by Andy Dappen

Awhile back I listened to Maureen Boswell, a registered dietician and a health-fitness instructor, talk to Wenatchee High School athletes about sports nutrition. Maureen has written articles for Wenatchee Outdoors in the past and on this evening she discussed the importance of proper nutrition before and during exercise if you hope to perform your best. This information had seen some tweaks and refinements since I’d been exposed to it last. What had seen more than tweaks and refinements was the newer research indicating that when you eat and drink after hard workouts significantly affects your recovery times. Apparently, if you want to recover fast, you need to down liquids, carbs, and a little protein really soon (within 30 minutes if possible) after hard exercise. Wait too long and you won’t be as strong or as fast the next day.

Maureen’s talk piqued my curiosity and got me researching more about sports nutrition. This was not because I was looking for a competitive edge in competitions or endurance events. I need more than an edge. I need more fibers in my muscles, alveoli in my lungs, or plateletes in my blood to rise from the ranks of mediocrity. Still the possibility of quickly recovering from a demanding day of climbing, a long trail run, or a taxing bike ride has its appeal. If proper nutrition can help your perform better on the day of and help your recover faster the day after, I’m all for it. Here’s what I found out.

  • Scientific research has yet to verify that there are any magic bullets (special diets, protein powders, vitamin supplements) on the market that will out-perform the documented benefits of good nutrition, proper hydration, and proper recovery that are covered in this section. When it comes to helping you build muscle, pack on weight, lose weight, or improve your athletic performance, the best nutrition strategies are inexpensive and simple. Unfortunately that does not prohibit peddlers of expensive products from concocting anecdotal stories and deceptive claims about their revolutionary, breakthrough products that will help you achieve the results you’re dreaming about.
  • Testimonials and advertising do not guarantee product efficacy so here is what creditable, science-based organizations say about sports nutrition and about some of the sports-related dietary products on the market.

Basic Nutrition

Getting the right mix of foods (energy) and fluids (hydration) is essential for gains in strength, speed, and peak performance. Nancy Clark, a registered dietician and well-known sports-nutrition expert, has written, “While there’s no secret some good athletes have junky diets, the question arises: How much better could those athletes perform if they were to eat better? The answer, as documented by research studies, suggests 6 to 20 percent better.”

Eating well for sports is mainly about eating a balanced diet with a balance of nutrients as described by the USDA with their MyPyramid plan. For athletes, there are some minor tweaks to ‘what’ you should eat and drink, and ‘when’ you should eat and drink that can improve performance, enhance strength, or build muscle. These tweaks have little to do with special products or foods. The exceptions to the rule are electrolyte drinks (sports drink) that do have a documented record of improving the performance of endurance athletes and helping athletes of all stripes recover faster from long, tough workouts.

Pre-workout and pre-game nutrition

Besides eating a balanced diet, Dr. Mark Hargreaves, an exercise physiologist and researcher, says muscles need carbohydrates for energy during high-intensity activities. For that reason, it’s wise to go into exercise with your carbohydrate stores fully loaded and some carbohydrates in the stomach to help maintain carbohydrate delivery. Eat carbs a few hours before games, competitions, or heavy workouts. Dr. Hargreaves adds that if you can stomach it, eating carbs an hour prior to exercise may be a good idea. High-carb, low-fiber, low-fat foods for these occasions include:

  • Cereal with low-fat milk, banana, toast, orange juice.
  • Grilled chicken breast sandwich, pretzels, oatmeal raisin cookie, low-fat milk.
  • Pasta with tomato sauce, dinner roll, mixed green salad, frozen yogurt, lemonade.

Being properly hydrated before heavy workouts, competitions, or long periods of exercise is also important if you expect to perform your best. As a general rule, athletes should routinely drink 8 to 10 cups of liquid per day in the form of water, juice, or milk and their urine should look like pale lemonade rather than golden apple juice.

  • On training days when you’ve been sweating a lot, you’ll need to drink more and you’ll benefit from replacing some of your fluid loss with an electrolyte sports drink.
  •  Replacing electrolytes (particularly sodium) is important for proper hydration because the body doesn’t retain as much water when it is low on sodium. These electrolytes are also needed for proper muscle function and can reduce/eliminate  cramping.
  • Energy drinks (Diesel, Hair of the Dog, Jolt Cola, and Red Bull) are different animals than sports drinks (Gatorade, Powerade, Accelerade, All Sport). Energy drinks sound healthful, but most are glorified soft drinks containing multiple stimulants, making them a poor choice for athletes. Sports drinks, on the other hand, provide water while replenishing nutrients, electrolytes, and sugars in the same proportion as found in the body.

