Athletes have complicated dietary needs, and working with a professional sport nutritionist means everything. Still, coaches help athletes with their diets, and to help make the everyday work a little easier, I’m sharing this list of practical and convenient tips for sports nutrition.
The list shows that application is about details, and the details matter. The tips don’t replace education and application for professionals—no one should skip over the foundation and principles of nutrition. But coaches often get frustrated reading information that is vague and lacks direction. This blog offers enough details to make you better tomorrow.
My top hacks for 2018 included some dietary advice, and due to its strong reception, we decided to devote an entire article to sports nutrition. The tips below are organized based on what I remember off the top of my head, not in importance or effectiveness. The list is slightly random, but I have paired some tips together because they are connected. Read them at face value and don’t overthink them.
Here are twenty convenient dietary nuggets (sorry for the pun) about nutrition for athletes.
1. Start with a Complete Assessment
To get started with an athlete, first learn their culture of eating by having a good screening process. Do this before moving on to goal setting and other assessments. Don’t have athletes fill out forms. Instead talk about food and training, and record the details.
Athletes are less patient than they were in the past, so I recommend profiling by making casual conversation and doing the work for them before delegating tasks. When screening, we’re learning about what they like, how they grew up, who educated them, and why they’re working with us. Screening is not a search for eating disorders.
If you skip this step and start with hydration guidelines and fueling strategies, you’ll be building on quicksand—lots of movement, very little displacement. Most of what I use comes from the early work of Iron Clad Coaching. Making your own assessment starts with asking the right questions.
Summary: A nutritionist’s best investment is an assessment that profiles and educates them about the athlete beyond biometric data. The deeper the assessment, the easier the rest of the equation is.
2. Address Body Composition Professionally
Leanness is important for health and performance. How lean one is and how they achieved it are important, and measuring is necessary. Avoiding body composition testing prevents responsible discussions and moves the problem out of the hands of professionals to the athletes or others who are not prepared to handle it properly.#Bodycomposition is a sensitive subject, but we can't ignore it if we want to maximize an athlete, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
If you want to make a difference, build a framework that can help performance. Those who don’t have access to DEXA scans or similar tools can start with skin fold and girth measurements, which will help with injury patterns and long-term atrophy. Body composition is a sensitive subject, but we can’t ignore it if we want to maximize an athlete. Weighing athletes for hydration or jump testing calculations is an inconvenient reality, and addressing it with a plan is sufficient.
Summary: Test body composition year-round. While a variety of data matters, body composition and weight are so obvious, we take them for granted.
3. Eating Rhythm and Nutrient Timing
Regardless of whether an athlete is elite or recreational, the rhythm of eating is key. Similar to nutrient timing, rhythm connects how food is consumed biochemically with a practical perspective. A simple example of nutrient timing is caffeine—the clock matters when you take it and how long it lasts. Conversely, while we know that the timing of post-workout drinks was overblown, it still makes sense to consume a recovery protein and a carbohydrate for practical reasons.
Because athletes tend to lose steam with cooking on the weekends, consider shipping meal boxes to them at the beginning of the week if they’re not good shoppers. For daily nutrition, ready-to-go options are good for those who skip breakfast and don’t need calories to put on mass. Focusing on non-refrigerated foods makes sense. Finally, when nutritionists and coaches know an athlete’s rhythm of sleep and schedule, they’re able to work smarter with them.
Summary: Nutrient timing does matter a lot—don’t confuse it with workout nutrition. Athletes need to maintain a good eating rhythm, which is different for every individual.
4. Cheat Meals and Snacks
A precise and well-planned diet that’s too restrictive is dangerous. Usually after a strict diet is in place, an athlete becomes hyper-focused on what not to eat, and they don’t enjoy what they are eating. Eventually most strict diets backfire and fail, resulting in either budget or overreaction eating. Cheat meals have been treated as rewards, but this line of thinking is also bad.Manage desire for sweet & savory by allotting part of the calorie allowance to these foods, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
The sane way to handle the desire for sweets and savory foods is to allot part of one’s calorie allowance to these foods. Snacks and small meals can provide enough enjoyment when done well. A small amount of candy or ice cream is fine. A problem surfaces when this becomes a ritual. Micro-logging and readiness scores are good ways to see if a small indulgence is becoming a problem. Don’t make cheat meals a time of worship or time of punishment. It’s wise to let things fall into place.
