training at a high volume, or preparing for a competition, you really need to take in enough calories and nutrients to support the level of activity that you’re doing,” he says. 

This has been backed up by research that points out some athletes with intense training schedules may require 80 calories per kilogram of body weight per day. To put that in perspective, a 90-kilogram athlete (roughly 200 pounds) could potentially have to eat up to 7,200 calories every day. (1)  

Think that’s a lot? During his prime, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps consumed nearly 12,000 calories per day. That’s more than 2018 World’s Strongest Man Hafthor Björnsson ate during his Strongman career. 

But it’s also important to note that athletes will have to get their calories from different sources depending on their training. That’s where macronutrients come into play. 

Macronutrients for Athletes 

Just like caloric requirements, your macronutrient split is going to vary depending on what type of gold medal or trophy you’re vying for. Again, this is a conversation you should have with qualified professionals who will measure your body weight, examine your metabolism, and determine what split will work best for your personal needs. 

[Related: How to Gain Muscle — a Guide to Eating for Mass]

This section will go over some general guidelines for two types of athletes — endurance and strength/power — and talk about why each macronutrient is vital for both. 

Protein 

Protein is the building block of all muscles — so no matter what kind of competition you’re doing, you need plenty of it to recover from strenuous training sessions and game day. 

Beyond that, protein also helps reduce muscle soreness and keeps your bones strong. Without it, your body is more likely to break down and become frail after years of intense athleticism. 

So, how much protein should you eat? American Dietetic Association, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine all say endurance and strength/power athletes should aim for 1.2-2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (so for the 90kg athlete, that’d be anywhere from 108 to 180 grams of protein per day). Power athletes, such as strongmen, may require more than this, as may anyone who’s trying to lose weight while maintaining lean muscle mass. (2)

You may also hear a lot about “protein timing,” or the thought that you need to consume protein right after training or competing to help the body recover from all the stress it underwent. However, no professional nutritionist organization has any real standpoint on when you should eat protein. Instead, spread your protein intake evenly throughout the day — about 20-30 grams per meal. This has been shown to improve protein synthesis (your body’s ability to absorb and use protein) and body composition. (3)

Here are some protein sources recommended by the Cleveland Clinic:

  • Edamame
  • Lentils
  • Split Peas
  • Low-fat Meats (such as boneless, skinless chicken breast)
  • Greek Yogurt
  • Low-fat cottage cheese
  • Canned Tuna
  • Egg Whites

[Related: Up your protein intake with a whey protein powder]

Carbohydrates

The number of carbohydrates — your body’s preferred energy source — you need will vary depending on the intensity of your exercise. This can range anywhere from five grams per kilogram of body weight to 12 grams for endurance athletes. (4)

Strength/power athletes, typically, want to aim to get 55-60% of their daily calories from carbohydrates, according to the National Strength and Conditioning Association.

Unlike protein, the timing of your carbohydrate intake impacts your performance and will change based on what you’re doing. The following are some loose guidelines based on prior research but check with your nutritionist to hammer out a strategy that works best for your needs. 

One study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine states athletes seem to benefit from eating 200 to 300 grams of carbs about three to four hours before an athletic event. This gives the body enough time to digest the carbs and turn them into energy. The same study also said athletes should aim for 30 to 60 grams of carbs during exercise to maintain blood sugar levels. After the event, aim for about  1.0-1.5 g/kg of body weight to restore your glycogen stores. (5)

This advice is in line with the recommendations laid out by the International Society of Sports Nutrition, which also stresses these food sources should be of high quality. Focus on complex carbohydrates like brown rice, vegetables, and whole grains over simple sugars and junk food. (6)

Here are some carbohydrates that all athletes should incorporate into their diets, as suggested by the Mayo Clinic. 

  • Barley
  • Brown rice
  • Buckwheat
  • Bulgur (cracked wheat)
  • Millet
  • Oatmeal
  • Popcorn
  • Whole-wheat bread, pasta, or crackers
Athlete eating out of tupperware
ArtOfPhotos/Shutterstock

[Related: How to Calculate Your Macronutrients for Weight Loss]

Fats 

Fats, believe it or not, are an important part of an athlete’s diet, and it’s recommended both endurance and strength athletes get anywhere from 25-35% of their calories from fats. Yet it’s also recommended that athletes who need to lose weight cut this macronutrient first, before carbohydrates or protein. (6

Fats are no stranger to controversy, especially since they live up to their name by being more fattening — they pack nine calories per gram, compared to four per gram from protein and carbs. 