Commercial sports drinks are not break-the-bank expensive, but they are still about 20 times more expensive than making your own sports drink. To make your own, add ½ teaspoon of baking soda, ½ teaspoon of salt, 3 tablespoons of sugar, and a little flavoring (a little unsweetened Kool-Aid mix) to a quart of water.

Optimal Performance During Workouts and Competitions

For short workouts and competitions (less than an hour) you’ll perform best if you drink enough to replace your liquid loss to sweat. If your pre-game consumption of carbs has been adequate, you won’t need to eat.

After an hour of vigorous exercise, the fast energy supplied to your muscles starts running low. Consequently for long runs, triathlons, extended bike rides, or other endurance events, you’ll keep muscles charged and charging if you replace fuel (by consuming carbohydrates) during exercise. According to Dr. Hargreaves, “The best results occur when athletes ingest 30-60 grams (120 to 240 calories) of carbohydrate each hour. That’s enough to allow muscles to work longer and harder…. There is no greater performance payoff with consuming more than 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour, and the additional carbohydrate has the potential to impair fluid absorption and cause an upset stomach.”

  • In practical terms, three to four 8-ounce cups of a sports drink with carbohydrates (e.g., Gatorade, Powerade) provides 45 to 60 grams (180 to 240 calories) of carbohydrate as well as the fluid and minerals lost in sweat. So for long workouts and endurance events, drink 3 to 4 cups of sports drink for every hour you will be exercising. Alternately, drink 3 to 4 cups of water per hour and eat a 1.5-ounce to 2-ounce energy bar or a packet of gel per hour.
  • Take in this liquid and fuel in small doses by drinking 5 to 10 ounces of sports drink every 15 to 20 minutes.
  • Liquids and fuels to use for a several-hour event include some combination of sports drink, water, energy gels, energy bars, low-fat cookies (gingersnaps), and crumble-resistant breads (bagels).

While carbohydrates are well-recognized as the main source of energy while exercising, athletes still frequently ask about protein – will eating a little protein during tough workouts and endurance events improve their performance? Dr. Martin Gibala with the Department of Kinesiology at McMaster University says the best conducted studies have not shown any benefit to consuming proteins or amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) during exercise.

Recovery Nutrition

Edward F. Coyle, Ph.D., with the University of Texas at Austin says, “Recovery from intense physical training and competition requires time and a diet that replenishes muscle glycogen, body water, and electrolytes, as well as stores of triglyceride in skeletal muscle.” Like most certified sports nutritionists, he says proper nutrition and hydration following intense exercise is essential for rapid recovery.

Jaqueline Berning, Ph.D. and R.D. and a nutrition consultant for the Denver Broncos and Cleveland Indians, agrees and stresses that if you don’t quickly replenish your muscles after intense exercise, it will actually take you considerably longer to recover. “Athletes who fail to refuel and/or rehydrate during (intense workouts) will not have the optimal level of energy to play at same intensity the next day.”

For water and sodium loss, rehydration requires replacing the water, sodium and potassium lost to sweat and urinating. To rehydrate completely, drink about 20 ounces of water for every pound of fluid loss you’ve had while exercising. Also eat foods that replace your salt loss. Because they have salts and other electrolytes the body needs, sports drinks are better absorbed by the body than either soft drinks or pure water. Studies have shown that the body will retain 50 to 60 percent of the fluid in a caffeinated soft drink, 60 to 70 percent of the pure water you drink, and 65 to 75 percent of a sports drink.

For glycogen recovery, Berning says you should eat a 50-to 100-gram carbohydrate snack (200 to 400 calories) within 30 minutes of your workout or game. This jump-starts the body’s recovery process. In addition, athletes should eat a carbohydrate-rich meal within two hours of this snack. “This ensures that the muscles continue to load with carbohydrate energy.” For most athletes, that means eating a meal shortly after a tough workout. Berning says that muscle glycogen is the predominant fuel for energy during exercise and that carbohydrates are the primary source of muscle glycogen. Carbohydrates, therefore, are the best source of energy and should make up about 60 percent of an athlete’s diet. Depending on the size of the athlete, that could amount to anywhere between 300 to more than 600 grams of carbohydrate each day (1200 to 2400 calories). Carbohydrate-rich foods include whole-grain breads, rice, pasta, fruits, vegetables and sports drinks.

Regarding protein, Berning says that carbohydrates are the primary source of energy for muscles but that research indicates small amounts of protein (10 to 20 grams or 40 to 80 calories) after exercise as part of your recovery snack help the body recover from exercise by stimulating muscle repair and growth. “It does not take large amounts of protein to get these results.”

