By Tara Simpson, RD, CSSD, LDN
and Gina Barusevicius, MA, RD, LDN

Whether your child is an elite athlete or an exercise enthusiast, nutrition can make a difference in his or her plan for fitness. Although it can’t work miracles, proper nutrition throughout the year can allow your athlete to train more effectively, feel better, and positively contribute to his or her overall physical condition and in turn, maximize performance.

When preparing and planning for a training program, nutrition for performance must be taken as seriously as training. Variety, moderation, and balance are key. Adequate calories, carbohydrate, protein, and fat are essential for the athlete’s diet. Missing any one nutrient or food group can eventually affect performance.

The best muscle fuels are carbohydrates, either simple or complex. Simple carbohydrates, such as fruit or fruit juices and complex carbohydrate such as whole wheat bread, brown rice, oatmeal, and other grains, provide not only energy but also important vitamins and minerals. An athlete’s diet should consist of 55-70% carbohydrate. Inadequate carbohydrate intake will lead to muscle fuel depletion and fatigue. Therefore, eating high carbohydrate foods can assist athletes in sustaining optimal fuel levels necessary for training and competition.

Pre-Competition Meals

It is a common fear among athletes that eating prior to competing will cause adverse affects, such as nausea and/or stomach cramps. However, research suggests that most people perform better after eating a snack or a small meal. Experimenting with different food types and quantities can help athletes determine the proper balance for their particular needs. A meal or snack should be consumed 1-3 hours prior to competing. This meal should include primarily carbohydrates because they digest quickly and are readily available for fuel. Some choices include cereal, bananas, bread, bagels, crackers, and pasta.

The evening before a morning event, your athlete should eat a meal consisting of moderate amounts of protein and carbohydrate and a small amount fat.

For example:
3-4oz chicken breast
1-1/12 cups pasta, rice, or potato
2 tsp olive oil or butter
fruit or vegetable

Then, they should eat a light breakfast 1-3 hours prior to the event to maintain normal blood sugar and enhance their stamina and endurance.

For afternoon events, athletes should eat a well-balanced breakfast and a light carbohydrate-based lunch.

For an evening event, they should eat a normal breakfast and lunch and then a snack 1-2 hours prior to the event. Keep in mind, they should always eat foods that they are familiar with prior to competition. Leave experimenting with new foods for training.

Carbohydrate loading is most beneficial for endurance athletes, such as marathon runners or long-distance triathletes. For athletes in general, more balanced meals are ideal prior to competition.

Recovery Nutrition

One common error among athletes is insufficient refueling following strenuous training. Lack of proper nutrition following a training session can lead to chronic fatigue, risk of injury, and overall poor performance. Recovery nutrition should include a snack or meal that contains both carbohydrate-rich and protein-rich foods to allow for faster recovery and replenishment of lost nutrient stores. The snack/meal should be consumed within 30 minutes after completing a workout.


Many athletes ignore the importance of drinking enough fluids before, during, and after training. Water is the most important nutrient: 60-70% of the body is water. Fluid loss impairs performance, which can be affected in less than 1 hour without adequate fluid intake. It is important for athletes not to wait until they are thirsty to consume fluids. Remind your athletes to drink 2-3 eight-ounce cups of fluid up to 2 hours prior to the event. Approximately 5-10 minutes before the start of the event, they should drink another 1-2 eight-ounce cups of water or sports drink. During the event, athletes should drink as much water, sports drinks, or diluted juices that they can tolerate. Ideally 8-10 ounces of fluids should be consumed every 20 minutes during the event. After exercise, athletes should drink more than enough to satisfy their thirst, approximately 16-24 ounces. Juices or sports drinks will not only help them to satisfy their fluid needs, but will also aid in replenishing energy stores.

Nutrition should be an integral part of your athlete’s training, rather than an after-thought. Proper nutrition can enhance athletic performance and an unbalanced diet may undermine training, leading to poor performance. Therefore, choose foods wisely to help your athlete achieve peak athletic performance.

Nutritional Health Systems is a nutrition consulting company based in the Philadelphia area. NHS provides nutrition programs and nutritional counseling services to a wide variety of clients.

Co-authors, Tara Simpson, RD, CSSD, LDN and Gina Barusevicius, MA, RD, CSSD, LDN are well-regarded experts in the field of eating disorders, sports nutrition, and nutritional counseling.

For additional information visit our website at

Phone: (610) 688-3050


Combinations of carbohydrates and low-fat protein give the highest stamina, longest endurance, and best appetite satisfaction.

1. low-fat yogurt
fruit slices

2. whole grain crackers
low-fat cheese

3. flour tortilla
peanut butter and raisins
(roll up in tortilla)
low-fat milk

4. one slice pizza
1 cup juice

5. ½ pita bread
turkey, lettuce, tomato
1 cup juice

6. fruit smoothie made with strawberries,
ice, berry juice, vanilla frozen yogurt, and protein powder

7. flat bread
cottage cheese
fruit slices

8. cereal (whole grain)
low-fat milk