Summary: Don’t worry about cheat meals but don’t ignore them either. Over time, bad choices will show up if they’re causing a problem. Let athletes have treats as long as eating them does not turn into reward eating.
5. The Challenges of Athlete Fasting
Some athletes skip meals or go on extended fasts to lose weight or body fat, but most don’t succeed because, like any diet, fasts are hard to maintain. Other athletes naturally fast as they respond well to skipping breakfast and having a light lunch without consequence. They catch up later in the day.
As with eating rhythms and nutrient timing, the sequence and temporal eating patterns are very individual and require evaluation. Just because one athlete succeeds with a particular meal plan does not mean a similar athlete will. I’ve seen twins and siblings with very similar genetics who had radically different responses to meal timing. Some athletes perform well as long as the calories and nutrients add up by the end of the day while others don’t do well skipping a meal.
Fasting works. And athletes who forced higher food intakes during the season can experience massive benefits when they fast in the off-season to reset their body. The goal of an off-season fast has nothing to do with losing mass or body fat. It’s about discipline based on knowing one doesn’t have to perform and needs to slow down. If you decide to fast, you need to have a purpose for doing so. This and the decision about what form the fast takes should be guided by a registered dietician who creates a plan.
Summary: Fasting needs to be done for a reason that matters, not because other athletes are doing it. If you choose to have your athletes fast, make sure they fast the right way—sport makes the changes hard to manage.
6. Hypertrophy and Calorie Strategy
Most nutrition mistakes don’t concern protein, they concern getting nutrient-rich calories rather than empty ones. Athletes need to increase calories other than protein if they want to grow more. The days of a “dirty bulk” are long gone, and the new normal focuses on healthy fats instead of junk food.Athletes need to increase calories other than protein if they want to grow more muscle, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
For your athletes, think about the resources needed to build muscle. We not only need to fuel the body to function normally, but be we also need extra fuel for workouts to prepare for competition and additional energy to lift weights. Save talk about essential amino acids and genes regarding muscle growth for discussions with the protein experts.
Also, protein calorie intake often poses a problem in the United States because athletes understand weight in terms of pounds and not kilograms. The old bodybuilding adage of one gram of protein per pound of weight for muscle gain is easy to understand and follow because it uses simple math. Using pounds requires math that is not so simple.
Summary: Don’t focus only on eating higher amounts of protein and add healthy fats from non-animal sources when possible. Protein quality is easy to rate, but fats are more complicated and athletes need guidance.
7. Recovery is Cumulative
The real magic is in small things that cumulate over time. Marginal gains used to be a buzzword. Now we look for consistency over time with sufficient good nutrients—it’s better and realistic. Searching for magic supplements and food for post-training and post-workout nutrition won’t help anyone.
Recovery with nutrition means making the right choices every day. While each meal and snack matters, healthy gains occur over the years. Several nutrients have health and repair values, so avoid the temptation to eat large quantities of superfoods daily because that’s not sustainable. Every year a new food hits the spotlight and like a trendy exercise, it won’t cause a change by itself. An array of foods, perhaps a half-dozen, seems like a great start, but it’s not enough.
There are many methods of nutrition to improve recovery, and they receive a lot of attention. Keep the big picture in mind because too much focus on a few tricks of the trade will not be as effective. You have to do a lot of things correctly to see nutrition show up on the stopwatch or the final score.
Summary: Instead of placing a high value on a small set of superfoods or recovery techniques, do many small things right consistently. Make the small things easy and consistent rather than doing a set of small things perfectly.
8. Manage Soreness and Inflammation Precisely
Today we see too much overthinking about nutrient timing. In the past, we got caught up with megadoses of antioxidants, and then we got scared that nutrients would blunt adaptations from training.
If an athlete or coach is concerned about adaptations to mitochondria and muscle, for example, juice away with tart cherries and take supplements before bed. Other juices have health benefits, but do your homework; while I love aloe drinks for their flavor, there’s a lot of attention given to detox and other hyped approaches to hydration.
9. Support Athlete Relaxation
By timing the intake of caffeine and beetroot juice, my athletes get the performance benefits from caffeine during practice and the health and relaxation benefits from the juice later in the day.