For replacing triglycerides after prolonged, high-intensity exercise, Coyle writes, “… it is now recognized that the increase in body fat oxidation characteristic of an endurance-trained athlete is derived almost exclusively from triglyceride fat stored within the skeletal muscle fibers… it is now clear that in order to fully restore (these reserves), athletes should eat more fat than is obtained in an extremely low-fat diet… Athletes are generally advised to eat 50-100 grams (425 to 850 calories) or about 0.45 grams of fat per pound of body weight.

Here’s a sampling of healthy foods that will help athletes recover from exercise:

  • Sports drinks with electrolytes
  • Granola, energy or breakfast bars
  • Bagels with peanut butter
  • Sub sandwiches
  • Crackers and cheese
  • Burritos
  • Fresh fruit like apples, bananas, oranges, grapes
  • Vegetables such as carrots and celery
  • Fruit smoothies (prepackaged)
  • Rice cakes or trail mix
  • Chocolate milk
  • Animal crackers

Nutritional Considerations for Women Athletes

Women athletes spend hours training, but often fall short in fueling and hydrating their body properly before, during, and after exercising/competing. Suzanne Nelson-Steen, a nationally known sports nutritionist and registered dietician, says women who fuel their bodies with adequate calories (covered earlier) and adequate nutrients (basic nutrition plus a few extra points listed below) “feel better, train harder, recover more quickly, and are less susceptible to illness.”

  • Calcium is particularly important for bone mass and strength and for proper muscle and heart operation. Consume at least 1,300 mg a day through low-fat yogurt, skim milk, orange juice with calcium, frozen yogurt, and cheese.
  • Iron is another mineral women athletes frequently under-consume and this gradually leads to iron deficiency and results in fatigue and lower stamina. Consume at least 18 mg per day. Meat, fish, and chicken provide the body a form of iron that’s easier to absorb than the iron provided by plants. Foods known for their Vitamin C like potatoes, oranges and tomatoes also help the body absorb iron from plants and cereals. Registered dieticians recommend being wary of iron supplements and advise taking these under medical supervision if you’re unable to get enough iron from your normal diet.

 Building Bulk, Muscle, and Strength

Many athletes believe this myth: You must consume large amounts of protein to bulk up or build big muscles. Not true. Leading scientific organizations like the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Dietetic Association have studied the research and concluded that athletes building mass or muscle need only a bit more protein than sedentary individuals. If good nutrition is practiced, strength athletes only need to consume about 15 percent of their calories as protein. Furthermore, they don’t need to use any special amino acid formulas or powders to get that protein.

While athletes don’t need the large doses of protein that myths would have us believe, studies indicate that the timing of the protein eaten each day does make a difference for bulking up and building muscle. Athletes, it appears, will actually lose muscle protein if they do not consume a little protein when their muscles are recovering from heavy resistance exercises like weightlifting.

Here are some practical recommendations for strength athletes:

  • Consume about .045 grams of protein (or essential amino acids) per pound of body weight, just before or just after heavy resistance exercise.
  • Eat repeated small doses of protein or essential amino acids during recovery. This is believed to maximize muscle growth.
  • Sports nutritionists believe the high-quality proteins contained in foods like skim milk, yogurt, fish, and chicken are just as effective as amino-acid solutions and mixtures.

Suzanne Nelson-Steen, RD, a well-known sports nutritionist, recommends these additional tips to build muscles:

  • Adopt a strength-training program that challenges muscles.
  • Eat 500 to 1000 extra calories per day than what you’re eating now.
  • Eat foods high in carbohydrates (grains, fruits, vegetables), along with protein (meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs) and choose low-fat foods.
  • Eat 5 or 6 small mini-meals throughout the day as you train.
  • Snack on foods with a nutritional kick like bagels with peanut butter, granola bars and milk, energy bars and a sports drink, cheese and crackers, trail mix with nuts and peanuts, bananas and apples.


Using the previous sports-nutrition information as a science-based foundation of how athletes can most effectively fuel their bodies before, during, and after events (both workouts and competitions), you’re ready to critically evaluate specialty services and products marketed to athletes. Following are a few such items:

Fad weight-loss diets for athletes

Suzanne Nelson-Steen, a registered dietician and sports nutritionist for the University of Washington, says some athletes use fad diets claiming to help you lose weight rapidly, increase fat burning, or promote health. She says diets advocating high protein, low carbohydrate intake will have negative affects on athletes including: reduced muscle and liver glycogen stores, physical and mental fatigue, decreased strength and endurance, and increased risk of injury. Low carbohydrate diets may also be low on the necessary vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytochemicals athletes need.

