Basic Nutrition for Athletes

Sports Nutrition

Everybody needs help when it comes to their nutrition, even athletes.  Believe it or not, some athletes do not have the slightest clue when it comes to eating for performance.  Don’t worry, here are some basic guidelines to help you out.

  • Begin everyday with breakfast.  Do not even think about skipping it!
  • Take a multivitamin.
  • Three meals a day is the wrong approach.  Smaller meals multiple times a day is a better game plan.
  • A protein source should be included with every meal.  The leaner the better.
  • Drink water.  There are many unnecessary calories in juices and sports drinks.  Soda is a definite no.
  • Post-workout nutrition should include rapidly absorbing nutrients, such as a protein shake or bar.

These are just a few basic guidelines to help you in your pursuit of performance excellence.  Let’s break down some more specifics so you can get the most out of your meals.

Daily Protein Requirements

Protein is always a hot topic among baseball players.  As well it should be, considering the important benefits it can have in enhancing one’s performance.  Even non-athletes who train consistently should have an interest in the importance of protein.  So, how much protein should be consumed per day?

Assuming an individual is taking in an adequate number of calories, the recommended amount of protein for adults is about 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (1 kg = 2.2 lbs).  This number changes for athletes, however.  Because an athlete places a greater demand on his body when training or performing, the requirement for protein increases.  Research has shown that a general recommendation of 1.5-2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight should ensure adequate protein intake for athletes.  Protein intake should consist mostly of high-quality proteins that are of animal origin (eggs, meat, fish, chicken).

Each individual ballplayer should adequately assess his own diet, however, to properly determine just how much protein should be eaten, and whether or not there should be an increase or decrease in protein intake.

Carbohydrates

When performance and nutrition are discussed in conjunction with one another it is usually protein that gets most of the attention.  But what about carbohydrates?  Carbohydrates are a key player in performance as well, because they provide the body with fuel for energy.  Carbohydrates can be found in a variety of foods.  The most ideal carbohydrates are found in pasta, breads, cereal, fruits, and vegetables.

Carbohydrates are often overlooked in the ballplayer’s daily nutrition, because so much emphasis is placed on protein intake.  However, a baseball player looking to elevate his performance should have an adequate variety of carbohydrate, protein, and fat in his diet to effectively support training and performance.  When an athlete assesses his diet, he should look at both his sport and current training regimen as these will affect the amount of carbohydrates that should be taken in.  Different athletes will have different needs.  So, what’s the right amount of carbohydrates to take in?

  • Aerobic endurance athletes (runners, cyclists, some soccer players): ~8-10 g/kg of body weight
  • Strength, sprint, skill athletes (most team sports including baseball, sprinters, power athletes): ~5-6 g/kg of body weight

These numbers are general guidelines, but research shows that aerobic endurance athletes will have higher maximal carbohydrate requirements than those athletes who are more power and sprint based.  The power and sprint athlete (this includes baseball players) does not typically train aerobically for more than an hour each day, and therefore, does not deplete his carbohydrate stores as quickly.  So, carbohydrate intake should be individualized based on sport, training program, and personal dietary needs.

Fats and Performance

Fats play an important role in having a solid nutrition plan.  Although most people, athletes included, perceive fats in food negatively, there is no sound reason to avoid fats altogether in your diet.

Fats serve many purposes in the human body, including but not limited to:

  • A source for energy
  • As insulation and protection of organs
  • Help regulate the uptake and excretion of nutrients
  • The formation of healthy cell membranes

So how does fat play a role in athletic performance?  The biggest benefit of fat comes as an energy source during exercise, specifically, low-intensity exercise.  With increasing intensities, the body begins to gradually shift from fat to carbohydrates as its primary source of fuel.  Knowing that fat provides an adequate energy source, athletes should not have a negative view of this macronutrient.  Granted, consuming a high amount of fat can lead to cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes.  However, having a diet that is non-fat or low fat in nature can have negative effects on an athlete’s performance and lead to the under-consumption of various meats and dairy sources that provide athletes with quality sources of protein and other essential vitamins and minerals.

With this information in mind, you should seek to have an adequate amount of fat in your nutrition plan.  After reviewing your total caloric need, you should consume between 15-35% of your calories from fat, the higher end coming during longer periods of heavy training or higher intensity training.  Lower intake limits should only be considered for athletes who need to lose weight in order to increase their performance.  And in rare cases, athletes who need to decrease elevated cholesterol levels should consider a lower intake of fat, but this should be regulated by a knowledgeable registered dietitian.  Athletes that consume less that 15% of calories from fat run the risk of lowering their metabolism and decreasing their muscular development.

Water and Performance

Water:  the most abundant resource on the planet.  However, in all its abundance, most athletes do not drink enough of it.  Water plays a vital role in performance, and it can be argued that it affects performance more than any other nutrient.  If dehydrated, the body cannot adapt as every physiological function will be impaired.

Even under the most ideal conditions, the body can survive without food for about 30 days.  Without water, the body can survive approximately a week.  Staying hydrated plays a vital role in regulating cellular function and body temperature.

Most athletes only replace about 50-60% of water lost during training or competition.  Many athletes, especially baseball players, only drink fluids when they are thirsty, but thirst is not a reliable indicator of hydration needs.  In order to stay hydrated, you should consider drinking fluids before, during, and after exercise.  Here are some basic guidelines:

  • Before training or competition – Consume about 16 fluid ounces two hours before activity.  In warmer weather, this should be increased.
  • During activity – Drink fluids frequently.  Ideally, about 6-8 fl. oz. every 15 minutes should be consumed.  When activity is less than 60 minutes in length, water should be the primary source of fluid replacement.  However, if activity goes beyond 60 minutes, a sports drink can be considered as it will help replace fluid as well as electrolytes and muscle-glycogen stores.  (Most sports drinks contain lots of sugar which can spike blood sugar levels and can contribute to increased body fat.  They should be consumed minimally unless training is very intense or the session is extended longer than 60 minutes.)
  • After activity – Your goal should be to completely rehydrate prior to the next training session or competition.  He or she should consume about 20 fl. oz. for every pound of body weight lost during exercise.
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About The Author

Phil Tognetti, CSCS

Phil Tognetti, CSCS, is the founder and editor of The Full Windup. He has written the eBook ARMing for Success which teaches players and coaches how to set up a proper throwing program. You can learn more about him here and connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.

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  • Zita Carno

    Here’s another thing to consider about carbohydrate intake: I remember reading this a long time ago, in which many experts—doctors, nutritionists, and so on—emphasize that about 1/3 of the daily carbohydrate intake is metabolized by the brain, so don’t shortchange yourself in that department!