Nutrition and Hydration Guidelines for Serious Athletics

Proper nutrition and hydration are essential for optimum athletic performance. For serious athletes, good nutrition habits can be the key to unlocking your body’s full potential. Energy intake, hydration status, and recovery strategies each play a vital role in maximizing performance.

Elevate Your Energy

Carbohydrates Are King

Just like automobiles, our bodies require energy to perform. Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred fuel source because they can be broken down rapidly and used for energy. Unfortunately, there is not enough storage room in the body for carbohydrates to provide fuel for long periods. To maintain your body’s energy levels, you should consume carbohydrates in the form of liquids, solids or gels.

During competition, try to consume simple carbohydrates that are easily digestible, like sports drinks or gels. It's also usually best to avoid consumption of heavy doses of fiber, protein, and fat to decrease possible stomach discomfort and irritability. This is not always the case for less intense sports, so listen to your body to determine which energy sources are most comfortable for you.

Carbs from Solid Foods

During training and some competitions, solid foods can provide bulk and a feeling of fullness. For longer duration events, such as bike rides greater than 50 miles and golf, solid foods like fruit, sports bars, and breads are great sources of energy. For many high-intensity or short duration competitions such as team sports, this is not the case, as solid foods require more time to digest.

Carbs from Sports Drinks

Sports drinks typically contain a carbohydrate concentration of 6% to 8%, which is optimal for comfortable absorption. This is much lower than fruit juice, which delivers about a 12% concentration of carbohydrates that can lead to stomach discomfort during competition.

Recommended Guidelines for Carbohydrates

Before a Work Out:

If you have three or four hours, eat 300-600 calories, primarily of carbohydrate (2-3g/kg body weight), moderate in protein and low in fat. Examples include oatmeal with milk, fruit and nuts or toast and all-natural peanut butter.

Fueling During Exercise:

Fuel every 45-60 minutes during a long workout and consume 30 to 60 grams/per hour. Examples include a large piece of fruit or a 20-ounce sports drink.

Fueling After Exercise:

A diet full of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein will ensure you have fuel for recovery.

Know Your Carbs

  • 20-ounce sports drink ~ 30 grams of carbohydrates, plus sodium and other electrolytes
  • 8-ounce fruit juice = 20+ grams of carbohydrates

For most team sports, such as soccer or football, 20 to 40 ounces of sports drink each hour can provide adequate carbohydrate and fluid needs.

Enhance Your Hydration

Adequate hydration is imperative when you’re physically active. Otherwise, you’re at risk for dehydration, the inability to replace lost fluid needed for normal body functioning. Dehydration not only impairs athletic performance, especially in a hot environment, but it can be life threatening if not properly managed.

Signs of Dehydration

  • Cramping
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Difficulty concentrating

Measuring Dehydration

Both beginner and serious athletes should monitor the body fluid they lose. While small amounts are lost through functions like breathing, urination, and defecation, sweat-loss during exercise and sports is the most common cause of dehydration. Sweating varies widely depending on the individual, environment, clothing and equipment used. So keep an eye on fluid loss with these easy tips:

  • Weigh yourself on a scale before and after athletic activity to measure sweat loss.
  • Consume 16 ounces of fluid for each pound of sweat lost.
  • Avoid losing greater than 2% body weight from fluid loss.
  • Keep an eye on urine color. It should be pale in color. Dark urine may be a sign of dehydration.

Staying Hydrated

Electrolytes like sodium, potassium and chloride, important for proper hydration, are also lost when sweating. Salt/sodium is the primary electrolyte lost and may range from 200 to 1,500 milligrams for every 2 pounds of sweat lost.

While other electrolytes are important and can be lost in sweat, they are lost in small amounts and typically do not require replacement during training.

For maximum benefit during training and competition, it’s best to consume fluids in small amounts every 10 to 20 minutes. Depending on whether or not you need electrolyte replacement, it’s easy to consume fluid by drinking water and sports drinks.


Water is a calorie and electrolyte-free form of fluid replacement, best consumed by itself for shorter duration, or less intense competitions such as a 5K run. For longer duration, higher intensity events, or when exercising in extreme heat, you may need to combine water with other energy and electrolyte sources.

Sports Drinks

Sports drinks provide a combination of fluid, electrolytes and carbohydrates. The sodium provided in sports drinks, assists in fluid absorption while also replacing sodium lost through sweat. Sports drinks are also helpful as they may promote drinking of additional fluids due to their sodium content and flavor profile.

A Cautionary Note

Watching fluid intake and loss is also important because drinking too much fluid can lead to a potentially dangerous condition called hyponatremia. Symptoms of this condition are similar to dehydration: confusion, fatigue, nausea and vomiting. The key difference is that hyponatremia will likely lead to weight gain, not weight loss. If you experience any of these symptoms with weight gain, you should reduce your fluid intake.

Fueling Recovery

When planning nutrition and hydration to improve training and performance, don’t forget about fueling for recovery. Proper nutrition recovery helps maximize your training efforts by giving you a head start on the next training session.

The objective of a recovery meal is to:

  • Replenish energy stores with easily digestible carbohydrates
  • Rehydrate with fluid and electrolytes
  • Repair muscle tissue through protein intake

When participating in single-day training sessions, there is ample time to fully recover with your normal diet. However, when training multiple times a day at high intensities, or when recovery times are less than eight hours, recovery nutrition becomes crucial for optimal health and performance.

Within 30 to 60 minutes following training, athletes should consume approximately ½ gram of carbohydrate for every pound of body weight in addition to 15 to 25 grams of protein for muscle repair. A recovery sports drink, low fat chocolate milk, or a plain bagel with jelly will likely meet the carbohydrate and protein needs for optimal recovery for most athletes. Athletes should also consume 20 to 24 ounces of fluid for every pound of water weight lost during competition, or until urine color returns to normal.

Alternate Energy Sources

Sometimes, athletes require alternate energy sources to gain an extra edge. If you use these, read labels and understand how to properly use them.

Energy Drinks

Energy drinks are typically loaded with caffeine, thus they’re promoted for their energy and performance-boosting effects. Although caffeine can sharpen focus and decrease the brain’s perception of effort, the effects of caffeine are specific to each individual.

While many athletes display positive effects after consuming caffeine, others may see few or even negative effects with over-consumption. For many individuals, as little as 75 to 100 milligrams of caffeine can provide a positive effect on athletic performance. This amount is found in many 8-12 ounce energy drinks. Since caffeine amounts vary widely among energy drinks, read the labels and know how much caffeine you’re consuming.

Tips for Using Energy Drinks

  • Test caffeine effects during training, well before using it in competition.
  • Limit caffeine to 200 to 250 milligrams for athletic competition to avoid jitteriness, stomach distress and increased heart rate.
  • If stomach discomfort occurs, dilute with water since energy drinks contain a higher concentration of carbohydrates in the form of sugar.
  • If you have a history of health complications, seek medical advice before consuming energy drinks.


Gels are heavily concentrated, thus providing a quick way of consuming energy in the form of carbohydrates. Most gels supply approximately 20 to 30 grams of carbohydrates. Whether consumed before or during competition, it’s best to consume gels with at least 12 ounces of water due to their high concentration of carbohydrates.

Practice Your Plan

Just as you practice your chosen sport, you should practice your nutrition plan prior to competition. This allows you to fine-tune it to your body’s needs. Nutrition for training and competition truly depends on each athlete and his or her training goals. Our sports dietitians are here to help.

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