Sports Nutrition to Maximize Athletic Performance – Part 1
There are few factors that athletes have full control over in attempting to reach their genetic potential. Nutrition is one of the most important yet over-looked aspects in an athlete’s preparation. Here are some helpful tips for sports nutrition to maximize athletic performance.
Whether it’s combining the right nutrients pre-game, facilitating recovery post-game, improving overall health or changing body composition, your diet can play a major role in boosting your performance.
Given the time and effort athletes put into practice and training, it would only make sense to dedicate some additional time into what’s fueling your performance. In this article series I’m going to focus on using nutrition to improve:
Muscle:Fat Ratio – Increase lean muscle mass and decrease body fat stores leading to an overall leaner, healthier, faster athlete.
Pre-Game Nutrition – Provide the athlete with the appropriate nutrients in sufficient amounts to fuel them at a high level for the duration of their event.
Intra-Game Nutrition – Maintain fluid and electrolyte balance and include certain nutrients if warranted.
Post-Game Nutrition – Provide the essential nutrients required to either begin recovery process or replenish and prepare for the next event that day.
Let me start by saying that each athlete needs to take their own metabolism, personal preference and sporting activity into consideration. No study is more important than an individual’s specific response. Because of this, I am going to start with what I feel is an undeniable truth to increasing performance and that is improving the lean mass to fat mass ratio.
If you were to ask most coaches or athletes the number one quality they want – its speed. You have track and field athletes who are given try-outs for other professional sports simply based off their ability to run fast and nothing more.
Why is it so important? Because in high-level competitive athletics, sometimes a 90 minute game can come down to one brief explosive play. Luckily speed is a skill (though it still has a huge genetic component) and it can be trained and improved.
A lot of factors contribute to speed but one of the most important is the ability to produce more mass specific force. However, most field sport athletes will never achieve max velocity so for them it’s really more about acceleration (though this doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t do true speed work).
- Muscle produces force (fat doesn’t)
- Force = Mass x Acceleration
- Acceleration = Force/Mass
- Acceleration is directly proportional to force and inversely proportional to mass
- More force = increased acceleration
- More mass = decreased acceleration
This brings us back to increasing lean muscle mass (to produce force) and decreasing body fat (to decrease mass) in an effort to increase speed and improve overall performance. Assuming your training is in place, I would focus on the following with your diet:
Increase Protein Intake
If building muscle, retaining muscle on a caloric deficit or recovering from intense training are priorities, adequate protein intake is essential. I have given some generic outlines below that I use with clients based off of my experience and the current scientific evidence.
Maintenance – .6-.8 x Bodyweight = grams per day
Gain Muscle – .8-1.0 x Bodyweight = grams per day
Lose Weight – 1.0-1.2 x Bodyweight = grams per day
These numbers are higher than the RDA and higher than the majority of the athletes/clients who come to me. What gives?
The International Society of Nutrition on the RDA values, “Research over the last decade has indicated that athletes engaged in intense training need to ingest about two times the RDA of protein in their diet (1.5 to 2.0 g/kg/d) in order to maintain protein balance. If an insufficient amount of protein is obtained from the diet, an athlete will maintain a negative nitrogen balance, which can increase protein catabolism and slow recovery. Over time, this may lead to muscle wasting and training intolerance.” 
Does the sporting requirement play a role? Yes, as different sports have different energy system requirements and thus demand a macronutrient profile and caloric intake more specific to those needs. The ISSN broke it down further with:
Endurance athletes – 1.0-1.6 g/kg/day 
Strength/Power athletes – 1.6-2.0 g/kg/day 
Intermittent athletes (soccer, basketball, etc) – 1.4-1.7 g/kg/day 
The next question is usually where to get this protein from and how. I recommend that you try to have a protein source with each meal as that will allow you to hit your daily totals much easier.
- Eggs (white or whole)
- Lean sources of meat (chicken, turkey, beef, steak, duck, bison, pork, buffalo, etc.)
- Whey/casein/egg/hydroslate protein
- Fish (Salmon, swordfish, scallops, tuna, shrimp, etc.)