Before training, my athletes drink coffee. They don’t drink beet juice at that time because caffeine negates the juice’s nitrate benefits. Instead, they drink beetroot juice two hours before bedtime and the results are fantastic. The beetroot juice combined with high concentration watermelon extract provides the vasodilation benefits athletes want for relaxing the body; we’re not looking for aerobic performance benefits.My athletes drink #beetroot juice two hours before bedtime and the results are fantastic, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Since sport is too often high octane and full throttle, most athletes need to take a nap or learn to be ready to nap. It seems the best athletes are the ones who know how to chill out and conserve their energy for when they need it. Not every athlete can do this, and having a routine health drink before bed or after training is a good way to encourage “rest and digest” instead of “fight or flight.”
Summary: Stack various fruit blends with beetroot juice to encourage relaxation and parasympathetic reactivation. Timing it a few hours before bed can help those who need help driving their mood into regeneration and recovery.
10. Seafood and Plants for Omega-3s
Canned mackerel and sardines are trending. I used to hate the idea of fish in a can, and now I feel like a fool for not jumping into the underground world of canned fish lovers. Wild, fresh sardines are loaded with omega-3s and make great snacks for athletes who want food but also want a break from traditional options. A large serving gives a day’s worth of omega-3s. They also provide so many other nutrients they deserve to be in the same category as salmon. Mackerel, a fish I thought was unexciting, is more nutrient dense than sardines.
If an athlete doesn’t like these two canned fish, their last resort is canned albacore tuna. If they don’t like fish in general or they’re vegan (which I don’t recommend), they can eat chia seeds to improve omega-3 consumption, but seeds lack the protein bite of the fish. Relying solely on omega-3 supplements is a bad idea because athletes will miss out on the other nutrients their bodies need. Instead, we recommend a blend of sources.
Summary: Omega-3s are very important for total body health, and natural whole food sources are a great way to complement supplementation. Canned fish is practical, and chia seeds are convenient because small amounts provide health benefits.
11. Understand Animal Protein
Let’s face it, most of us love animal protein because of the taste. As a protein, animals are effective for athletes due to the obvious—we eat their muscle to repair our own. One of my most difficult balancing acts is the ethical dilemma of eating animals for the sake of enjoyment when it’s not great for our already strained environment. We can do better by eating local meats and treating athletes with dignity, which is why I’m a fan of direct source meats.
High-quality beef, chicken, eggs, lamb, and pork are everything to serious athletes. Not only are they more nutritious, but they also taste better. Generally, our protein intake is about 50-75% animal meat and the rest is plants and powders. This means eating a lot of meat each day, averaging about two pounds for large athletes and one pound for athletes under 80 kilos. Each animal and each location is a decision for athletes—eating ground beef and chicken breasts all the time isn’t sustainable.Our protein intake is about 50-75% animal meat and the rest is plants and powders, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
My solution is using a meat share, and other options like local farms and Walden are awesome. You can go to a local butcher or market, but it’s hard to compromise the service and benefits of farms. Understanding the process of raising cattle and how each part of the animal is used is educational, and we need more of that.
Summary: With meat, you get what you pay for. Put your money on quality protein sources from good suppliers. The nutritional content and taste are worth it, and the process of selecting the right animal protein is a great lesson in health promotion.
12. Eat More Vegetables and Fruits
Eating more vegetables and fruits requires discipline and shopping. And it means eating 6-9 true servings a day. To me, this is three servings per meal, or one serving every other hour. I find that at least half the servings need to be whole and raw. You can include juice, but only one serving.
First prioritize plants with your athletes. It will dramatically control their eating and remove the temptation for junk food. So what is the trick? Start with a weekly plan to eat 50-60 servings by creating a checklist and staying loyal to it. Farmers markets are not just for food enthusiasts. They offer a nicer social experience than going to a store. College and pro athletes in the off-season can slow down their day and enjoy their breaks at farmer’s markets, and those on a tight budget can find many deals.
Summary: Planning fruits and vegetables into your daily nutrition requires shopping effort, so create a checklist and stick to it. Keep in mind that produce tends to be the most wasted food because of spoilage.
