Nutrition 101 for Athletes

It is an important goal for all athletes to provide their bodies with appropriate fuels to maintain and enhance their performance. Carbohydrates and proteins are major sources for the athlete. Athletes need to consider the amount of time between eating and performance when choosing foods. The following are recommendations and facts to consider when consuming carbohydrates before, during, and after training or competition.


Athletes: for this purpose, an athlete is defined as one who participates in a sports activity with emphasis on cardio-respiratory endurance training (highly aerobic).
Exercise: Endurance, strength, and flexibility activities are all components of exercise that keep a person fit and healthy.
Fatigue: The body’s energy reserves are exhausted and waste products, such as lactic acid, have increased. the athlete will not be able to continue activity at the same intensity or rate.
Glycogen: A stored form of glucose in the liver and muscle.


3-4 Hours Before Competition
(~ 700 kcal or 150 grams of carbs)
2 servings of fruits and vegetables, 2 servings of grain products, 1 serving of a lower fat milk product, and 1 serving of a lean meat product.
Examples: fresh fruit, fruit or vegetable juice and baked potato, cereal with low-fat milk, low-fat yogurt, bread or bagel with peanut butter or lean meat or low-fat cheese, or spaghetti with tomato sauce.

2-3 Hours Before Competition
(~300-400 kcal or 90 grams of carbs)
1 serving fruit and vegetables and 2 servings of grain product.
Examples: fresh fruit, fruit or vegetable juice, bread, bagel, English muffin (with limited amounts of margarine, butter, or cream cheese), oatmeal, or pancakes (with a limited amount of syrup).

1 Hour or Less Before Competition
(~100 kcal or 30 grams of carbs)
1 serving of fresh fruit or juice or 1 ½ cup of a sports drink
Protein plays a minor role in providing energy for the body during exercise.


The Pre-exercise meal provides two main purposes:
It keeps the athlete from feeling hungry before and during exercise.
It maintains optimal levels of blood glucose for the exercising muscles.

The pre-exercise meal should be eaten early enough to allow time for digestion and absorption and complete emptying of the stomach.

Carbohydrate intake during exercise improves performance when the exercise lasts longer than one hour. If exercise is less than one hour, ingesting carbohydrates appears to have no benefits in most individuals.

If carbohydrate feeding starts during exercise, it should be continued throughout the exercise. Discontinuing part-way through can result in fatigue* or decreased performance. More carbohydrates are not better. Nausea, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea may occur if large amounts of carbohydrates are consumed.
Here are some ideas…

Fluids: The rate of ingestion should be about ½ – 1 cup every 15 to 20 min (26 – 30 g every 30 min), such as sports drink, diluted juice, defied regular pop, sweetened herbal tea.
Gels: the rate of ingestion should be 30 – 40 g every 30 minutes. (one gel pack every 30 minutes)
Solids: about 30 – 40 g (such as ¼ bagel) every 30 minutes and drink plain water
Carbohydrate feeding does not prevent fatigue, it simply delays it.


Appetite is usually suppressed after exercise. Fluid, such as a yogurt smoothie or a sports drink, is an option for those who cannot consume solid carbohydrates.

Homemade Sports Drink: 3 1/2 cups water, 1/2 cup orange juice, 2 1/2 tablespoons honey or other sugar, 1/4 teaspoon salt

  • Energy is stored as glycogen* in muscles.
  • It takes at least 20 hours to restore muscle glycogen after intense exercise.
  • Restoration is enhanced by consuming carbohydrates in the first 15-30 minutes immediately after exercise.
  • Delaying carbohydrate intake after exercise will reduce glycogen restoration.
  • At least 60-90 g of carbohydrates should be consumed within 15 – 30 minutes after exercise to maximize muscle glycogen stores.
  • Ideal foods include pasta, sandwiches, yogurt, crackers, bagels, granola bars, or, if preferred, a sports drink.
  • The addition of a small amount of protein will further enhance glycogen restoration.
  • Athletes should not consume any alcohol during the recovery period. Alcohol will delay the restoration of glycogen.


Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy for athletic events. Carbohydrate feedings before exercise can help to restore glycogen stores which may be called upon during prolonged training and in high-intensity competition.

Carbohydrate meals should be low fat, easily digested, and tolerated by the athlete. Fat intake should be limited because it delays stomach emptying time and takes longer to digest.


Food Portion Carbs
Bagel large (3-4 oz) 45-60g
Bread, sliced 1 slice 15g
Crackers, rounds or squares 6-8 crackers 15-20g
Muffin or pancake 2.5” & 4” diameter respectively 15-20g
Oatmeal 1/2 cup (1 packet of instant) 15g
Pasta or rice 1/2 cup cooked (1 oz dry) 15-20g
Popcorn 3 cups, popped 15g
Tortilla, corn or flour 5-6 inch 15g
Broccoli 1 cup cooked 5-10g
Salad greens (lettuce, spinach, etc.) 2 cups raw 5-10g
Carrots, winter squash, pumpkin 1 cup 15g
Beans, peas, lentils 1 cup 30g
Sweet potato, corn, regular potato 1 cup 30-45g
Other vegetables (cucumber, green beans, mushrooms, onions, tomatoes) 1 cup raw or cooked 5-10g
Apple, banana large 30g
Fruit, dried 1/3-1/2 cup 60g
Fruit juice, lemonade 1 cup 30-45g
Milk, plain yogurt 1 cup 12g
Yogurt, sweetened and flavored 1 cup 40-45g
Fluid-replacement beverage 1 cup 15-19g
Soda 12 oz 40-45g
Sports bar 1 bar 40-60g
Sports bar, high protein 1 bar 2-30g
Sugar, jelly, jam, honey, preserves 1 Tbsp 15g


  • Consuming protein with carbohydrates immediately after exercise will increase the restoration rate of muscle glycogen stores.
  • Protein does not enhance the restoration rate of muscle glycogen stores when intakes of carbohydrates are insufficient.
  • Most athletes’ regular diets provide ample protein. Even if there is an increased need for protein in a particular sport, the increases are easily met by their typical diet. Intakes of additional protein beyond the recommended levels for athletes’ do not increase strength or enhance performance.
  • Protein plays a minor role in providing energy for the body during exercise.

These articles are strictly for informational purposes. Always seek medical and/or nutritional advice before taking any action. All nutrition articles posted on the TFA website have been reviewed and verified by our in-house Registered Dietitian/Licensed Nutritionist. Leah Fakhuri, R.D., L.D.N. This article was sourced from

Check out the next blog for the role and importance of Proteins.

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