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Eating for Peak Athletic Performance

Eating for Peak Athletic Performance


Every athlete strives for an edge over the competition. Daily training and recovery require a comprehensive eating plan that matches these physical demands. The keys to peak nutrition performance aimed to complement your training and competition are reviewed below.


Food Energy

The energy needs of athletes exceed those of the average person. It’s not uncommon for male and female athletes, especially those still growing, to have caloric needs exceeding 2,400-3,000 kcal and 2,200-2,700 kcal per day, respectively. The amount of energy found within a given food is dependent on the macronutrient (carbohydrate, protein and fat) content of the item.
Macro-nutrient Energy Content
Carbohydrates 4 kcal/gram
Protein 4 kcal/gram
Alcohol* 7 kcal/gram
Fat 9 kcal/gram


*Although alcohol is not considered a macronutrient, it’s important for athletes to realize that it is higher in calories and can contribute to undesirable weight gain.

  • Carbohydrates serve as the primary source of energy during activities of higher intensity. Healthy carbohydrate food sources include fruits, vegetables, whole-grain cereals, breads and pastas.
  • Dietary fat also plays a key role in helping individuals meet their energy needs as well as supporting healthy hormone levels. Healthy sources of fat include nuts, nut butters, avocados, olive and coconut oils. Limit use of vegetable oils such as corn, cottonseed or soybean oil.
  • Dietary protein plays a key role in muscle repair and growth. Preferred sources of protein include lean meats, eggs, dairy (yogurt, milk, cottage cheese) and legumes. 

UW Health Sports Performance


The sports performance coaches, physical therapists and athletic trainers in the UW Health  Sports Performance program develop comprehensive programs accessible to athletes of all ages and ability levels, with an emphasis on long-term athlete development.

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Tips to Excel with Proper Sports Nutrition

  1. Make a plan to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables daily. The goal is to eat at least five servings per day, and include varieties of fruit and vegetable color. One serving is approximately the size of a baseball. Fruits and vegetables are filled with the energy and nutrients necessary for training and recovery. Plus, these antioxidant-rich foods will help you combat illness like a cold or the flu.
  2. Choose whole grain carbohydrates sources such as whole-wheat bread or pasta, and fiber-rich cereals as power-packed energy sources. Limit the refined grains and sugars such as sugary cereals, white breads and bagels. You'll benefit more from whole-grain products.
  3. Choose healthy sources of protein such as chicken, turkey, fish, peanut butter, eggs, nuts and legumes.
  4. Stay hydrated with beverages, as a two percent drop in hydration levels can negatively impact performance. Options include milk, water, 100 percent fruit juice and sport drinks. However, realize that sport drinks and 100 percent fruit juice tend to be higher in overall sugar content and, in the case of fruit juice, lack many of the health benefits present in its whole food counterpart. Also, be sure not to confuse sports drinks such as Gatorade with "energy" drinks such as Red Bull and similar beverages.
  5. Stick with whole food options as much as possible as opposed to highly processed foods.

Planning a Nutritious Meal


Without adequate calories from the healthiest food sources, you will struggle to achieve your performance goals. Plan a nutritious meal by choosing at least one food from each category.




Healthy Fat


Whole eggs ( white and yolk)



Greek yogurt

Peanut butter

Starchy vegetables (sweet/white potatoes, squash)


Nuts and seeds

Non-starchy vegetables (broccoli, leafy greens)

String cheese

Olive or canola oil (the latter, if baking)

Whole-grain bread or crackers

Lean red meats

Coconut oil

High-fiber, non-sugary cereals


Flax seed (add to baking or cooking)




Brown or wild rice






Adequate hydration is a key element in sports performance. Most athletes benefit from developing a personal hydration plan. A general rule for training is to consume a minimum:

  • Two cups of fluid prior to training
  • Four to six ounces of fluid every 15 minutes of exercise

Your post event/training hydration needs are impacted by your overall pre- to post-fluid losses. To properly assess, weigh yourself immediately prior to and after a workout. For every pound of weight lost, replace with 16 ounces of fluid. Best hydration choices include water, low-fat milk or 100 percent juice. Sports beverages are best reserved for competition, where quick hydration and electrolyte replacement are necessary.


Game Day Nutrition


There are a few golden rules when it comes to eating on game day:

  • Remember, proper nutrition for the "big tournament/race/meet" does not happen on the day of the event alone. It happens the days, weeks, and months leading up to the competition
  • Never experiment with a new dietary/supplement protocol on game day. First, try it out prior to a practice/training session to make sure you tolerate it well.
  • As you get closer to the game/competition, make your meals smaller. Additionally, you may want to limit dairy, fat and fibrous carbohydrate sources during the last one to one and one-half hours pre-event/practice, as these may cause GI issues.

On-the-go Eating


Peak performance during competition means eating nutritious food while traveling. Relying on the concession stand for food during competition is an almost certain failure. Players (and parents) should prepare by packing a variety of food and beverages.


Choose energy-packed foods such as whole grain crackers with low-fat cheese, tortilla wraps with veggies and lean meat, hard-boiled eggs, vegetable or bean soups, small boxes of non-sugary cereal, fresh fruit, mini-whole wheat bagels with peanut butter, pita bread with hummus or pasta with grilled chicken. Pair any of these options with fruit/vegetable and milk and you’ve got a great meal.


Healthy Food Choices

Not-so-healthy Food Choices

Grilled chicken, turkey or fish

Fried chicken and fish

Lean beef or pork

Burgers, sausage, bacon

Fruits, vegetables, salads,

veggie-based soups

French fries, fried rice, alfredo or cheese sauce

Nuts, trail mix, seeds or peanut butter

Chips, cheese curls, pork rinds

Eggs or egg substitutes

Omelets loaded with cheese, hash browns and sausage

Whole grain breads, rice and pasta

Highly-processed white bread, rice and pasta

Dairy products

Dairy products with excessive added sugars, like ice cream

  • As you get closer to the game/competition, make your meals smaller, removing fats and dairy products. Fibrous carbohydrates can be beneficial as these tend to cause GI disturbances.
  • The key thing with “pre-event” nutrition is making sure that you’ve tested it out before game day. Try the pre-meal/snack protocol in advance to make sure you tolerate it well.



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