Nelson-Steen says fad diets amount to fading energy, “(They) don’t have what it takes for peak performance. They’re usually too low in calories and carbohydrates—the very components athletes need to compete.”

Muscle-building or muscle-recovery supplements

Athletes frequently use dietary supplements claiming to enhance muscle mass, increase energy, or speed muscle recovery. Nelson-Steen says these supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and may contain unproven or harmful substances. She also says, “Some of the ingredients found in supplements, such as steroids and ephedrine, are banned by athletic organizations including the NCAA and NFL.”

According to Dr. Melvin Williams, with the Department of Health and Physical Education at Darden College, most nutritional supplements seen in magazine ads lack the scientific evidence to support claims made about promoting muscle growth, reducing body fat, or enhancing muscle definition. Because these claims are unsubstantiated and because supplements are relatively expensive, he advises buyers to beware.

Marketers of the following supplements make bold claims yet lack scientific evidence to back-up those claims: arginine, lysine, and ornithine (amino acids); ornitine alpha-ketoglutarate (OKG); ino-sine; choline; yohimbine; “glandulars;” vitamin B-12; carnitine; chromium; boron; magnesium; medium chain triglycerides; omega-3 fatty acids; gamma oryzanol; and Smilax.

  • Likewise the supposed benefits body builders receive from creatine and antioxidant vitamins have no scientific support and should be validated by research before you pay heed (or money).

Protein Powders

The Gatorade Sports Science Institute (GSSI), which sticks to science-based training and nutrition recommendations, says very little extra protein is needed to build muscles–athletes require 0.5 to 0.7 grams of protein per pound of body weight as compared to non athletes who require 0.4 to 0.5 grams per pound of bodyweight. The GSSI says:

  • None of the commercial protein powders have proof to substantiate their claims.
  • Too much protein consumption, at the expense of carbohydrates, will leave you feeling sluggish and reduce the productivity of your workouts.

Protein powders won’t get athletes past plateaus in muscle growth or muscle definition. Surmount such plateaus by changing your workouts and stressing muscles in new ways.

Vitamin Supplements as Performance Enhancers

Will increased dosages of Vitamin C, E, D, B-6 (or other) boost your athletic performance?

Yes and no. Vitamin deficiencies will hurt your performance—in such cases more vitamins will help. You won’t boost your performance, however, by taking more than the recommended daily allowance of these vitamins.

A few comments about vitamins:

  • Vitamin deficiencies are rare among groups of athletes, but it’s not unusual for individuals to be deficient in a particular vitamin. The most common deficiencies are in B-complex vitamins (especially B-6 and folate), antioxidant vitamins C, E, and beta-carotene.
  • Wrestlers, dancers, gymnasts, and those who maintain their weight by restricting their diet are the athletes most likely to be vitamin deficient. If you are maintaining your weight, eat a well-balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables. Avoid fast foods which pack on calories but skimp on vitamins.
  • Athletes wanting to ensure they aren’t vitamin deficient can take a multi-vitamin/multi-mineral supplement (or half of one) every day. Check that the supplement doesn’t exceed the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of any vitamin.

Getting vitamins through foods is much preferred to supplements. Food contains many other nutrients that athletes need.

Antioxidant Supplements

Should athletes use antioxidant supplements like Vitamin C or Vitamin E?

Because prolonged and/or intense exercise produces free radicals that kill surrounding cells in your body, athletes often ask whether they should be taking larger dosages of antioxidants (like Vitamin C and E) which neutralize free radicals. Scott Powers, a professor at University of Florida, says more research is needed but at this time, “There is insufficient evidence to support the need for antioxidant supplementation in athletes who consume a well-balanced diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables. Further, over-consumption of antioxidants may have potentially harmful side effects.”


1.       American College of Sports Medicine

2.       Gatorade Sports Science Institute ( Though sponsored by Gatorade, this site really is about science based information pertaining to sports nutrition. They have a top notch Sports Library of scientific, peer-reviewed sports nutrition articles. Once at the site, use the ‘Sports Science Library’ tab on the left.

3.       An excellent, thorough, and scientifically based book focusing on these matters in greater detail and fine tuning recommendations to particular sports is Endurance Sports Nutrition by Suzanne Girard Eberle and published by Human Kinetics (

4.       Serious athletes will benefit from the occasional consult with a registered dietician who specializes in sports nutrition and who is a Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD). These professions have years of training in science-based nutrition and can help tailor your diet to: your sport, your size and gender, your likes and dislikes.

Original Publish Date of story: January 2013


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