Fueling Your Body for Optimal Performance

fitness healthy living nutrition Jul 25, 2023

When it comes to living a healthy lifestyle, two fundamental pillars are nutrition and physical activity. These can contribute to lowered risk of so many physical diseases and conditions along with improved mental health and well-being.

Healthy dietary recommendations include minimum levels of nutrients you need every day. These include protein, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals. But there are some additional nutrition recommendations for athletes, whether you’re competitive or recreational.

Fueling your body for performance is going to play a key role to help you reach or exceed your fitness goals. When it comes to activity, the 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends about 30 minutes of activity 5 days each week (or about 150 minutes per week). You may do that much activity, or you may do much more.

The nutrition recommendations apply to both dedicated, competitive athletes looking for an edge over the competition, as well as recreational “weekend warriors.”

Whichever scenario you’re in, if you are active, you need to know these.

Learn many of the foods that are filled with the energy and nutrients necessary for training and adequate recovery—and the ideal timing so you know when to consume them.

Nutrients for athletic performance

Fluids: Water is the most important nutrient for athletic performance because it keeps the body hydrated and at the right temperature. During one hour of vigorous exercise, your body can lose several liters of sweat. As little as a two percent drop in hydration can negatively impact your performance.

Calories: If you’re very physically active, you’re going to need more calories than someone who is not very active. You need fuel to provide your body the strength and energy it needs to perform. But, be careful. People tend to overestimate the number of calories burned during their workouts, so be sure not to take in too many extra calories.

For example, a competitive female athlete needs 2,200-2,700 calories per day. If you’re not competitive, you don’t need this many. [Check out MyFitnessPal’s calorie calculator to determine your caloric needs]

Carbohydrates: Fuel your muscles burn when they are working. There are two types of carbohydrates: simple and complex.

  • Simple carbohydrates are sugars found in sodas and sweetened foods and often provide a lot of energy, but rarely provide many vitamins or minerals. Simple carbohydrates are also found in white pastas, breads, and cereals.
  • Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, are starches and contain more nutrients including vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Examples of foods with complex carbohydrates include fruits, starchy vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds.

For your everyday carbohydrate needs, stick to complex carbohydrates. However, when it comes to vigorous exercise, simple carbohydrates can be used before, during, and after an intense workout. This is because more intense exercise needs more carbohydrates to immediately burn as fuel.

Having simple carbohydrates helps you feel more energized before a workout, work harder, and recover faster, but they’re not recommended as your primary source of carbohydrates.

Protein: An essential component of muscles (in addition to its importance for other functions such as tissue repair, bones, immunity, enzymes, neurotransmitters, etc.) and that’s why your protein intake is particularly important if you’re focusing on muscle-building resistance exercises. Also, once carbohydrate stores are used up, your body can turn to protein as an alternative fuel source. That’s why some athletes need more protein than non-athletes. For example, many athletes need up to 2 grams protein/kg/day, or if doing intense training, then up to 2.2 grams protein/kg/day.

This doesn’t mean that you need to focus on high-protein foods or use protein supplements if you’re eating enough calories. That’s because most Americans already eat twice as much protein as they really need. Recommended sources of protein include lean meats, eggs, dairy, nuts, and legumes.

Nutrition for different types of exercise
By consistently eating a range of nutrient-dense foods and staying hydrated, you can continue to improve your performance (and health) over time.

Here are a few key nutrition recommendations on how to fuel yourself for performance depending on the type of workout you’re doing and how long it's going to last.

Before any workout

To avoid dehydration, drink about 2 cups of water about 2 hours before your workout.

When it comes to food, if your goal is to improve your athletic performance, say for a big game, don’t exercise on an empty stomach. Have a small meal, ideally with fibrous carbohydrates and only small amounts of fat, about 60-90 minutes beforehand.

If you’re going to work out for less than one hour

Water is your fluid of choice. Drink up to 1 cup every 15-20 minutes throughout your workout.

If you’re going to work out for more than one hour

Before you get started, have some carbohydrates and limit the amount of fat you consume. That might look like a glass of juice, cup of yogurt, or an English muffin with fresh fruit.

If your 60+ minutes of activity is going to be an intense aerobic workout, you’re also going to want to have lots of fluids and some carbohydrates during that time. Drink up to 1 cup of water every 15-20 minutes for the first hour.

For your second and subsequent hours you are going to need to replace lost electrolytes and carbohydrates. It is at this point where you can switch your fluid to a sports drink if you want to. Aim for 5-10 ounces every 15-20 minutes. If you choose to stick with water (instead of a sports drink) for your second hour and beyond, add in some food sources of electrolytes and carbohydrates such as 2-3 handfuls of pretzels or a half of a cup of low-fat granola.

After any workout

Exercise depletes the stores of fluids and energy in your body. Depending on how hard you worked out, you may need to top it up. In general, replace the weight you lost during your training session with fluids. This means that for every pound you lose exercising, drink about 3 cups of fluid within the next 6 hours.

If you were active for less than 60 minutes, you can replace your lost fluid weight with water. If you trained for more than 90 minutes, you’re going to want to have more carbohydrates with a bit of protein two hours later. This can be a sports bar, trail mix with nuts, or yogurt with granola.

Whether you’re a seasoned competitive athlete or a recreational “weekend warrior,” fueling your body properly can improve your performance. The first nutrient to consider is water, so be sure to hydrate before, during, and after your workout as recommended. It’s also important to take in enough calories, carbohydrates, and proteins because these will help power your workout, replenish lost nutrients, and give your body the substances it needs to repair itself afterwards.

If you’re wondering whether you may need to change up the way you’re hydrating and fueling your physical activities, consult a certified nutritionist who can review your activity levels, health goals, and nutritional status.

As a certified sports nutritionist, I can help. Click HERE to book a chat about making sure to meet your dietary needs.

Wondering if you’re hydrating enough and at the right times to improve your athletic performance? Want to know if you will benefit from sports drinks and protein supplements? Need a personalized nutrition plan to ensure you’re meeting your nutritional needs for your workout goals? Check out my extensive library of Recipes and Resources Bundles.

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