Expert advice Nutrition

A Sneak Peek Into An Athlete’s Diet

Dr. Lakshmi K

PhD in Food Science & Nutrition

8 min read

Nutrition is an essential factor to consider even when UR not a professional athlete or a fitness enthusiast. UR diet is not only the fuel that gets you through UR day or while performing for a sporting event. It’s also the source of all nutrients that determines UR overall health and well-being for years to come.

In the fitness world, what you eat has an immediate and direct impact on UR success and day-to-day-training, making it a top priority for athletes. But eating for performance is not as drastically different from eating for health as one might assume. Well, here’s a sneak peek into what many athletes eat.

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Get UR Energy Needs On Point

Energy intake sets the “budget” from which an athlete must meet their daily needs for carbohydrate, protein, fat and other range of foods that provide vitamins, minerals and other health-promoting dietary factors. This is pretty close to what healthy eating looks like.

An Athlete’s Energy Requirements

These energy requirements are made up of several components: Baseline metabolic needs like the energy required to support cellular maintenance, temperature regulation, immunity, growth and physical activity. Daily diet must aim at providing adequate power to meet the needs of all functions.

Physical activity – or in case of an athlete, the intensity, duration and frequency of training sessions and competition – play a substantial role in determining UR daily energy requirements.

An important new concept for an athlete is energy availability. The energy that is available to the body after the energy cost of physical activity has been deducted from the daily energy intake from carbs, protein and fat. Energy availability is, therefore, the amount of energy that can be expended to look after UR body’s physiological needs.

Energy availability = Energy intake – Energy needed for training



Carbs are the body’s quickest and most accessible source of fuel – making it the most preferred source for most bodily functions and various exercises. Carbs are especially important for high endurance training. They are also what UR body uses when it’s fight or flight mode kicks in!

An athlete’s carbohydrate needs are tied to muscle fuel costs of their training. The training load changes from day-to-day according to the microcycles and macrocycles in the training calendar. Rather than a static dietary intake, athletes should focus on their varied carbohydrate intake as per the rise and fall in their muscle fuel needs.

A great way to assist carbohydrate intake is by tracking muscle fuel needs by including additional carbohydrates in meals or snacks before and after a workout. This means when training needs increase, so does carbohydrate intake. Consuming carbohydrate intake during lengthy sessions will also add to the day’s carbohydrate target as well as specifically provide fuel for the workout. Targets for carbohydrate should be given in grams in sync with the athlete’s size (Body mass) rather than a percentage of the total energy intake. When rapid refuelling is needed after a session, target a carbohydrate intake of about 1 g per kg of body mass per hour.

Training Load & Carbohydrate Intake Targets (gram per kg of the athlete’s body mass)

  • Light/low intensity or skill-based activities – 3 – 5 g/kg per day of low intensity exercise
  • Moderate exercise sessions – 5 – 7 g/kg/d (i.e. 1 hour per day)
  • High endurance sessions – 1 – 3 hours 6-10 g/kg/d per day of mod-high-intensity exercise
  • Very high extreme sessions – 8 – 12 g/kg/d least 4-5 hours per day of mod-high intensity exercise

This indicates that different amounts of carbohydrate may be adequate for various training loads. Therefore two athletes could eat the same amount of carbohydrates. Still, according to their training needs, one could achieve high carbohydrate availability while the availability of carbohydrates in another athlete is low.

When you aren’t able to meet these carbohydrate targets during the early hours of recovery, the presence of protein in UR recovery snacks is likely to promote higher rates of glycogen storage than carbohydrate itself. This is useful since post-workout protein intake addresses other goals of recovery eating.

Nutrient-rich Carbohydrate & Protein Combos (contains 50 - 75 g carbohydrates and 15-20 g protein)

For vegetarians
Whole wheat bread with thick spread peanut butter + 1 – 2 cups low-fat milk
300g (large) baked potato + low fat cottage cheese filling + 1 – 2 cups low fat milk
1 cup baked beans on 2 slices of toast or a baked potato

For non-vegetarians
500 – 750 ml fruit smoothie or liquid meal supplement
Thick bread sandwich with meat and salad filling
2 cups stir-fry with rice or noodles and meat


Did you know that many dietary surveys also state and show that athletes can easily meet these goals, even without the intake of expensive supplements? Athletes who are usually at risk of failing to meet these targets usually restrict their energy intake and food variety. 