So why the emphasis on making sure it’s in an athlete’s diet? The answer is that many vitamins and hormones rely on fats to do their job — in other words, there are many vitamins and minerals our body can’t utilize unless there’s fat in our system. Similarly, hormones like testosterone need fat.  

Multiple studies have found that lower-fat diets are linked with decreased testosterone in athletes, leading to reduced muscle mass and frail bones. (7)

Here are some examples of good fats provided by the American Heart Association:

  • Avocado
  • Canola Oil
  • Sesame Oil
  • Sunflower Oil
  • Albacore tuna
  • Herring
  • Lake trout
  • Mackerel
  • Sardines
  • Salmon 
  • Almonds
  • Hazelnuts
  • Peanuts
  • Pistachios
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Sunflower seeds  
  • Walnuts

The Importance of Micronutrients for Athletes 

Micronutrients, aka vitamins and minerals, are vital to eyesight, brain function, oxygen delivery, and a healthy immune system.

The range for how much of each micronutrient you need varies greatly from one to the next, and just like macronutrients, certain athletes may need more or less depending on what their specialty is. 

And, not to sound like a broken record, micronutrient needs will also vary depending on exercise intensity. (8)

[The Best Greens Powders for Digestion, Vitamins, Value, and More]

A well-balanced diet should give you all the vitamins and minerals you’ll need, but the one time you might run into problems might be if you’re losing weight for either a bodybuilding show or to make a certain weight class in boxing or wrestling. 

One study examined 12 such athletes and found that their micronutrient intake fell to 90% of the recommended daily value when they were restricting calories. In this case, it’s advised that athletes take supplements to ensure they’re reaching their vitamin and mineral needs. (9)

Hydration and Electrolytes for Athletes 

Needless to say, athletes will need more water and electrolytes than the average person to ensure they’re hydrated during workouts and games. 

The dangers of dehydration are well known but warrant repetition. Athletes who become dehydrated can experience increased heart rates and body temperatures, which can lead to decreased performance and may cause severe damage to your body. 

Similarly, you don’t want to become overhydrated, as that can lead to conditions like nausea, headaches, and confusion. These symptoms are caused by water-electrolyte imbalances or when there’s too much water in your system and not enough electrolytes. (10)

There’s a good trick to find out how much water you’ll need to consume: weigh yourself before and after a training session (in kilograms) and subtract those two numbers. Then add how much fluid (water or sports drink) you consumed during your training session, and you get your sweat-loss volume. (Tip: one liter of water is one kilogram, so half a liter is 0.5 kilograms.)

Woman drinking water
Day Of Victory Studio/Shutterstock

 [Related: The Best Women’s Multivitamins for Athletes, Women Over 50, and More]

So if the 90kg athlete weighs 89kgs after a training session or competition and drinks half a liter of water, their sweat-loss volume is 1.5 kilograms. This number is less than two percent of their body mass, which is the mark you should keep your sweat-loss volume at.

While this is a good strategy for most athletes, there are many cases where calculating your sweat-loss volume may be impossible — such as team sports, running, and biking. And most of the time, these athletes underestimate their sweat-loss volume, which leads to them under-hydrating. (11)

The best strategy for these types of situations is to begin your training session completely hydrated — again, a nutritionist can determine how to achieve that. Even more importantly, an athlete should never rely on thirst as an indicator to drink more water — if you’re running and feel thirsty, you’re already dehydrated. 

The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, echoing research from nutrition experts, recommends athletes drink about four to eight ounces of water at 15-20 minute intervals. This, of course, will also depend on the intensity and how the temperature of wherever you’re working out. 

A Word on Electrolytes 

Electrolytes are simply minerals with a small electrical charge, which help the body regulate your heartbeat, muscle contractions, fluid regulation, and more. They also help maintain the balance of fluids in and out of your cells — you don’t want to have too little or too much fluid in them. 

Electrolytes only work when they’re dissolved in water.  

Some of the most common electrolytes are: 

  • Magnesium 
  • Calcium 
  • Phosphate 
  • Sodium 
  • Potassium

Sodium, commonly found in salt, may be one of the most overlooked electrolytes. The Food and Drug Administration recommends people get 2.3 grams of it per day, but an hour of sweaty activity can result in seven grams of lost sodium. That’s why many sports drinks will have sodium in them — to help replace whatever you lost through sweating. (12)

A lack of proper electrolytes can lead to increased heart rates and physical discomfort, and in extreme cases, can lead to heart attacks and even death.

