Sports Nutrition 101

January 6, 2021
| Created by Heather Lieber, RDN, CD

First off, let’s get it out of the way that this post is not only for competitive athletes. Nike’s mission statement is:  

Harmons dietitians agree with Nike when they say, sports nutrition is for anyone and everyone with a body! When referencing “sport” or “physical performance”, this could mean a national championship for a high school athlete, or an evening stroll around the block with a neighbor. No matter the type, frequency, or level of competition your sport is, nutrition plays an important role in feeling and performing your best. 

Everyday Nutrition

It’s important to note that “sports nutrition” isn’t completely unique from nutrition in general. In fact, when fueling for exercise we follow many of the same guidelines for healthy eating. By paying a little more attention to the timing of your meals and how food affects exercise, you’ll get the basics of sports nutrition down in no time. Here are two tips for everyday nutrition to get you started: 

  • Establish consistent meal patterns: Eat breakfast, plan ahead, and don’t skip meals! 
  • MyPlate Model: All food groups are necessary to fuel exercise. A balance of fruits, veggies, grains, protein, and dairy will ensure the right variety of nutrients that our bodies need to perform. 

Keeping those two tips in mind, let’s dive into the basics of sports nutrition. 


Sports drinks contain electrolytes and sugar, which may be helpful if you are exercising for more than an hour or you notice you are losing salt through your sweat. However, most of the time, water is the best choice. If you regularly drink sugar-sweetened beverages, this is a great opportunity for change, and shifting to water is a great place to start. 

An exact recommendation of water to drink daily doesn’t exist. Recommendations change based on body weight, water in food, sweat, weather, etc. Due to this variability, it’s best to track hydration by checking the color of your urine.  A pale yellow color means you’re on the right track!

The best advice is to always have water readily accessible to you. If you go through an eight-hour workday with no water in sight or take only a few sips at lunch, that is a problem. Sip gradually, always!  Small amounts consistently versus large gulps all at once before exercise will reduce your chance of a sloshy stomach, cramping, and dehydration. 


The time leading up to a workout or competition is not the time to experiment with new foods. Stick to what you know sits well with your digestion. When eating a meal 1-4 hours before exercise, focus on carbohydrates and protein. If it is less than an hour until go time, stick with easy-to-digest carbohydrates such as crackers, bread, a banana, or pretzels.  

There are two red flags for meals before exercise: high-fat and high-fiber. Have you ever felt heavy or stuffed full after alfredo, fried chicken, or a large order of fries? This is likely because of the amount of fat. Although fats are necessary in our diets, too much in one sitting can be tough to digest. A fat-rich meal is enough to make anyone feel sluggish, especially an athlete getting ready to compete. 

It’s no surprise alfredo and fries aren’t recommended before a workout, but what about fiber? Fiber is associated with being healthy, so this can be confusing. But, timing is everything. Picture a big green salad. A base of spring mix tossed with crunchy veggies, nuts, a homemade vinaigrette, and a salty cheese. Under normal circumstances, this sounds like a delicious, healthy choice. If we put it in the context of 30 minutes before going on a run, that is a different story. A sudden influx of fiber can cause cramping, bloating, and stimulate your digestive system to move things along very quickly. Sparing the details, a high fiber meal may cause a very immediate emergency on the side of the road that no one wants to deal with! 

An empty stomach can cause distress, too, so stick to familiar, easy-to-digest foods to keep you feeling your best and ready to go. 

During Exercise

In most cases you don’t need to worry about fueling unless you’re exercising for more than an hour. The general rule is 30-60 grams of carbohydrate per hour. There are many products marketed specifically for fueling during exercise, but any ordinary whole food will work, too. Here are a few examples of 30 grams of carb: 

  • 1 banana 
  • 1 energy gel 
  • 1 ounce of pretzels 
  • 16-ounce sport drink 
  • 2 fingerling potatoes 


Chocolate milk is marketed as the perfect recovery drink for its carbohydrate to protein ratio. Anywhere from 2:1 to 4:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio is ideal for recovery. Carbs replenish energy stores and protein helps rebuild muscle. Just because chocolate milk has the right ratio, does that mean it’s the only recovery option? Of course not! Crackers with a cheese stick, a turkey sandwich with fruit, beans and rice, and many other food combos can provide the same combination needed. 

Make It Work for You

All of this is great in theory, but how does it apply to your routine? Do you head to the gym straight from work? You’ll need to plan your fuel ahead of time. Are you sneaking in 30 minutes of living room yoga at 5 a.m.? That will take a conscious effort to get in some food before your workout.  

Even if you never read a nutrition label or count a calorie, simply paying attention to food before, during, and after exercise is a great start to optimizing your workouts. 

As far as the type of exercise, the best choice you can make is the one you will likely stick with. Find something that you enjoy doing and is realistic to adopt into your routine. 

Why Does This Matter?

When it comes to sports nutrition, small changes can produce results. Even small results can be a big deal. How many races are lost by less than a second? How many first downs are missed by inches? If you are even a little competitive, you know small differences can be a big deal. 

Who’s to say nutrition isn’t what’s holding you back from your personal record? If you feel you’ve got your training, recovery, sleep, and mental game on point, nutrition may be the missing piece.  

Preparation is great, but if it falls through, rock it anyway! No matter how perfectly we intend to fuel ourselves leading up to a workout or event, sometimes things go wrong and not according to plan. In that case, don’t let your lack of proper nutrition mess with your mental game. When it’s go time, put all of your doubts or things you could’ve done better out the window. Take a deep breath, have confidence, and give your workout the absolute best you have to give.  

Our Harmons dietitians are here to help. There is a lot to sports nutrition beyond this post. Check out our page here to see the services we offer and to send us a message. 

We want to see your sweaty selfies! Yoga in your living room, snowshoeing, bench pressing your toddler, skiing, walking…whatever exercise you enjoy most is the one you’re most likely to stick to. Share a selfie with us of what works for you, and make sure to use the #healthyharmonschallenge hashtag.