When one thinks of notable athletes like Lebron James and Tom Brady, they often assume their praiseworthy skills come about from sustained training and practicing, natural athleticism, and highly competitive drives to succeed. Although these aspects are likely to be high influencers, diet is often neglected as a major factor. Pro and most D1 college sports teams have dietitians that work directly with athletes to analyze body compositions, assess dietary habits, and provide nutrition education. The reasoning behind this is that nutrition for athletes differs, and is more highly stressed upon, than compared to those of more inactive lifestyles. Physical and mental performance is directly influenced by the foods one puts in their body, and knowledge of nutrition for athletes is necessary to achieve maximal athletic ability.

Macronutrient Importance

spaghetti, pasta, sauce, macaroni, basil, carbohydrate
Jocelyn Hsu

The macronutrients of carbohydrates, fat, and protein are critical to monitor in regards to nutrition for athletes. Carbohydrates are the most highly focused macronutrient within sports nutrition due to their consumption being vital for optimal athletic performance and recovery. Carbohydrates fuel metabolic pathways that allow one to perform high intensity and endurance exercises, and are key substrates for muscular work. Carbohydrates generate high amounts of the energy supplying molecule, ATP, which helps to improve exercise efficiency. Carbohydrates have also been shown to regulate muscle adaptability to exercise. A lack of carbohydrates within an athlete's diet is in direct relation to fatigue, impaired skill, and lack of concentration during activity. Protein acts as both a trigger and substrate for synthesis used in both metabolism and muscle contractility, as well as enhances bone and tendon structure. Consumption of protein is necessary for muscle building and recovery, body composition maintenance, as well as preventing injury. Fat, like carbohydrates, also provides fuel for exercising muscles. 

Micronutrient Importance

reusable straw, straw, Dairy Free, Vegan, oat milk, milk, mason jar
Laura Subiaur

Micronutrients that are especially important to include within nutrition for athletes are iron, vitamin D, calcium, and antioxidants. Exercise induces the use of metabolic pathways, in which these micronutrients are necessary for, and muscle biochemical adaptations that arise from training may cause the needs of these micronutrients to increase. Iron has a direct relationship with proper muscular function and proficient work capacity. Vitamin D plays a role in bone health and evidence suggests that this vitamin is also useful in preventing injury, inflammation, improving neuromuscular function, and improving respiration. Calcium is vital for growth, maintenance, and repair of bone, as well as regulation of muscle contraction, conduction of nerves, and blood clotting. Antioxidants protect cells from oxidative damage, which can arise from exercise due to increased oxygen consumption. 

Hydration Importance

juice, ice, soda, water, milk
Alexa Rojek

During exercise and physical activity, fluid is lost via increased respiration, gastrointestinal and renal sources, and from sweating. Therefore, it is necessary to replace these lost fluids by keeping adequately hydrated to maintain health and optimal athletic performance. The amount of fluid necessary to intake depends upon the exercise, environment, and type of athlete because amount of fluid loss varies with these factors. For example, an athlete that is performing physical activity in a hot environment is likely to require more fluid than one that performs exercise in a colder temperature area due to likely increases in sweating. 

What to Eat Pre-Exercise

blueberry, cereal, sweet, milk, yogurt, muesli, oatmeal, berry, porridge
Becky Hughes

Pre-exercise nutrition for athletes emphasizes the importance of consuming mostly carbohydrates, as well as some protein, in order to provide muscles with the necessary energy needed for performance and make the correct amino acids available. It is not recommended to consume a meal immediately prior to exercise, due to competing demands of the muscles needing energy to perform and the stomach trying to digest the food.  This can result in less optimal performance, as well as GI upsets. It is advised to eat 1 to 3 hours before exercise, dependent upon body toleration. Suggested foods to consume include a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, oatmeal with fruit, and greek yogurt with berries.

What to Eat Post-Exercise

coffee, tea, espresso, chocolate, beer, milk, Chocolate milk, dairy, beverage
Caroline Ingalls

Post exercise nutrition for athletes serves the purpose of replacing nutrients lost during the exercise activity because the body uses the storage form of carbohydrates to power the muscles. This means that carbohydrates and protein are also vital to consume following physical activity. This allows for the replenishment of stored glycogen, as well as help muscles to repair and rebuild by supplying amino acids. It is advised to eat 15 minutes following intense workouts. It is also emphasized to consume fluids to replace those lost during exercise. Post exercise food options can include low fat chocolate milk, turkey and vegetable wraps, as well as low fat fruit and milk smoothies. 

Not only is it important to train hard while at the gym or sport practices, but it is also necessary to be an athlete outside of these environments in regards to maintaining proper nutrition. What an athlete puts in their body 24/7 is directly related to the physical and mental output they demonstrate during exercise engagement. While one may have natural athletic talent and the motivation to excel at sports and fitness activities, they will be unable to achieve peak performance without paying attention to and regulating their nutrition.