Food for Fuel

Quick-links: ProteinCarbohydratesFatWaterVitamins & Minerals

Nutrition is just as important to your performance as training. Proper nutrition can improve performance, prevent injury, increase stamina, boost immunity, and promote recovery. Improper nutrition can be not only detrimental to your performance, it can adversely affect your immediate and future health. Extreme improper practice of nutrition can even be fatal. Practice nutrition as part of your training. Learn how to use each of the major nutrients to best fuel your performance.


A protein is a chain of amino acids. Amino acids are the main building block of cells composing about 45% of the body. Proteins play a vital role in many bodily functions including hormones, enzymes, and immunity. Protein is necessary for growth, healing, and recovery. The body does not store protein. Excess protein is converted to fat for storage. Protein is necessary for glycolysis (the process the body uses to make energy) to occur, but no more than 10% can be utilized for fuel. When immediate energy sources are deplete, the body may start to break down muscle (including organ tissue) for a fuel source. Therefore it is important for athletes to get adequate carbohydrates and total calories to fuel their bodies.

Current Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) for adults: 0.36 g./lb/day (0.8g/kg)
ACSM and ADA recommendations for athletes:
Endurance athletes: 0.55-0.64 g/lb/day (1.2-1.4 g./kg)
Resistance-trained athletes: 0.73-0.77 g/lb/day (1.6-1.7 g/kg)
Vegetarian Athletes: 0.59-0.81 g/lb/day (1.3-1.8 g/kg.)
Intake above 1.8 g/kg usually results in oxidation of excess amino acids and is not

Good Sources:
Buffalo, fish, Tofu, Tempeh, egg whites, legumes, low fat dairy products,
skinless white chicken.
(A printable PDF of safe fish available to download HERE.)

Key Points to Ponder:
Increased protein intake= increased hydration need;
Protein must be cleared by the kidneys once it is broken down.

The kidneys require fluids to do this.

Protein combined with carbohydrates does help stabilize blood sugars. It is recommended that outside of training time, carbohydrates be consumed with a source of protein.

Although research indicates that no performance benefits have been found from ingesting protein during and athletic event, some athletes may choose to do so. Bear in mind that large quantities of protein can inhibit the absorption of necessary carbohydrates. So keep the amount of protein during performance to a minimum. But do be sure to ingest protein before and immediately after your event for maximal recovery.


Carbohydrates are composed of sugar. They assist with structure, energy, and immune function in the body. All carbohydrates consumed are broken down into glucose. Glucose is a readily useable supply of energy for all bodily function. This is the main purpose.

Current Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) for adults : 1.8-2.3 g/lb/day ( 4-5 g/kg)
ACSM and ADA recommendations for athletes:
General Training Intake: 2.3-3.2 g/lb/day (5-7 g/kg)
Endurance Athlete: 3.2-4.5 g/lb/day ( 7-10 g/kg)
Ultra-Endurance Athlete: 5+ g/lb/day ( 11+g/kg)

Good Sources:
low fat whole grain breads, pasta, fruit, oatmeal, fiber cereals, vegetables, legumes

Key Points to Ponder:
Increased protein intake= increased hydration need;

1 oz. of glycogen stored in muscle holds 3 oz. of water. Generally this water is helpful for managing your body temperature during your next work out, where it is sweated out. However if you eat a large amount of carbs as athletes should, but don’t work out the next day, be aware that you may feel bloated but it is just water weight.

Some amount of carbohydrate must be present in your blood stream in order for your body to burn fat for fuel. While running out of carbs stores is not a concern for most people, if this occurs to an athlete during sport, it is called “hitting the wall” or “bonking.”

Generally, low glycemic carbohydrates are recommended prior to exercise, while moderate to high glycemic carbohydrates are recommended during and immediately after exercise.


Fat , aka adipose tissue, acts as an energy reserve in the body. It also serves as a source of protection to internal organs, regulation and production of
some hormones, and is a structural component of tissue. Fat is necessary for the absorption of certain fat soluble vitamins, such as A,D, E,
and K.
Fat is the preferred fuel source during aerobic activity (exercise below lactate threshold).


Current Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) for adults : no more than 30% of total daily calorie intake
ADA recommendations for athletes: 0.36 g/lb/day (0.8 g/kg)

Good Sources:
Avocados, almonds, walnuts, milled flax seed, olive oil, sardines

Key Points to Ponder:

Fats containing Linoleic acid or linolenic acid , essential fatty acids, act as a natural anti-inflammatory agents , promote bronchiole air flow, and assist with blood flow regulation. 3-5% of all athletes fat should come from lenoleic acid and linolenic acid sources such as salmon, sunflower seeds, and soy beans.

