Building Blocks of Sports Nutrition

The goal of sports nutrition is to tailor a person’s diet to support their athletic performance. Sports nutrition is a science and can require some trial and error to find the best approach for each person individually. For example, there are a lot of factors that can influence a person’s sports nutrition. Some of those factors include age, body composition, food intolerances, food allergies, which sport they play, lifestyle factors, socioeconomic status, and more.

Food is Fuel

Calories have gotten vilified over the years, and food companies have been working tirelessly to try slash as many calories as possible out of their products. Meanwhile, calories are simply a unit of energy, and they are essential for life. The food we eat gives us energy in the form of calories. Sports nutrition aims to find a perfect balance between calorie intake and calorie expenditure.

Each of us has a unique number of calories that our body requires in order to fuel our brain to think, our heart to beat, and our lungs to breath. This is called our Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), and this is the number of calories our body would burn at rest. If we expend extra energy through activity, and especially exercise, we would need to eat more calories than our BMR. Here is a great article that goes into more detail about BMR.

So, from a sports nutrition point of view, an athlete would need to eat: their BMR + calories to cover their activity of daily life + calories to cover their exercise during training + calories for recovery.

Consuming the right amount of calories is especially essential in order to provide enough energy for our heart to pump enough oxygen and nutrients out to our skeletal muscle. Fun fact: approximately 30% of our energy expenditure is used to fuel skeletal muscle alone. Check out some of dietitian approved recommendations for healthy pre-workout and post-workout snacks.

Sports Nutrition vs. General Healthy Eating

Healthy eating for athletes is slightly different than healthy eating for the general public. There are some nutrients in particular that athletes require more of. Sports nutrition emphasizes sources of carbohydrates, protein, as well as electrolytes and water. Therefore, healthy eating for athletes would need to satisfy these increased needs.


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Probably the most important nutrient when we are thinking about sports nutrition. Carbohydrates (carbs) are the body’s main energy source. So, if our diet is too low in carb, our muscles will lack strength and our neurological signals between our brain and muscles will slow down. A general rule of thumb is that 50-60% of an athlete’s calories should be coming from carbohydrates.

Working with a Registered Dietitian with experience in sports nutrition is essential in order to find that balance between too little and too many carbohydrates. The goal would be to top-off your glycogen (stored carbs) in your muscles and liver, as well as having enough carb to spare to use for energy at the moment.



Protein is extremely beneficial not because it builds muscle but because it repairs muscle. For most athletes, getting enough protein is not a problem because Americans already consume enough (and sometimes more) protein then they need to.

All in all, eating a balanced diet is very important for everyone but especially for athletes because their bodies go through more wear and tear, so they require more nutrients to reduce the risk of chronic diseases. For example, osteoporosis develops from insufficient calcium and Vitamin D and occurs in many female athletes who don’t consume enough of this micronutrient. Sports nutrition also emphasizes eating meals and snacks throughout the day to help give active individuals consistent energy and help them recover from long, intense workouts without feeling sluggish or burnt out the next day.

Lastly, healthy eating will help athletes develop a healthier relationship with foods. Athletes are at a higher risk for developing an eating disorder compared to the general public. So, it is important that sports nutrition includes fun foods into an athlete’s routine, and discourages using labels such as “good” and “bad” foods.

By implementing recommendations from a sports dietitian, you will eventually see how food and fuel can increase your performance and help you to feel more confident in your choices.

Electrolytes: Sodium, Potassium, and Magnesium

Electrolytes are essential for our muscles to contract and relax normally. When our electrolytes are imbalanced, we get muscle cramps.

We lose electrolytes when we sweat, so athletes who sweat a lot during their workouts have higher electrolyte requirements compared to the general public. The supplement industry advertises many different sports drinks and gels to replenish an athlete’s electrolytes, however, you can get electrolytes from food!

Sources of Sodium

  • Salted nuts
  • Pickles
  • Whole-grain pretzels

Sources of Potassium

  • Bananas
  • Spinach
  • Lima beans

Sources of Magnesium

  • Almonds
  • Avocado
  • Tofu

Make an appointment with our sports dietitian nutritionist today! Our contact number is 301-474-2499 or you can visit our contact us page.

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Rebecca Bitzer loves to empower Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs) and their clients.  Co-author of Welcome to the Rebelution: Seven steps to the nutrition counseling practice of your dreams and  Taste the Sweet Rebellion: Rebel against dieting.

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