As athletes, you spend countless hours in the gym, at training sessions, and in games. You’re pushing your body to its limits and conditioning it to perform at the highest level possible. And while a lot of athletes know that keeping their nutrition on point is key to getting their body in the best shape, a lot are unaware that tweaking your diet to consume certain foods before or after training can take your performance to a new level.
I’m talking about implementing a nutrition strategy that can set your performance on fire. But it’s not all about what you eat; we also have to consider when you’re eating. So, I’m breaking down the ins and outs of how to boost performance with nutritional strategies and how you should be eating to support maximum athletic abilities.
The building blocks of nutrition
For the vast majority of athletes, carbs provide the substrate for immediate fuel. They are broken down into glucose that is stored in the liver and muscles and is readily available to support high-intensity activity. You’ll find people that support keto and low-carb suggest that athletes can perform just as well following a low-carb diet – that may have some merit for lower-intensity activity but the majority of research still points to carbohydrate as an indispensable energy source for high-intensity performance .
Athletes have an unequivocal need to consume high-carbohydrate foods to enhance muscle glycogen storage and deliver glucose to muscles during high-intensity, strenuous exercise [7, 6]. Although protein and fat can both provide a substrate to meet energy requirements during physical activity, carbohydrates are the macronutrient most efficiently broken down by the body, and the only macro that can be broken down rapidly enough to fulfil energy demands during periods of high-intensity exercise when fast-twitch muscle fibers are primarily relied upon [7, 6].
Studies consistently find that despite an increasing interest in high-fat low-carb diets for endurance sports, they do not improve training capacity or performance, but rather directly interfere with rates of muscle glycogenolysis and energy flux, thus limiting high-intensity ATP production . Research shows that high-performance athletes compete in endurance events lasting up to 3 hours, carbohydrates serve as the predominant fuel for muscles, and carb availability becomes the limiting factor for performance.
Low muscle glycogen contributes to muscle fatigue, which means your body isn’t capable of completing high-intensity exercise. Muscle glycogen depletion is also a major contributing factor involved in acute muscle weakness and reduced force production, and both aerobic and anaerobic exercise cause decreases in glycogen stores, which indicates that carbohydrates become a foundation for all types of exercise during this energy phase.
Adequate dietary protein is one thing that’s non-negotiable for every single person, especially athletes. There are differing opinions on the importance of protein for performance that revolves around whether an athlete is engaging in aerobic-based exercise versus resistance-based exercise, but in any situation, protein forms the foundation of your body and is a must. The amount required daily to maintain muscle mass and support muscle growth, however, will vary based on the type of activity.
Dietary protein provides both a trigger and a substrate for the synthesis of contractile and metabolic proteins, as well as enhances structural changes in non-muscle tissues like bones and tendons. Upon protein ingestion, the increase in leucine concentration triggers these adaptations via stimulation of muscle protein synthesis. Research shows that in response to resistance training, MPS is upregulated for approximately 24 hours post-exercise and exhibits increased sensitivity to the intake of dietary protein over this period, hence why we harp about consuming adequate protein after training to support muscle repair and recovery .
Studies show that rates of MPS are optimized in response to exercise by consuming a minimum of 10g of essential amino acids early in the recovery phase -no more than 2 hours after exercise [11, 2]. This translates to roughly 15-25g of protein for an average-sized athlete but may need to be increased for athletes at extreme ends of the weight spectrum. However, despite common conceptions, higher protein intake doesn’t translate to great MPS stimulation; doses exceeding 40g dietary protein haven’t been shown to further augment MPS . But interesting is that whereas protein timing affects the rate of MPS, the magnitude of protein intake on mass and strength adaptation over time is much less clear.
I’ve talked about the branched-chain amino acids before, and research consistently supports the role of adequate intake in muscle growth due to its prominence in stimulating MPS. Studies show that protein intakes between 1.3 and 1.8g/kg body weight split between 3-4 meals will maximize muscle protein synthesis, but these numbers also depend on several factors, including athlete experience and training status . Protein intake should increase during periods of high frequency/intensity training and may be as high as 1.8-2.0g/kg body weight to prevent losses in lean mass or to promote fat loss. Athletes often choose to supplement protein through high-quality powders like DIESEL New Zealand Whey Protein Isolate, which is also Informed Choice Check marked for WADA Banned Substances in Sport.
So many people are under the impression that where athletic adaptations are concerned, fat is not needed, or is not as important as protein and carbs. But it’s not true. Your body needs fat to function and unfortunately, the hormones that control muscle growth depend on fat for biosynthesis. It’s also essential for several components of cell membranes and to facilitate the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins.
The other way fat can support athletes is because it provides a really dense source of energy to muscles during endurance activities. However, contrary to what a lot of people believe, exercise-induced adaptations don’t maximize fat oxidation rates but can be further enhanced by dietary strategies like fasting, acute pre-exercise intake of fat, and following a low-carb or ketogenic diet.