Athletes and Alcohol 

Sure, athletes like to pop bottles whenever they win a championship, but the reality is that’s probably the first bit of the bubbly they’ve had in quite some time. That’s because alcohol has been shown to increase recovery times, decrease testosterone, and increase cortisol (the “stress” hormone). It’s also been shown to decrease muscle protein synthesis. (13)(14)

Guys drinking beer
Syda Productions/Shutterstock

[Related: The Best Mass Gainers for Digestion, Flavor, and More]

All that’s to say, one or two drinks won’t completely derail your progress, but you’re probably better off saving your bar days for the off-season. 

References

  1. Pramuková B, Szabadosová V, Soltésová A. Current knowledge about sports nutrition. Australas Med J. 2011;4(3):107-110. doi:10.4066/AMJ.2011.520
  2. American Dietetic Association; Dietitians of Canada; American College of Sports Medicine, Rodriguez NR, Di Marco NM, Langley S. American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Nutrition and athletic performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2009 Mar;41(3):709-31. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e31890eb86. PMID: 19225360.
  3. Mamerow MM, Mettler JA, English KL, Casperson SL, Arentson-Lantz E, Sheffield-Moore M, Layman DK, Paddon-Jones D. Dietary protein distribution positively influences 24-h muscle protein synthesis in healthy adults. J Nutr. 2014 Jun;144(6):876-80. doi: 10.3945/jn.113.185280. Epub 2014 Jan 29. PMID: 24477298; PMCID: PMC4018950.
  4. Vitale K, Getzin A. Nutrition and Supplement Update for the Endurance Athlete: Review and Recommendations. Nutrients. 2019;11(6):1289. Published 2019 Jun 7. doi:10.3390/nu11061289
  5. Hassapidou, M. (2011). Carbohydrate requirements of elite athletes. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 45(2), e2–e2. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsm.2010.081570.23
  6. Kerksick CM, Arent S, Schoenfeld BJ, et al. International society of sports nutrition position stand: nutrient timing. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017;14:33. Published 2017 Aug 29. doi:10.1186/s12970-017-0189-4
  7. Sallinen J, Pakarinen A, Ahtiainen J, Kraemer WJ, Volek JS, Häkkinen K. Relationship between diet and serum anabolic hormone responses to heavy-resistance exercise in men. Int J Sports Med. 2004 Nov;25(8):627-33. doi: 10.1055/s-2004-815818. PMID: 15532008.
  8. Volpe SL. Micronutrient requirements for athletes. Clin Sports Med. 2007 Jan;26(1):119-30. doi: 10.1016/j.csm.2006.11.009. PMID: 17241918.
  9. Pons V, Riera J, Capó X, et al. Calorie restriction regime enhances physical performance of trained athletes. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2018;15:12. Published 2018 Mar 9. doi:10.1186/s12970-018-0214-2
  10.  Whitfield AH. Too much of a good thing? The danger of water intoxication in endurance sports. Br J Gen Pract. 2006;56(528):542-545.
  11. O’Neal EK, Wingo JE, Richardson MT, Leeper JD, Neggers YH, Bishop PA. Half-marathon and full-marathon runners’ hydration practices and perceptions. J Athl Train. 2011 Nov-Dec;46(6):581-91. doi: 10.4085/1062-6050-46.6.581. PMID: 22488182; PMCID: PMC3418934.
  12. Godek SF, Peduzzi C, Burkholder R, Condon S, Dorshimer G, Bartolozzi AR. Sweat rates, sweat sodium concentrations, and sodium losses in 3 groups of professional football players. J Athl Train. 2010 Jul-Aug;45(4):364-71. doi: 10.4085/1062-6050-45.4.364. PMID: 20617911; PMCID: PMC2902030.
  13. Lecoultre V, Schutz Y. Effect of a small dose of alcohol on the endurance performance of trained cyclists. Alcohol Alcohol. 2009 May-Jun;44(3):278-83. doi: 10.1093/alcalc/agn108. Epub 2009 Jan 9. PMID: 19136497. 
  14. Parr EB, Camera DM, Areta JL, Burke LM, Phillips SM, Hawley JA, et al. (2014) Alcohol Ingestion Impairs Maximal Post-Exercise Rates of Myofibrillar Protein Synthesis following a Single Bout of Concurrent Training. PLoS ONE 9(2): e88384. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0088384 

Featured image: ArtOfPhotos/Shutterstock

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