Nutrition Secrets for Athletes


Last quarter I had the opportunity to work as a sports nutrition intern for Dr. Liz Applegate, Director of Sports Nutrition for Intercollegiate Athletics at UC Davis. I worked directly with both her and our Division 1 athletes, and learned a few things along the way. What I found was that if there is one thing that athletes need to know, it is how to eat. Athletes, especially at college and professional levels, are required to be very in tune with their bodies, spending years figuring out what method of nutrition works best. Whether you are a seasoned athlete or training to run your first 5k, use these tips to improve your performance.

Don’t Skip Breakfast

Dr. Applegate emphasized that one of the biggest mistakes athletes make is heading out for a run in the morning without eating anything first. Your blood sugar is already low when you wake up, so you should eat something rich in carbohydrates, like half a bagel or toast upon waking. That way, 30 to 45 minutes will have passed before you actually head out the door.

If you’re not used to eating in the morning, start small. Drink a glass of apple juice before your workout until your stomach adjusts, and then add in a piece of toast. Mixing in protein with cream cheese, peanut butter, or yogurt slows down your gastric emptying rate, so you’ll need more time between the time you eat and the time you hit the road.

Gwen Jorgenson, American professional triathlete and a member of the 2012 Olympic Team, likes to eat her favorite breakfast of oats with raisins, walnuts, bananas, peanut butter, honey and two poached eggs on top. Lauren Wenger, a current member of the USA Water Polo Women’s National Team and Olympic silver medalist says “Every single day, no matter where I am, I always eat one pack of instant oatmeal with a huge scoop of peanut butter for breakfast. It keeps me fueled and gives me enough energy for the morning practice.”

Stay Hydrated

Drinking water while you work out is great, but the fact that you are thirsty means you are already dehydrated. Athletes should be consuming .5 to 1 ounce of water per pound of body weight every day. To get enough water, try carrying around a water bottle with you throughout the day (see water bottle suggestions in previous post on Staying Hydrated).

Heather O’Reilly, a member of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team and two-time Olympic gold medalist, says “I wind up drinking more throughout the day when I carry around my water bottle, which keeps me going.” If you choose to consume sports drinks instead of water, avoid trying a new drink during competition. Sip on the same beverage you used during your training to stay hydrated, avoid any stomach issues, and  perform at your best.

Boost Your Immunity

One of the best things you can do to better your performance is to stay healthy, which means including antioxidant rich  superfoods in your diet. Incorporate whole-grain carbs, lean proteins, and colorful fruits and veggies into snacks and meals every day. The more color on your plate, the better. Another way to stay healthy is to eat Greek yogurt, which is high in probiotics. Sprinkle some walnuts and fruit or flax seeds on top for an extra antioxidant boost.

British snowboarder Zoe Gillings, who competed in Snowboard Cross at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, says her favorite snacks include: berries and nuts with Greek yogurt; turkey and avocado wholegrain wraps; tuna salad with basmati rice; oat bars and milk; homemade smoothies; and cottage cheese with Ryvita crackers.

Multivitamins are another weapon against sickness. Erin Hamlina two-time luge Olympian, says “I recently started taking a variety of vitamins like vitamin C, calcium and fish oil, because fresh, nutrient-rich foods are hard to come by in some places.”

Eat for Health

Dr. Applegate has said one of the biggest nutrition mistake she sees athletes, especially female athletes, make is reducing their caloric intake in an attempt to be lean. This causes reduced stores of carbohydrates in your body, which are essential for training and performing, and can then lead to muscle breakdown. This leads to your body using protein as an alternative fuel source.

Swimmer and 12-time Olympic Medalist Natalie Coughlin says, “I don’t have a ‘strict’ diet but eat very healthy. I prefer to eat healthy because it makes my body feel so much better. And healthy food doesn’t necessarily mean tasteless. Healthy food can be delicious when you take advantage of herbs, spices and seasonal food. I focus on what is in season, with a big emphasis on veggies and fruits. I don’t eat a lot of meat, but when I do I indulge with pastured, sustainably raised meats from local farmers.” Coughlin also maintains her own garden at her Lafayette, CA home that includes ten citrus trees, seven seasonal vegetable beds, and five chickens for eggs.

Recover the Right Way

Within 30 minutes after finishing a high-intensity and/or endurance activity, you should consume a mix of protein and carbohydrates, such as a glass of chocolate milk or a whey protein shake. This will help reduce muscle soreness and aid in your muscle recovery. Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks, the first NFL quarterback to win 23 games in his first two seasons, drinks a shake rich in protein and carbohydrates immediately after a game and a protein-rich meal two hours later. When recovering, avoid processed carbohydrates, which increase inflammation, and opt for anti-inflammatory foods, like cherries, walnuts, or kale instead.


Photo Credit: UC Davis

11 thoughts on “Nutrition Secrets for Athletes

  1. I absolutely love this post!! As an athlete myself, these are some really awesome tips and reminders! Also a huge fan of Professor Applegate 🙂

  2. These are great tips and wonderful ways to improve athletic performance through good nutrition and dietary habits. Awesome encouraging everyone, including athletes to eat more Greek yogurt!

  3. This is great advice! 🙂 I want to start being more active physically as well so this will help a lot as I am always confused about what food to consume before and after.

  4. This is great! I like that you included “don’t skip breakfast” because many students actually think it’s the opposite. Very informative 🙂

    1. I agree! I think a lot of students just don’t make time for breakfast because they are too busy or have early class, but end up feeling the effects later when they are suddenly tired during their workout or in the middle of the day. It really is something that is worth making time for.

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