While there’s a lot going around about the benefit of high-fat diets for performance, there’s little evidence to suggest that high-fat diets are more beneficial for athletes than high-carb diets. In fact, high-fat diets actually appear to reduce rather than enhance metabolic flexibility by reducing carbohydrate availability and capacity to use carbohydrates effectively as an exercise substrate .
Long story short, despite popular thinking, fats are crucial for athletes, and while you may not want to consume them post-training to avoid interfering with protein and glucose metabolism, it is important to consume adequate amounts daily to support optimal body function.
Little-known fact, Water is a macronutrient and is considered a pillar of proper diets. Staying hydrated is perhaps the second most important consideration for performance. In addition to the water loss achieved through respiration, water also exits the body through gastrointestinal, renal, and sweat, which means athletes need to maintain proper hydration to replace sweat losses. It doesn’t seem like much, but a fluid loss of just 2% compromises cognitive function and aerobic exercise performance, particularly in hot weather [5, 13]. Compromises in the performance of anaerobic or high-intensity activities, sport-specific technical skills, and aerobic exercise in a cool environment are more common when there is a body water loss of 3% to 5% due to dehydration . And when it reaches 6-10%, we’re looking at significant effects on exercise tolerance, decreases in cardiac output, sweat production, and skin and muscle blood flow . For most athletes, fluid consumption of 0.4 to 0.8 L/hour is sufficient to maintain proper hydration, but this may need to be customized to the athlete’s tolerance.
When it comes to optimizing performance and recovery with nutrition, there are a few key things that must be taken into consideration.
Nutrition strategies should always aim to support or promote optimal performance by addressing various factors that can contribute to fatigue and decrements in performance (power, strength, agility, skill, concentration, etc.) either during or towards the end of an event or training session. These include:
- Electrolyte imbalances
- Glycogen depletion
- Gastrointestinal discomfort/upset
- Disruption to pH (acid-base) balance
A combination of proper nutrition, fluid intake, and supplements can usually address all of these issues and reduce or delay the onset of these factors. The other thing you want to address is maintaining gut comfort throughout training or competition, thus avoiding feelings of excessive hunger or discomfort, as well as GI upset.
Post-exercise food consumption
Most athletes are aware that what you consume before and after a workout is critical to how you perform and recovery, and while we’ve always been told to “eat immediately post-workout,” is downing your meal before you even leave the gym the best way to go?
Generally speaking, how long you have to reload your body with nutrients depends on 4 key factors :
How depleted glycogen stores are
The fact of the matter is, the more you deplete your glycogen stores, the more carbs and time you need to replenish them. Ideally, you want your glycogen stores full so that you have the maximum substrate to fuel exercise. However, the extent of depletion depends on the intensity and duration of the workout you just did. Higher intensity workouts for more prolonged periods means greater depletion of muscle glycogen. For most people, glycogen stores will be replenished in about 24 hours, but for prolonged strenuous activity, it could take up to 7 days. Similarly, the duration of your workout also impacts glycogen stores. The longer you train, the more glycogen you’re going to burn through.
The extent of muscle damage
Eccentric exercises, heavy weight lifting, or plyometric training causes damage to muscle fibres, and glucose is needed for the repair process. So, when you finish a heavy workout, incoming glucose and water are put towards muscle repair as opposed to storage, so the more muscle damage you have, the more carbs you’re going to need for replenishing muscle glycogen stores, on top of doing damage control. When your body needs glucose for both processes, it can take anywhere from 7 to 10 days to top up stores.
Amount and timing of carbs
Because the function of consuming carbs post-workout (or even pre-workout) is to replenish glycogen stores, the amount you eat will dictate how fast stores are replaced. As such, if you’re training daily or even multiple times per day, you want to be eating to fuel your body, which means bumping up carb consumption to ensure that once you’re done training, stores are loaded back up to prevent depletion in subsequent sessions. Over successive training days, if you’re not eating enough carbs for full replenishment, you’re continually pulling from a half-empty bottle and your performance is eventually going to suffer.
As training experience and fitness levels improve, your abilities to refuel do, too. The more an athlete trains, the better the body becomes at responding to incoming glucose and replenishing glycogen stores. This means that glycogen storage capacity also improves, whereby the body is able to store more glycogen than it previously could, thereby increasing availability to meet high energy demands.
Is there such a thing as a “Metabolic Window of Opportunity”?
This has been a huge thing in the world of sports nutrition and despite the sheer amount of research behind it, most people still think it’s critical to eat as soon as they step foot out of the gym. It’s what we call the ‘metabolic window of opportunity’ and it refers to the period post-exercise where the body is said to absorb nutrients in the most optimal capacity.
