What to eat to optimize athletic performance

Fueling your body before, during, and after a workout is crucial for optimizing performance and building muscle. However, an athlete’s nutritional needs depend on the activity type, intensity, and duration.  Here is a quick guide to help you determine if, what, and when to eat to improve your athletic performance and recovery.

  • If aerobic activity (a.k.a. cardio) lasts less than 45 minutes, no pre- or post-exercise nutrition is usually needed.
  • If aerobic activity lasts more than 45 minutes, a pre-exercise snack, rich in carbohydrates, eaten 30 to 60 minutes before activity, can help prevent fatigue and improve performance.
    • The food groups found on the top half of MyPlate are richest in carbohydrates: fruits, grains, and dairy foods.
    • To reduce upset stomach during exercise, choose pre-exercise snacks that are easy to digest like low-fiber fruit (e.g. banana, not raspberries), chips, crackers, low-fat milk, and yogurt.
  • If exercise lasts 1 to 2.5 hours, including “stop and start” sports, mid-exercise snacks can improve performance and delay fatigue.
    • Athletes need 30 to 60 g of carbohydrate (120 to 240 calories) per hour during endurance activities.
    • To prevent indigestion, choose easily absorbed snacks like sports drinks, gels, gummies, and beans.
  • If the exercise includes muscle-strengthening activities, a post-exercise snack, rich in protein, eaten within 30 minutes after the activity, can help improve recovery.
    • To maximize muscle protein synthesis post-exercise, consume 0.25 to 0.3 g protein per kg body weight (0.114 to 0.136 g / lb).  For most people, this is about 15-25 g protein.
  • In general, muscles want 3 to 4 times more calories from carbohydrates than from protein.  The ideal carbohydrate to protein ratio is 4:1.
    • If a post-exercise snack contains 20 g protein, this means also eating 80 g from carbohydrate (e.g. 5 slices of bread or 5 cups of fruit).
    • Examples of 4:1 ratio foods include chocolate milk, turkey sandwich, or regular Clif bar.

For more information, check out the Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance.

Written by Adair Lindsay with the assistance of Hannah Berkon