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A Comprehensive Guide to Sports Nutrition

Learn the basics of nutrition for athletes from running coach Sabrina Wieser. Sports nutrition is about nutrients, timing, and hydration. Get the details here.

by Sabrina Wieser, USATF L3 Endurance Coach, Marathoner, and Content Creator

Sports nutrition is a critical aspect of athletic performance and overall well-being. Understanding the principles and components of sports nutrition can significantly impact an individual's ability to achieve fitness goals, optimize training outcomes, and support overall health. 

Here's everything you need to know about sports nutrition that works for you regardless if you are a casual runner or a serious endurance athlete.

Nutrient requirements for athletes like you and me

Athletes have unique nutritional needs based on factors like age, sex, weight, training intensity, and specific sport.

Key nutrients include carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals, each playing a vital role in energy production, muscle function, and recovery.

For optimal support during high-intensity training or competition, prioritize the intake of a diverse range of nutrient-rich foods representing the five fundamental food groups:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Grains
  • Lean proteins
  • Low-fat dairy or dairy alternatives

Critical considerations when formulating a high-performance diet

  • Incorporate a range of fruits and vegetables to provide essential vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients.
  • Opt for whole grains over refined grains, ensuring that at least half of your grain intake comes from whole sources.
  • Include a variety of lean protein sources such as chicken, pork, fish, turkey, eggs, soy products, and plant-based alternatives.
  • Choose low-fat dairy or dairy alternatives.
  • Replace butter and margarine with olive oil or other more beneficial fats.
  • Integrate wild-caught fatty fish, such as salmon, regularly into your diet for a reliable source of omega-3s. If fish is not part of your diet, seek plant-based alternatives like chia seeds and walnuts.
  • Prioritize foods rich in potassium, fiber, calcium, and vitamin D, addressing potential deficiencies common in conventional diets.

By adhering to these foundational principles, you'll establish a solid foundation for high-performance diet, effectively supporting your training through optimal nutrition.

Hydration explained

Proper hydration is fundamental for peak performance. Dehydration can impair physical and cognitive function.

Athletes should monitor fluid intake, considering factors like sweat rate, environmental conditions, and exercise duration.

To prevent dehydration, it's advisable to take a proactive approach by drinking a minimum of 16 ounces (0.5 liters) within 2 hours prior to an intense training session or competition.

Throughout a demanding training session, athletes should aim to consume 6–8 ounces of fluid every 15 minutes to sustain optimal fluid balance.

A practical method for determining the appropriate fluid intake is to monitor your weight before and after training. Each pound (0.45 kg) lost corresponds to a fluid loss of 16 ounces (0.5 liters).

Rehydrating with an equivalent amount of fluid before the next training session is essential.

During and after prolonged intense exercise, it's crucial to replenish electrolytes to ward off dehydration.

Timing and Composition of Meals

Proper meal timing and composition can enhance performance and recovery. 

Pre-workout and post-workout meals should be tailored to individual needs, considering the timing of exercise sessions. It takes a little while to understand what your body needs and when. It takes trial and error to figure out personal timing to fuel your body before and after your workouts. 

For the optimal enhancement of muscle protein synthesis, the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) recommends consuming a meal containing 20–40 g of protein every 3–4 hours throughout the day.

Crucial is the intake of protein within the first two hours following an intense training session, as protein synthesis is heightened during this period.

Additionally, it is essential to replenish carbohydrates after exercise. Consider incorporating 30–60g of a simple carbohydrate source within 30 minutes of completing your workout.

Supplements as an addition to a proper diet

While a well-balanced diet should meet most nutritional needs, some athletes may benefit from supplements.

Among athletes, vitamins, minerals, protein powders, and electrolytes are popular, but use should be guided by individual requirements and professional advice.

Protein Powders

These are concentrated protein sources, like whey, egg white, pea, brown rice, and soy, typically containing 10–25g of protein per scoop. Incorporating protein powder into meals, such as adding it to oats, can enhance protein intake. Research supports its role in promoting recovery and increasing lean body mass.

Carbohydrate Gels and Powders

Ideal for sustaining energy during endurance sports like long distance running or cycling lasting over an hour, these supplements offer around 25g of simple carbs per serving, often with added components like caffeine. Athletes may consume a carb energy gel every 30–45 minutes during prolonged exercise. Some prefer gels over sports drinks to avoid excessive fluid intake.

Vitamins and Minerals

Many athletes opt for high-quality multivitamins to address potential dietary gaps. Vitamin D supplementation, especially in winter with limited sun exposure, is common due to its impact on sports performance. Additionally I’d recommend Lypo-Spheric® Vitamin C to support immune function (a prerequisite for any training session) as well as exercise tolerance and recovery, and Magnesium to replenish the mineral lost in sweat. 


Research suggests caffeine can enhance strength and endurance, reducing perceived exertion. You may consume a strong cup of coffee or use synthetic forms in supplements like pre-workouts. However, caution is advised, especially for those under 18, as high doses can be risky. 

How to get started with sports nutrition

Nutrition needs differ for every athlete. As I tell the athletes I coach, these guidelines provide a lot of wiggle room to customize as you experiment and figure out the exact foods, supplements, and timing strategies that help you get the most out of every training session.

Sabrina (@runningbrina) has completed seven marathons and more than 30 half marathons since she started running in 2014. Her energy is addicting, her expertise in how to combine running and strength training unmatched, making her website a solid source for all of your endurance training questions.