Previous research differentiates between two distinct components of this “window of opportunity”:
- Glycogen storage refilling: Studies suggest that consuming carbohydrates immediately after exercise nearly doubles the rate of glycogen replenishment 
- The ‘anabolic’ window for new muscle growth: Research suggests that consuming protein immediately post-workout leads to more rapid stimulation of MPS and better muscle growth compared to waiting hours after training 
The notion has been challenged a lot because it doesn’t account for feeding pre-workout. A lot of athletes fuel up before workouts to enable greater availability of energy substrates and thus better performance. When an athlete eats sufficient protein and carbohydrates before a workout, the emphasis on the post-workout eating window diminishes because they still have substrate in their bloodstream. Since the anabolic window lasts up to six hours post-activity, the refueling window, therefore, becomes much larger and there doesn’t seem to be a need to eat immediately after training stops.
I’m not saying wait 5 or 6 hours after training to eat, but when you take into consideration what an athlete eats before a workout, the necessity to eat immediately after training isn’t there and it can change up the game a bit.
With that said, assuming you’re not training within an 8-hour period after your last training session, consuming carbs immediately after a workout is not essential. As long as you’re meeting your macros for the day, replenishment levels after 24 hours will be roughly the same.
What To Eat
With all of that said, you probably have some semblance of an idea of what you need to be eating to fuel performance, but let’s dive into it a bit more.
For athletes, especially, what you’re putting in your mouth has an absolutely massive impact on how well you perform. If you’re eating crappy carbs to fulfil your needs, chances are you’re not going to be performing anywhere close to where you could be if you’re consuming nutrient-dense, complex carbs. That means avoiding anything refined and processed like white bread, pastries and desserts, pasta, sandwiches, and basically anything that isn’t in its whole-food form.
The same goes for protein. While protein choices are a little bit less confusing than carbohydrates, you still want to be choosing healthy, high-quality lean proteins and fish/seafood, although if you prefer fattier cuts, just be mindful of the protein to fat ratios.
But of the three macronutrients, carbs are going to have the biggest influence on your performance and they’re the ones you want to pay attention to. Protein and fat intakes should remain pretty standard across the board whether you’re fueling up for a competition or you’re gearing up for an intense training session. We’re going to talk a bit more about protein intakes below, but they generally range between 1.0-2.0g/kg bodyweight.
For anyone that wants a more specific breakdown of how to plan their carbs for optimal performance, this chart gives a really great breakdown, along with manipulating carbohydrates for acute fueling strategies for high carbohydrate availability to promote optimal performance during competition or key training sessions.
How much should I be eating?
This is the tricky part because as much as I would love to tell you x amount of carbs, protein, and fat is going to skyrocket your athletic abilities, that’s not realistic. Your macronutrient ratios are largely dependent on your body and your goals, which means that working with a nutritionist can be especially helpful for establishing a baseline on what you need.
Generally speaking though, if you want to maximize your performance, there is a guideline you can follow based on available research.
We’re looking at:
These values help to stabilize blood sugar, insulin, and serotonin levels, while at the same time providing enough substrate to properly load and reload muscle glycogen stores, along with repair and support muscle protein synthesis.
Some research suggests that the few hours post-exercise offer the best opportunity to consume food, especially carbs, because they’re rapidly absorbed and digested, and can most readily alter the hormonal milieu to speed glycogen resynthesis . When rapid glycogen resynthesis (<24 hours) is needed, it’s recommended to consume roughly 0.5 to 0.6g/kg of rapidly absorbed carbohydrate (simple carbohydrates like white rice, white potatoes, etc.) every 30 minutes for two to four hours (or until the next full meal) to support maintained of a high rate of glycogen synthesis. When glycogen resynthesis can take play more long-term (>24 hours), it’s suggested that the type of carbohydrates (simple vs complex) isn’t as much of a concern compared to the total amount ingested.
With protein, it’s a bit more tricky because it’s dependent on the type of activity, but also individual body composition and goals. Current research suggests that dietary protein intake required to support metabolic adaptation, repair, remodeling, and protein turnover generally ranges from 1.2 to 2.0 g/kg/day, leading towards the higher end for athletes engaging in heavy and intense training .
With all of that said, there’s no one-size-fits-all model where sports nutrition is concerned. Each athlete is going to require a specific mix of carbs, protein, and fat to achieve optimal performance, so all we can do is give you guidelines that you can then tweak based on how you feel and how you perform.
But eating to fuel performance shouldn’t be rocket science. Proper nutrition comes down to eating what works for your body, avoiding what doesn’t, and giving your body the proper amount of substance it needs to perform at the highest level possible. Some people perform better with a higher carb intake, while others perform best with low to moderate carb intake. Some athletes perform best eating three meals per day, while others require six or more to get in the calories and hit PRs of stellar practice runs.
Nutrition isn’t static, so finding your nutritional goldmine is going to take some trial and error, and it’s constantly going to change throughout the course of your career.
Shea Pierre – Coach and Owner of Pierre’s Elite Performance
A Father & Loving Husband First, Sports Performance Coach, Former Professional Football Player, Entrepreneur and Motivator second. Shea went from training athletes in his basement, to being a head college strength and conditioning coach to then become the head strength and conditioning coach of the Toronto Argonauts in the CFL. He has now spread his knowledge to 50,000+ elite athletes worldwide and continues to be a go-to strength coach for professional athletes.
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