Optimal nutrition for sports performance with a female in a plank position and left leg lifted

Optimal Nutrition for Sports Performance

From the everyday gym-goer to the professional athlete, sports performance is one of the keys to physical & mental fitness. Whether you’re going for gold or merely looking to PR your max deadlift, the way in which we train and nurture our bodies will impact those results. But how does optimal nutrition impact sports performance?

Keep reading to find out how optimal nutrition can aid in your sports performance. Then check out this follow-up post on Optimal Nutrition for Sports Recovery & Other Tips

The information presented in this post is intended as a personal and professional representation of my views on food, nutrition, and sports nutrition. Be sure to check out our disclosures.

The contents of The Pineapple Expressionist is intended for informational and educational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Reliance on any information provided by this site is solely at your own risk. Consult a physician before starting any exercise regimen.

What is Sports Performance Training?

Whether you’re a recreational, collegiate, or elite-level athlete, by definition, sports performance is measured by an athlete’s “technical, tactical, physiological, psychological, social characteristics” specifically when it comes to intensified training. (5)

This can be measured in various ways, such as personal bests (PBs) or personal records (PR), and are heavily influenced by training periodization, pre- and post-workout nutrition & lifestyle. 

Athletes and coaches should be able to determine whether the type of training is effective on the athlete’s performance.

Image with text athletes and coaches should work together to determine effective training periodization with a female athlete training with a coach

Has the athlete’s time to finish decreased or increased? Do they recover more quickly after a workout? Are they able to perform the same amount of work with decreased or increased exertion? 

Small improvements & enhancements can be seen over time, or just the opposite if the proper training and recovery protocols aren’t implemented or if periodization never occurs.

The definition of insanity is repeating the same measure over & over again and expecting a different outcome!

Optimal Nutrition for Sports Performance

The timing of nutrients is one of the key factors in optimizing sports performance and minimizing injury. Proper performance nutrition still is, and always will be, the #1 priority.

Of course, the type of sport or activity you’re engaging in will determine nutrient needs and timing.

For example, you should never go into a lifting (heavy and/or high reps) session hungry. That’s a recipe for injury, which will ultimately negatively impact performance. If you can’t train, then you can’t improve.

Power/strength athletes engaging in short yet explosive bursts of energy (i.e. sprinters, powerlifters & hockey players) have different needs than endurance athletes training for marathons, triathlons & ultra distance events.

Image of a muscular male sprinter on track side by side a female distance runner on ocean coastal road with text both are athletes but with different needs

For example, endurance athletes engaging in 90+ minutes of activity need to ensure proper nutrition before, during & after training or competition focusing more so on carbohydrates.

Whereas the 1-2 hour-long gym session won’t necessarily require nutrition during that session (think about how many more breaks you take even just walking to the next machine) with a greater focus on protein post-workout.

However, both types of athletes need adequate glycogen stores for those explosive and prolonged movements. Glycogen is the storage form of glucose found in the liver and muscle.

Without adequate/replenished muscle glycogen (from carbohydrates), performance may take a hit. Check out the follow-up article Optimal Nutrition for Sports Recovery for more details on how to accomplish this.

But please don’t confuse the importance of all the macronutrients for all types of athletes, such as fat for not only satiety but cognition and mental focus for all athletes. The ratios simply change based on the length, duration & intensity of said sport or activity.

Don’t Neglect the Micros

And equally as important are the micronutrients (i.e. electrolytes/vitamins/minerals). These little guys tend to get forgotten about since they’re required in much smaller quantities compared to the macros. But without them, the macros couldn’t properly function as they should.

They’re recognized most often in supplement form or in sports beverages, but foods and beverages also contain a plethora of micronutrients, such as the high-quality heme-iron content in red meat or the non-heme iron content of quinoa.

Plus many fruits and vegetables can serve as nondairy sources of calcium & iron for those sensitive and are some of the best sources of vitamin C.

Every Athlete is Different

Every athlete is different and has different gastrointestinal (GI) tolerance to food in their systems prior to physical activity.

I, for example, am much more comfortable during a workout with more liquid-based nutrition prior to training (i.e. 1 scoop mass gainer protein powder mixed with water and fruit). This provides me with protein to prepare for recovery & carbs to fuel me during my workout.

However, other athletes might prefer a full-on meal prior to training, which is great if you can tolerate that. Choose your pre-workout nutrition according to you, your needs, and your tolerance.

Consider the Work Being Done

And it may seem counterintuitive to see some of the best foods for sports performance as many (unfairly) deem athletes’ diets as “unhealthy”.

Gif of Will Ferrell as Buddy the Elf during the sugar and spaghetti scene with food falling from his mouth from the movie Elf
Buddy’s got the right idea!

What needs to be considered is the amount of work, energy, and scheduling of these athletes’ training demands. Therefore, oftentimes, one of the first priorities is to get these athletes enough calories. 

