For most people, food is a pleasure. But for athletes, food is something very different—it’s fuel. If you’re working out for more than an hour a day or doubling up on workouts, your body has different needs. You’ll need more calories to burn, but there’s more to it than that. What, when, and how you eat are top concerns for performance. The right food choices can help you run faster, lift higher, stretch further, and speed toward that finish line.
New Rules on Nutrition for Athletes
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) released a new position paper on Nutrition and Athletic Performance, with detailed recommendations for athletes. The classic advice stays true: Athletes need to take in the right balance of carbs and protein, stay hydrated, and replenish any sodium sweated out. But there’s new thinking on protein: instead of aiming for a total number of grams, you should focus on spacing it out throughout the day. “Timing protein is important for athletes, but really for everyone,” says Alissa Rumsey, RD and spokesperson for the Academy. “You can only absorb so much protein at once. Eating it right after training, but also every 3 to 5 hours, really maximizes how much you take in. And it helps keep you satisfied, to curb your appetite between meals.” There’s also a new recommendation on “periodizing nutrition”—if you’re training intensely for specific events, and your activity level varies throughout the year, your nutrition should change, too.
There’s a lot of nuance when it comes to nutrition for athletes. No two sports are alike, and no two people are the same. How much you burn depends on your age, weight, intensity, and active minutes, and if you’re cycling, running, weight lifting, or doing yoga, you’re going to have unique needs. Check out some of the key differences, and get a sense of what it takes to fuel like a pro.
How to Fuel Like a Cyclist
Training session: 40 miles (12 to 15 miles per hour), about 3 hours
Calories burned: 1,544
Top concern: Eating for endurance
Endurance athletes putting in hard effort over several hours need to find ways to refuel on the road. With cycling, one perk is that you can pack snacks on your bike or in the pocket of your jersey. Rumsey recommends taking in 60 to 90 grams of carbs per hour during your workout, if you’re working out for more than an hour and a half. Those carbs need to be easy to digest, so you’re refueling fast. Fitbit ambassador and cycling legend Jens Voigt breaks it down in his personal fuel plan: the night before a race, he has chicken or fish with rice or pasta; in the morning, muesli, porridge, or whole-wheat bread; and on the road, he’s taking in energy gels and sports bars. Jens is crushing 100 miles, but if you’re just headed out for a weekend ride for a couple hours, you could grab a jam sandwich or a banana.
How to Fuel Like a Runner
Training session: 13 miles (6 to 8 minutes per mile), about 1 hour 30 minutes
Calories burned: 1,448
Top concern: Avoiding an iffy stomach
Distance runners need to refuel just like cyclists, but finding something light on the stomach is key. No one wants that sloshing feeling with miles to go, which is why sports gels work well. Rumsey recommends eating 2 or 3 hours before a run, to make sure you’ve digested enough. Fitbit ambassador and former professional distance runner Ryan Hall has perfected his protein pancakes, which rely on teff, a whole grain he learned about from African runners. During the rest of the day, he’s also into superfood beets, sweet potatoes, and salmon, which are rich in antioxidants, potassium, and healthy fats. If you’re not a record-breaker like Ryan, and you’re doing more like half an hour at a moderate pace, you might not need a pre-workout snack. But you could sip a small smoothie or munch on a few crackers with hummus, at least an hour before you lace up.
How to Fuel for Strength Training
Training session: 1 hour of high-intensity strength training, like CrossFit or TRX
Calories burned: 524
Top concern: Nutrients for muscle growth
Strength training is more about intensity than time. You don’t have to worry so much about what you eat before or during exercise, but you do want to hit those workout recovery foods, to help your muscles rebuild and grow. Rumsey recommends 6 oz (185 g) Greek yogurt with a small handful of walnuts and 1 cup of berries, ½ bagel with 2 scrambled eggs and a slice of cheese, or, if it’s time for a full meal, 6 oz (185 g) broiled salmon with ¾ cup cooked farro and 1½ cups of steamed broccoli tossed with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Competitive athletes should aim for 10 to 30 grams of protein plus half their bodyweight in grams of carbs within 30 minutes of a hard workout. If you’re taking a standard circuit class, you might be fine with just 10 grams of protein within an hour. Either way, before you start pounding protein shakes, keep in mind—it’s definitely possible to overdo it. Rumsey points out, “More protein does not equal bigger muscles. You need enough, but you need carbs to build muscle, too, and if you get too much protein, your body treats it like any other form of energy.” (Read: fat storage.) “You may also be missing out on other nutrients, antioxidants, and fiber,” says Rumsey.
How to Fuel for Yoga
Training session: 90-minute power yoga
Calories burned: 415 calories
Top concern: Balancing nutrients and minerals
Yoga tends to be lower intensity, but if you’re hitting the mat for more than an hour, doubling up on sessions during a retreat, or taking teacher training, nutrition comes into play. Yogis often avoid eating before class, because advanced inversions can lead to cramps (and a full stomach can also simply be distracting, when you’re trying to clear your mind). With hot yoga or power flow, when you’re really getting your sweat on, you’ll need to replace some electrolytes. Grabbing a coconut water after class isn’t the best option—it’s high in potassium, but doesn’t offer the right amount of sodium. And the crowd that crosses over into vegetarian and vegan lifestyles has to be mindful to get muscle-boosting protein, from yogurt, eggs, pulses, and other plant proteins. FitStar yoga instructor Tara Stiles loves creating recipes that mix hearty veggies and fruits and with protein-packing nuts, like her creamy kale and cranberry salad.
No matter how you find your fit, a balanced diet rich in lean protein, whole grains, healthy fats, and fresh fruits and vegetables is a strong place to start. But if you want to push your fitness to the next level, the rules of the game change. Check out the most recent recommendations, or better yet, chat with a registered sports dietitian, who can help you find the best eating plan for your favorite sports and activities.
This article is not intended to substitute for informed medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.