13. Test Blood, Saliva, and Other Biochemicals
Measuring heart rate is easy, measuring vertical jumps is simple, measuring speed is straightforward, but measuring nutrition is hard. Nothing is more demanding than evaluating nutrition because cause and effect involve more than body composition. Nutritionists and coaches need to blood test their athletes. I devoted an entire article about the reasons why, and I repeat the importance here.To know if a diet is working, do body composition measurements, field tests, & biochemical testing, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
If you want to have a complete nutrition program, blood testing is the winning ticket. Several programs try to use proxy tests for testosterone, which is clinical guesswork using subjective questions. Testing blood is the only way to learn what is truly going on internally. If you want to know if a diet is working, do body composition measurements, field tests, and biochemical testing.
Summary: Quarterly blood tests are the standard for athletes and ensure athletes are following their dietary practices. Follow-up testing with other biochemical tests helps with complex problems and specific challenges when needed.
14. Keep Up With Genetics Research
Several pundits attacking the efficacy of genetic testing tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater too often. Instead of bashing it and highlighting what is wrong, share what is useful and what works. I do appreciate researchers’ critical analysis of genetics and sport because they’re starting to decode what makes an athlete great physically and sometimes mentally.
- The number one reason genetics matter is that we need to understand why athletes are non-responders without adding thousands of specific tests. We may not be there yet, and perhaps the early studies we see now won’t reveal the truth, but we need to keep trying.
- The second benefit of genetics research is that it offers a better understanding of deep cellular physiology. As more science becomes published, we’ll eventually make tighter connections from a diet to the human body.
Summary: Read the research and science on genetics and nutrition to understand how food interacts with the human body. While the information isn’t perfect or complete, we can prepare ourselves for the time when a new standard in sports nutrition is established.
15. Mapping Lifestyle and Budgeting Supplements
An athlete needs to be healthy year-round but doesn’t need to take creatine every day. Omega-3s are overpriced and spending money on multivitamins is a waste. For a dollar a day, a college can spend $120,000 on vitamin powders that don’t contribute much to health and performance. And many supplement companies charge too much money for too little. Athletes and teams on tight budgets lose thousands of dollars over a few years that they could have spent on therapy or travel.Money is often wasted on #supplements that could be spent on therapy or travel, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
I prioritize vitamin D and next to that are healthy fats. An athlete taking ten supplements recommended by the Australian Institute of Sport will spend $2,500 to $4,000 per year. Blood testing saves money in year two—mapping lifestyle patterns cuts unnecessary costs. It’s also better to buy isolated supplements then stacks and formulas. Many supplement companies don’t have a clue about what’s effective. Some companies are aware of necessary doses, but they care about profits and not results.
Summary: Buy supplements in bulk, buy individual ingredients, and know when to periodize performance products for important parts of the year. Save money and personalize supplementation by blood testing.
16. Cooking and Time Limitations
I’ve seen a surge in athletes cooking for themselves and, curious as to why, asked more questions. I discovered athletes like to control their destiny. But even a modern millennial wants downtime.
Mindfulness is a healing process to a rushed life. Because cooking requires two hands, not much time exists to text and surf the net, and sometimes the peace and quiet are worth it. Getting their hands dirty is a nice change of pace for athletes, and one of the world’s most popular hobbies is convenient for a profession where it matters what one eats.Cooking, a popular & mindful hobby, is convenient for a profession where it matters what one eats, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Many of the complaints about cooking revolve around the time commitment to do it well. While I agree, I also know that athletes spend a lot of time on things that are not productive.
We have dropped a lot of our athletes’ self-care work at home and added cooking; mobility and tissue quality has not changed. My hunch is that global stress is likely more powerful than biomechanical strain, and athletes need a break. During the last three years, we went from self-therapy for 20-30 minutes a day to one or two sessions a week.
Summary: Athletes don’t need to cook much when eating more raw foods and meals that are cooked properly. It’s worth the time to drop less important activities and focus on the mindfulness of cooking and eating.
17. Shots of Extracts for Behavior Modification
I asked a coach why he uses very small glasses for his extracts and concentrated syrups and juices, and his answer was perfect. Having a shot or port glass filled with nutrients encourages athletes to thinkabout the scarcity of resources and pay attention to what they’re putting into their body.
While at first I was skeptical, I noticed that athletes who buy into nutrition buy even further into food as a part of their lives, not as fuel or a pit stop. Financially, athletes need to appreciate nutrient density, as shots of cold-pressed juices are the same as shots of health. I recommend bulk powders and only taking one shot a day, tops. I tend to use shots for liquids with relaxation benefits, such as beetroot juice, but you can address any need with this approach.