There is no performance benefit to a very-low-fat diet for athletes (<15% of total calories). For females, fat intake <15% may contribute to amenorrhea. Fat is the most variable component of an athlete’s diet. Dietary intake may be lower or higher based on food preferences and type of training but should fall between 20 and 35% of total calorie intake.

When it comes to saturated fat, a good saying to remember is, “Eat Fat, Wear Fat!” Saturated Fats, such as in beef, cheese, and butter, should not compile more than 7% of total intake in order to promote heart health.

Fat stores in the body are the most efficient way to carry fuel for endurance sport performance. One triglyceride (fat) can provide as much as 461 ATP (energy unit in body), compared to 38 ATP in one glucose. We store 2500 calorie worth of triglyceride in our muscles alone!


Water composes approximately 60-75% of your body.
It is very important for most functions in the body, structure and balance of cells, transportation of blood, hormones, nutrients, and waste products.
Water acts as a lubricant in the body as well, which is particularly important for an athlete’s joint health.
Perhaps of most importance to athletes is the role water plays in temperature regulation (sweating).

Adequate Intake (AI) recommendations for sedentary adult: Males 130 oz/day, Females 95 oz.- but needs may vary based on weight, age, and environment of individual.

ADA recommendations for athletes: Same as above recommendation with the addition of fluids before (14-22 oz. 2 hrs. prior), during (4-8 oz. every 15 minutes),
and after exercise (24 oz. for every lb. lost).

Good Sources:
Water- from that tap or from a bottle. However, during exercise lasting more than 90 minutes a sport drink containing a blend of sugars and electrolytes is recommended
(not to exceed a 14% osmolality to ensure absorption) over water.

Key Points to Ponder:
Weight lifters or anyone increasing their muscle mass must not only have excess protein available, but also require additional water intake.

Fluid is the MOST important nutrient for Master Athletes (generally athletes over the age of 50), as they are more at risk for dehydration.

Athletes lose more water via their respiration tract in the winter than in warmer seasons. Losses are worsened when at higher altitudes.

Thirst is not a good indicator of hydration status. Thirst generally occurs at least at a 1% dehydration status. Performance is impaired at a 2% dehydrations status. The urine test is the most common way to check hydration status. Pee should be straw color or lighter. Urine test strips that check specific gravity of
urine are the best indicator as food, especially B vitamins may discolor urine.

20% of daily fluid needs are generally met by food intake. The other 80% intake can be met by any fluids, including milk, tea, coffee, etc..

Most athletes will lose between 1-2 liters of sweat per hour of exercise, and some more than 3 liters/hour. Tracking your personal sweat rate may help you find your optimal fluid replacement rate during exercise.

Vitamins & Minerals

Tissue maintenance, immunity, metabolism, nervous system, muscle function….you name it and vitamins and minerals probably play a role in it.

Current Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) for adults :
Available HERE (PDF file).

ACSM and ADA recommendations for athletes:
Same recommended levels as above except for these vitamins & minerals…
(For each vitamin or mineral listed, it may be beneficial for athletes to intake more than the DRI, but not above the UL “upper limit”.)

VIt. C
Vit. E
Iron (but levels should be tested and shown deficient before iron is supplemented)

Good Sources:
All fruits and vegetables, low fat dairy, whole grains, lean meats

Key Points to Ponder:

With the increased calorie needs from training and performance demands, athletes should have no difficulty meeting the DRI for all vitamins and minerals.
Nutrients consumed in food are more available and better utilized by the body compared to supplements.
Therefore athletes should be sure their calorie requirements are met with nutrient dense foods.

It is very common for athletes to get into the rut of eating the same foods every day or to rely on supplements, such as sport bars to meet energy demands.
Such behavior can limit the available vitamins and minerals and impair the health of an athlete.
Variety and whole food intake is recommended for optimal health and performance.

Athletes that are sweating in large volumes on a regular basis should be aware that they are losing calcium with their sweat.
For instance, a 3 liter sweat loss my result in a loss of 120-360 mg. of calcium.
Therefore, all athletes, weight bearing or not, should try to consume an extra serving of calcium rich food daily.
Thin females should especially pay heed to this.