Dietary Protein

Dietary Protein

This type of protein also play a vital role in response to exercise. The amino acids are the building blocks of protein needed for generating new tissue, muscle and repair of any damaged tissue. They’re also the building blocks for hormones and enzymes that regulate metabolism, support our immune system and other body functions.

Protein intake targets for both strength and endurance athletes have been set at about 1.2-1.6 g/kg body mass per day. Did you know that many dietary surveys also state and show that athletes can easily meet these goals, even without the intake of expensive supplements? Athletes who are usually at risk of failing to meet these targets usually restrict their energy intake and food variety, which is completely unnecessary. 

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Best Way To Promote Optimum Protein Synthesis During Recovery & Adaptation From Each Workout

Eating high-quality protein after exercise is part of the process of promoting muscle protein synthesis. High-quality protein, particularly from animal sources (e.g. dairy, meats, eggs, etc.) is especially valuable. The amount of protein required to maximise this response to exercise is quite modest – about 20-25 g. Higher amounts of protein than this are burned as fuel.

Whey protein is used for a post-workout protein boost since it’s quickly digested and helps in post-workout recovery. It’s easier to carry and prepare around the exercise session as a liquid meal supplement.

Since the muscle is stimulated to increase its synthetic protein rates for up to 24 hours after a workout, It is better to spread protein over the meals and snacks consumed over the day.

Protein-rich foods: 10 g protein

For vegetarians
400 ml soy milk – 60g nuts or seeds,120 g tofu or soy meat,150 g legumes or lentils, 200 g baked beans, 150 ml fruit smoothie or any liquid meal supplement

For non-vegetarians

2 small eggs, 300 ml cow’s milk, 20 g skim milk powder, 30 g cheese, 200 g yoghurt, 35-50 g meat, fish or chicken, 4 slices bread – 90 g breakfast cereal

Water & Salt Needs

Water & Salt Needs

Water and salts are needed for athletes to replace fluid loss. It is not necessary to drink during exercise that lasts less than about 40 minutes, but some athletes feel better after rinsing their mouth with drinks, and this should do no harm.

The athlete should practice drinking 15 minutes before exercise and decide how much is initially filling but comfortable once exercise begins (300-800 ml). Did you know that water is also continually lost in the breath and through the skin even though these losses may not be apparent? Small losses of water do not affect in the beginning, but if neglected, severe dehydration can compromise UR performance and health.

A more targeted option is to develop a fluid plan to fit the sport, the individual and other nutritional needs. As a starting point, the athlete should try to drink at a rate that replaces enough of their sweat losses. The overall fluid deficit for a training session or competition is kept at no more than about 2 per cent loss of body mass (i.e. 1.0 kg for 50 kg person, 1.5 kg for a 75 kg person). When the fluid intake is excessive, it leads to a severe problem called hyponatraemia (dilution of blood sodium concentrations), which is often seen in recreational exercisers at low intensities but drink large volumes of fluid.

Exercises lasting more than 1 hour and which elicits fatigue, athletes are advised to consume a source of carbohydrate along with water. The use of sports drinks with a carbohydrate content of about 4 – 8% (4 – 8 g/100 ml) allows carbohydrate and fluid intake to be met simultaneously. These carbohydrates can come from sugars like; sucrose, fructose, glucose, maltodextrins or other fast digestible carbohydrates.

When carbohydrates are consumed during exercise or training, it is best consumed in a pattern of frequent and continued intake. This provides a constant stimulation of the brain and central nervous system, or a continuous source of additional fuel for the muscle when needed. Sodium should be included in all fluids consumed during exercise lasting longer than 1 – 2 hours.

Rehydration After Exercise

Refuelling of water and the salts lost in UR sweat is an essential part of the recovery process too. Sweat and urine losses will continue to occur, during recovery; the athlete will need to drink about 1.2 – 1.5 litres of fluid for each kg of weight lost during training or during a competition to compensate and fully restore fluid losses.

Vitamins & Minerals

Vitamins & Minerals

Most athletes can meet the recommended intake for vitamins and minerals by eating everyday foods, like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean dairy and meat. For those who might be at risk for the suboptimal intake of these micronutrients, includes athletes who restrict their energy intake, go over long periods to meet their weight loss goals. Athletes who restrict food variety and foods with poor nutrient-density. The best way to improve and fix this situation is to seek advice from a sports nutrition expert.

Source: Nutrition for Athletes – A practical guide to eating for health and performance – Prepared by the Nutrition Working Group Of the International Olympic Committee