Summary: A small glass and rich taste drive athletes to appreciate what they put in their bodies more than just lecturing. When using ingredients that are scarce and expensive, they tend to appreciate the value of food and repair.
18. Shakes for Fiber and Health, Not Just Muscle Growth
I use protein shakes for hydration and macronutrient loading even though many people drink protein shakes for muscle building. I don’t spend too much time in a year worrying about muscle gain, as sports seasons are long. I put effort into muscle building during the off-season. If you have a finite time to build muscle, you must put everything you can into those weeks.
When eating whole foods, larger athletes may not have the hunger needed to take in enough protein and adding a protein shake once a day works like a charm. Athletes tend to do poorly with multiple shakes per day as they feel bloated and tired. Michael Phelps burned insane amounts of calories swimming because the sport has multiple two-hour practices that require non-stop effort with weight training.
I also recommend adding fiber and healthy fats to protein shakes. Even though whey is a fast-acting protein, the need for recovery with nutrient timing is no longer about the window of time surrounding training. Instead, nutrition focuses on hitting the macronutrient needs for the day.
Summary: Fats and fiber are the priority when using shakes for hydration, protein needs, and calories. Focus on the healthy fats and sources of fiber that will make the shake practical and healthy.
19. Juice is a Functional Sports Beverage for Athletes
I love juice, but due to the calorie density, most sport athletes who need to be lean should reduce the amount or cut it out entirely. It’s easy to drink 2,000 calories, and no practice in pro sport is likely to burn even 1,000 calories.Drinking fruit juice can help athletes gain muscle mass, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
If you’re trying to gain muscle mass, however, adding fruit juices can help. If you want to juice, buy a quality juicer. Cold-pressed juices are very expensive and have massive storage challenges since they’re water soluble and sensitive to heat. Blenders are not the solution—they’re great for shakes but poor for fruit and vegetable juices.
For athletes who need a lot of calories, it’s ok to drink juice 2-3 times a day with meals. Most athletes, however, should only have one glass due to the calories. Remember that typical glasses in the United States are larger than other countries, and a true serving for juice is eight ounces. I laugh at many of the low-calorie products that list 2.5 servings per bottle or something just as silly.
Remember calories do count, so be reasonable. Many athletes love infused waters and adding one part juice to 3-5 parts water encourages drinking for hydration if needed.
Summary: Don’t blend fruit and vegetables. Juice them with a quality juicer. Juicing provides great nutrients and calorie density for athletes, but the application depends on training and body composition needs.
20. Spices and Flavors
Food is a gift. Athletes need to slow down and enjoy what nature provides the earth and not worry about fuel for the next race. Ask any coach or athlete about hydration, protein, and the latest supplement and you’ll get some pretty good answers. Ask about flavors and spices, and you’ll get only a fraction of that. Perhaps I should have started the article with this tip, but I would rather close with a bang.Nutritious food can taste great by cooking with spices for flavor, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Great food that is nutritious doesn’t have to taste bad. The hardest problem with nutrition is not overdosing on a good thing, and healthy athletes deserve the taste of life. Cooking is simple, and recipes are easily accessible but often ignore flavoring outside of salt and pepper. Smells and textures all matter with food, and the right spices and flavors make a big impact in the long run.
Summary: Macro and micronutrients matter, as do spices that may have little nutritional value but help athletes eat better foods. Focusing on meal preparation is a major contributor to adhering to a sound athletic diet.
None of the tips above are mine—at least a dozen coaches and nutritionists have influenced this list. The key with sports dietitians is their ability to apply the research, not their ability to talk to a wide audience. I could go on and on about how many talented professionals are available, including Landon Evans, Katie Mark, and Jennifer Hutchinson. Most of the nutritionists who I stopped using were unable to handle complicated needs and gave only casual advice.
Since you’re here…
…we have a small favor to ask. More people are reading SimpliFaster than ever, and each week we bring you compelling content from coaches, sport scientists, and physiotherapists who are devoted to building better athletes. Please take a moment to share the articles on social media, engage the authors with questions and comments below, and link to articles when appropriate if you have a blog or participate on forums of related topics. — SF