Nutrition’s Role with Sports Performance

by Jeannie Versagli, RDN, CN

I say this often with my clients, “Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?” Athletes often will say training; I say nutrition because you cannot train to your max without the proper nutrition program. The fuel for the muscles and body are what determines how well the body performs in strength and endurance during training and competition.  One of the biggest and earliest bits of feedback I receive from clients who are athletes is, “I have so much more energy.” These athletes are surprised to discover the difference a well-balanced nutrition plan did for them, not only on competition day but every day.

A balanced diet that provides the six essential nutrients for good health will allow the body to compete at its maximum performance level. Typically, an athlete may need an additional 1,000 calories to make up the nutrient deficit from daily training, and as much as 2,400 to 3,000 calories on event days. Since every athlete is unique, the caloric needs and nutrition content is dependent on sex, age, activity, and length of the training and event. 

Let’s look at how these nutrients work together to allow the athlete to perform at their optimal level of performance

What provides the fuel source for athletes to perform?   Carbohydrates.

Muscles require a certain amount of carbohydrates to function well, and carbohydrate stores determine how long you can perform an athletic task. When you run out of fuel, you will not be able to continue with your event/competition. If you know what that feels like, you can imagine how performance can decline without the proper fuel.

An athlete’s nutrition plan should include approximately 60% from wholesome carbohydrate sources.  When preparing a meal, the plate should consist of two-thirds carbohydrates and one-third protein. The types of carbohydrates vary but should contain whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. 

A typical nutrition plan might look like

  • A carbohydrate-rich breakfast, such as whole-grain breakfast cereals, berries, along with dairy.
  • Lunch and dinners with plenty of whole-grain pasta or bread, sweet potatoes, vegetables, and fruits, as well as an appropriately-sized portion of fish, chicken, lean meats, nut butter and/or legumes for protein.
  • A pre-snack before exercise or competing is recommended to help prevent hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), aid in calming the stomach, and to fuel muscles.
  • A post-exercise snack within 30 to 45 minutes after exercising to replace depleted glycogen stores. The general rule of thumb is 0.5 grams of carbohydrates for every pound of body weight.


symptoms are light headedness, blurred vision and fatigue.

Protein and its role with athletic performance

Your diet should provide 15 to 20 % from proteins.  Protein does not build muscles, resistive exercise does.  Protein is necessary for the body to be able to build and repair muscle tissue, produce hormones, skin, hair and nail health along with replenishing red blood cells.  Any protein that is not used in this capacity is stored as fat.  The rule of thumb for getting adequate protein in your diet is .4 grams per pound of body weight per day for most people who are moderately active. Athletes require more protein, but determining the appropriate amount depends on the sport and the amount of time spent actively playing and training.

Fat is an important macronutrient for the body, the daily recommendation for consumption is 20 to 35% of calories come from healthy fat sources. The body depends on fat to insulate our organs, aid in absorbing fat-soluble vitamins, insulate the body, and is a major source of energy for the brain. Athletes should include dietary sources of omega 3 fatty acids such as walnuts, fatty fish, flaxseed, canola and olive oils, and avocados.


Staying adequately hydrated is crucial for maintaining endurance during training and competition. For example, a runner who has lost 2% of his body’s water content will most likely experience a decrease in overall speed by about 6 to 7%.  A general rule of thumb is to take 16 ounces of fluid prior to training and four to six ounces of fluid every 15 minutes of exercise.

Vitamin and Mineral Demands

Eating a diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole-grains assures that the athlete is receiving excellent sources of antioxidants, which counteracts the damage of free radicals.  Studies indicate that an athlete’s performance and overall health can decrease when free radicals become overwhelming in the body.

Free Radicals

are toxic byproducts of oxygen metabolism that can cause significant damage to living cells and tissues in a process called “oxidative stress.”

Determining the best nutrition formula requires the skill of a Sports Dietitian because of the many dietary components that need to come together for an athlete to perform at their maximum potential.  Athletes place high demands on their bodies and their performance is directly related to their nutritional fitness.

Interested in learning more about how nutrition can further improve your athletic performance? Contact


Hockessin Athletic Club opened its doors on June 10 2007. Boasting over 100,000 sq. ft., a 5-pool aquatics complex, and over 200+ weekly group and aqua fitness classes, it is Delaware's premier fitness destination. 100 Fitness Way, Hockessin, DE ·

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