Athletes have a lot to juggle! Between practices, competitions, extra strength training, plus the work/school/family realities of life, it can be tough to balance it all. When it comes to nutrition for athletes, it can sometimes seem just as complicated. Calories, macros, supplements, meal timing, etc. It’s a lot to think about and sometimes it can seem overwhelming. But today I’m going to help make it a little easier!
When it comes to performance nutrition, there’s a clear hierarchy of importance in regard to what nutrition factors we should focus on first before moving on to others. We don’t want to put the cart before the horse and we need to be nailing the basics of good performance nutrition before we move onto the smaller details. Basically if we start at the top and work our way down, we’re probably going to over-complicate things, waste time and money on supplements and products we don’t need, and never really get the results we were hoping for. On the other hand, if we start at the bottom and work our way up, we can create a solid foundation of good nutrition to build on, and work up toward the smaller details.
In my practice as a sport Dietitian I see this happen time and time again. Clients are spending hundreds of dollars a month on nutrition supplements, but are eating far below their needs and are unhappy with their performance and their body composition results. They’re frustrated and hungry, and don’t understand why!
Check out my breakdown below!
Next, let’s get into each section of our hierarchy one by one and why it’s so key to build up from the bottom!
Energy Balance and Total Calories. For athletes, the most important thing they can do every single day when it comes to performing their best with nutrition is to just simply eat enough. The calories we get from food are what supply our working muscles with energy (and every other cell in our body!), and to perform in our sport we need to have an adequate and constant supply of fuel. If we’re under-eating and not getting in enough calories, our performance is guaranteed to suffer for it. As an athlete, your first step toward optimizing your performance with nutrition is to make sure you’re consistently hitting your calorie target.
Macronutrient Distribution. Macronutrients are the nutrients in our diet that give us calories. These are carbohydrates, protein, and fats. Alcohol also provides calories so can technically be considered a macronutrient as well, but athletes should definitely be minimizing their alcohol intake since getting a lot of calories from alcohol will DEFINITELY impair performance! In a nutrition coaching session, after we’ve established an adequate calorie target, the next step would be to figure out what percent of our total calories should come from each of these 3 macronutrients. These targets can vary depending on your sport, daily training schedule, and overall performance goals.
Now, imagine if we were more concerned about getting the “perfect macros”, but weren’t thinking about our total calorie needs. We might put a lot of energy into calculating and tracking our macros, and wind up feeling stressed or frustrated when we aren’t seeing the results that we hoped for. In this case the issue may not be that our macro distribution is wrong, it actually may be that we skipped step one and weren’t getting enough fuel in general. If we’re under-fueling, macronutrient distribution is almost irrelevant.
Micronutrients. Vitamins and minerals are definitely an important aspect of performance nutrition (and good health in general) but only after we’ve crossed the first two steps of the pyramid off of our list. This is for two reasons:
The first is that if we’re not getting enough total energy (step one of our pyramid), or our macronutrient distribution is out of balance, (step two of our pyramid) chances are some of our micronutrients may be lacking or out of proportion as well. For example if we aren’t consistently getting protein in our diet, we may be lacking some nutrients like iron or zinc, since these nutrients often come packaged with protein sources in our diet.
The second reason is that if we’re under-eating in general or don’t have a balanced approach to our macronutrients, taking vitamin or mineral supplements isn’t going to make up for it. Under-fueling or following an overly restrictive diet while taking large amounts of supplements will get us absolutely nowhere. Nothing can replace adequate energy intake for athletic performance!
Timing of meals and snacks. When we eat as athletes is definitely important, and making sure we get the timing of our meals and snacks right can have a huge impact on our performance. That being said, as important as it is to think about when we eat, being sure that we’re eating enough and choosing the right foods to adequately fuel our performance is even more important. For example it’s a good idea to fuel up before a practice or training session- but if during that time we eat too little, too much, or without the proper macronutrient balance we might wind up sidelined.
Under-fueling pre-training is by far the more common issue impacting athletes in terms of meal timing, but choosing high fat or high protein foods right before a practice, game, or workout can also cause issues like digestive distress, whereas eating those same foods at other times of day may not be a concern at all. Personally I’ll never forget the time I ate lasagna far too close to an ultimate frisbee game. Pro tip: Lasagna makes a better post-workout meal than a pre-workout one!
Supplements. Nutrition supplements are at the top tier of our pyramid for good reason: they should never replace the solid nutrition foundation we build toward with the other steps. Basically if you’re spending time and money taking supplements but aren’t hitting your calorie goals, are all over the place with your macros and micros, or are skipping meals and not thinking about nutrient timing you’re probably not going to get the results you want from supplements alone. In reality, nutrition supplements should really only come into play after the other steps have been optimized. Is there a time and a place for nutrition supplements for athletes? Absolutely! But only after the other steps have been taken. Supplements are just the sprinkles on your sport nutrition cake.
If you really want to perform your best, take a step-wise, balanced approach to your nutrition strategy. Start at the bottom, building a solid nutrition foundation, and work your way up to the top!
Do you want to learn how to optimize your athletic performance with simple, personalized nutrition strategies? Click here to get all the details for my one on one nutrition coaching programs, and Apply for a spot!
About the Author: Stephanie Hnatiuk is a Registered Dietitian and Personal Trainer who specializes in helping athletes reach their peak potential with nutrition.