And sometimes that may come in the form of a PB&J on whole grain bread, an 8 oz. glass of milk or chocolate milk, and a handful of Doritos.

While it’s by far one of my favorite elementary school lunches & memories (who else threw their Doritos on their PB&J – Little Rascals’ style??), I’m confident knowing that my athlete will actually consume that whole meal. 

Gif of darla and alfalfa from the little rascals movie eating sandwiches with kitty litter on them
“Now that’s what I call a SANDwich!”

Sports training should not be a punishment, and the same goes for sports nutrition. If an athlete won’t eat what you’ve prepared or suggested for them, it doesn’t matter how nutrient-dense that meal or snack might be if they don’t actually consume those nutrients. 

Keep These Things in Mind

Another thing to consider is the mental health and pressure of athletes, even the recreational athlete who’s looking to get a six-pack for their own, personal reasons.

With so much to consider when it comes to training, timing, scheduling, intensity, home life, etc., let’s try to make one part of our athletes’ regimen enjoyable, while still striving to get them the results they’re after.

But don’t be Michael Scott!! Always be sure to test out new foods & nutrition protocols during the TRAINING phases NOT during COMPETITION

Check out how NOT to carbo-load below. 

Best Foods for Sports Performance

Below is a list of some optimal foods for sports performance that are not only nutrient-dense but palatable & enjoyable (and keep in mind that many foods often fall into more than one macronutrient category): 

Protein

  • Beans (in moderation)
  • Cheese
  • Complementary proteins, especially if you’re a vegan or vegetarian athlete
  • Dairy (nonfat Greek yogurt, kefir, cottage cheese, cream cheese)
  • Eggs (all varieties – hardboiled are easiest to travel/transport on the go)
  • Fatty fish
  • Ground meats
  • Hummus
  • Lean poultry
  • Milk or milk substitutes
    • Somewhat controversial in the sports world, milk will also be something to consider based on individual tolerance and inflammatory factors. Some athletes may experience excess inflammation when consuming dairy, outside of an allergy or intolerance, that could hinder sports performance and recovery.
    • Consider lactose-friendly varieties to ease digestion.
  • Nut butter
  • Nuts & seeds
  • Quinoa, amaranth, couscous
  • Protein powder
    • Not only optimal for sports recovery, since protein is the slowest digesting macronutrient, you can also account for muscle breakdown & initiate muscle protein synthesis by ingesting protein prior to training. By the time that training session ends, you’ve already got some protein on reserve waiting to start repairing muscle
    • For more information, check out The Protein Power Packet + CBD & Sports Bonus.
  • Red meat

Carbohydrates

Key for glycogen storage & replenishment:

  • Bagels
  • Fruit & vegetables
    • Specifically cantaloupe, citrus fruits, berries, bell peppers, cruciferous and dark, green leafy vegetables
    • Excellent source of electrolytes without the need for sugary sports beverages.
    • For more information, check out Eat Your Electrolytes.
  • Pasta
  • Potatoes/sweet potatoes
  • Rice
  • Tortillas
  • Whole grains (not whole wheat)
    • Wheat is often refined like white bread products and died brown; whole-grain is really what you want to look for.
    • Crackers, bread, corn, pita
  • Remember to always pair carbohydrates with a protein and/or fat source to stabilize blood sugar levels & avoid a crash (i.e. white potato with a dollop of Greek yogurt and shredded cheddar cheese)

Fats

  • Avocado oil (for cooking)
  • Butter or ghee (for cooking, to add to coffee, foods, etc.)
  • Coconut or MCT oil (for cooking, to add to coffee, etc.)
  • Fatty fish
  • Ground meats
    • Depending on athletes’ goals, 97/3, 85/15, 80/20 are good options.
    • Need to put on weight? Go for 85/15 or 80/20.
    • Trying to lean out? Go for 97/3 or even 95/5 if you can find it.
  • Hummus
  • Nuts & seeds
  • Olive oil (for dressings at room temperature)
  • Red meat with marbling

Other

  • Sodium/table salt (especially for salty sweaters)
  • Salt substitutes such as Mrs. Dash (potassium chloride – KCl) for those sensitive to salt or athletes with high blood pressure
List of Best Foods for Sports Performance Infographic with suggestions for protein, carbohydrate, fat and micronutrient sources

Give Your Body What It Needs

Use the tips above, but don’t get too wrapped up in the details at first. The biggest takeaway is to never starve your muscles, respiratory system, or brain prior to a workout.

Make sure you’re fueled (fed) so that you can optimize your sports performance, minimize injury, and stay mentally focused. A hungry athlete will be a hurting athlete. Give your body what it needs.


>>> Now be sure to go check out the follow-up post on Optimal Nutrition for Sports Recovery & Other Tips to really optimize your performance! <<<


Don’t forget about the importance of sleep for sports performance. Without adequate sleep, we simply can’t function at our optimized potential nor properly repair and recover.


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