- Yogurt, tofu, beans, cottage cheese
- Protein bars (Top 5 Best Tasting Protein Bars)
With how often I write about intermittent fasting you’d think I was selling a product on it. However, I’m not and that’s how you can tell that I truly believe in it and don’t have a hidden agenda. If intermittent fasting is a bit of an unknown for you I would recommend going back and reading my series on it.
- The Ultimate Guide to Intermittent Fasting I: Feast vs. Famine
- The Ultimate Guide to Intermittent Fasting II: Not All Fasts Are Created Equal
- The Ultimate Guide to Intermittent Fasting III: What Happens When You Fast
So, why should athletes fast? I think the better question is why shouldn’t they? The see-saw of feast – fast has been an integral part of human nature for far longer than our current state of feast – fat. The simplest way I can put it is:
Feasting initiate’s growth processes and provides us with the raw tools and energy to survive, grow, and reproduce (mTOR, protein synthesis, glycogen synthesis)
Fasting balances the feast by cleaning house and ridding the body of unnecessary tissue and cellular debris (autophagy, activation of AMPK, NPY, SIRT1)
In the articles above I scoured through over 100 studies on intermittent fasting and the effects it has on the physiological processes in the body. When implemented properly fasting can help an athlete to:
- Decrease body fat stores
- Improve insulin sensitivity and thus carbohydrate metabolism
- Increase resting glycogen stores (stored energy)
- Increase cells ability to tolerate stress
- Improve blood markers and lower inflammation
- Improve metabolic flexibility (ability to switch between fuel sources)
The question then becomes, how can you implement intermittent fasting to reap these benefits? The studies on this are rather limited and typically use athletes who are participating in Ramadan. While those studies do show benefits (fat loss, improved body composition), it’s not the optimal set-up for an athlete.
Those who participate in Ramadan fast every day and do not consume water during the fast. This blunts the growth hormone response and undoubtedly leads to dehydration which isn’t ideal for an athlete. Even still, some of these studies show the athletes were able to maintain performance on a one meal a day (at night), no water fast. This is further proof of the incredible adaptability of the human body.
In a review on Ramadan Fasting and athletic performance, the researchers concluded, “The results of the small number of well-controlled studies that have examined the effects of Ramadan on athletic performance suggest that few aspects of physical fitness are negatively affected, and where decrements are observed these are usually modest.” 
Of course this isn’t optimal for those who are worried solely about increasing performance. This is why I recommend you read the previous series on fasting as it’s important to recognize that there are multiple ways to implement this, good and bad. In this scenario I would recommend a once or twice a week short fast preferably on off days or those focusing on low intensity aerobic development.
- Wake up, glass of water with lemon or unsweetened green tea.
- Perform low intensity cardiovascular work (consume water throughout).
- Continue the fast
- Break your fast between 11am-2pm with high protein, low glycemic index carbohydrates, lower fat meal – ex.) 3 egg whites, 3 whole eggs, 2-4 pieces of ezekiel bread
- If you have intense training the next day, continue to load appropriate carbohydrates in your meals with sufficient protein.
- If fat loss is the goal and there is no impending high intensity activity, extend the fast or keep carbohydrates lower until you need to load them.
The goal of using this template is to improve one’s ability to utilize fat as an efficient fuel source, lower body fat and increase insulin sensitivity thus leading to a healthier, leaner athlete. In part two of this series I will delve into pre, intra and post-game nutritional strategies as well as the supplements that may provide performance benefits.
You might also be interested in:
 Kreider, Richard B., Colin D. Wilborn, and Lem Taylor. “ISSN Exercise & Sport Nutrition Review: Research & Recommendations.” JISSN. Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition, Feb. 2010.
 Campbell, Bill, Richard Keider, and Tim Ziegenfuss. “International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: Protein and Exercise.” JISSN. Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition, 2007.
 Shephard, RJ. “Ramadan and Sport: Minimizing Effects upon the Observant Athlete.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, Dec. 2013.