Sports Nutrition 101 - Fueling Your Body Like an Elite Athlete
Updated: Sep 17
From Olympians and elite athletes to weekend warriors and biohackers, how you fuel your body has a big impact on reaching your goals - but most of us lack the latest in performance nutrition science to succeed. That’s why last month I spoke with Director of Performance Nutrition for the Jacksonville Jaguars Mindy Black about cutting edge sports nutrition, including
nutritional needs of athletes vs. non-athletes
effects of the keto diet on athletic performance
hydration tips and gatorade alternatives
why inflammation can actually be a good thing
While I encourage you to tune into our full conversation via YouTube, I’ve highlighted below some of the key questions and takeaways from our discussion.
Is intermittent fasting right for you, and how might it impact your workouts?
Intermittent fasting has been around for all of human history and there are tons of proposed health benefits for the general population. Evolutionarily, we weren’t designed to have food at our disposal at any moment. We had natural gaps in our eating from the time we woke up to when we were able to source food. But just because we might be designed for intermittent fasting, does not necessarily mean it’s the best for performance.
The only real studies Mindy says we have on athletes are focused on athletes who fast for Ramadan, so it’s short-term. If we really want to realize the benefits of intermittent fasting we typically need to be doing it for more than 10 days - which means the studies that we do have don’t necessarily show performance benefits of intermittent fasting. But there is nothing to suggest it’s detrimental either. We just don't have enough data.
However, at the end of the day, the benefits are heavily dependent on your goals, as well as the intensity of your workouts. For instance, someone who is focused on glycogen loading - or “carb loading” - for storing fuel will have different needs than someone who is focused on breaking down fat (leaning out).
Simply put: there is no clear cut answer on if intermittent fasting is right for you - whether you are an elite athlete or a weekend warrior. It all depends on your goals.
When does glycogen loading - “carb loading” - make a difference?
The benefits of carb loading are dependent on the length of your workout and the time at which you consume your carbs. Studies suggest that ideally you should consume carbs up to four hours in advance of your workout with 4 to 5 grams per kg of your weight ingested. If your workout does not last more than 45 minutes, your “carb loading” an hour before will not benefit you for that particular workout. However, if you plan to work out twice in one day - what many athletes refer to as “two-a-days” - then those carbs could have an impact on your second workout later in the day.
It’s important to understand the nuances of carb loading, otherwise you risk consuming extra calories without reaping the benefits.
Macronutrients: How do you know how much to consume?
The first step in understanding your macronutrient needs is understanding how many calories in total you should be consuming per day. Regardless of if you are an athlete or not, everyone starts with the same equation. Essentially, you take your resting metabolic rate (RMR) - the rate at which your body burns energy when it’s at complete rest - and multiply it by an activity factor to understand how many calories you should be consuming. For people who are more sedentary or only lightly active, you might multiply your RMR by 1.2 or 1.375. For people who are moderately active (exercise about three to five days per week), you might multiply your RMR by 1.55 - or if you are very active (exercise hard nearly every day of the week), you’d multiply by 1.725. And, for elite athletes who are often doing high intensity workouts twice per day, you’d multiply your RMR by 1.9. This number then tells you how many calories you need to maintain your output - but if you are looking to lose weight or gain muscle you might adjust.
Once we have an understanding of your overall caloric needs, we can then look at macronutrient needs - which again is dependent on your individual goals and what kind of athlete you are. For instance, if you are a strength and power type athlete you should aim for six to seven grams of carbohydrate per kg of body weight. However, if you are an endurance athlete you might need up to 10 grams. Anecdotal evidence suggests that ultra-endurance athletes can also excel on low carb diets (as few as three to four grams per kg) - but we don’t yet have enough research to back this. For non-athletes, four to five grams per kg is Mindy’s suggested amount.
Protein is also highly dependent on goals and there seems to be a misconception that consuming a ton of protein after a workout - say a protein shake followed by a large steak - is an ideal way to build muscle. However, your body can only consume so much protein at one time. Mindy recommends two grams per kg - any more than that and you won’t see the gains. For endurance athletes, all you need is 1.2 to 1.4 grams per kg. And, if you sit at a desk all day, Mindy recommends 0.8 grams per kg.
Is the keto diet worth it from a performance perspective?
While some of the Jackson Jaguars adhere to the keto diet, they tend to do it in the off-season. However, Mindy shared that she has not seen any research that shows the benefits of adhering to keto in the off-season - or while you are training - and then switching off keto when you are back in season and expected to perform at your best. In fact, Mindy and her team have noticed that the Jaguars who adhere to the keto diet (and are well adapted to the diet) actually don’t show a decrease in performance, but their perceived exertion is higher than that of the athletes who do not adhere to keto.
The perceived exertion of athletes on the keto diet is higher than that of the athletes who do not adhere to keto.
What’s the deal with carbs and water weight?
If you cut carbs, you’ll lose weight almost instantly. But that does not mean you are losing the fat you might be trying to shed. Carbs help your body hold onto water, so when you cut carbs out of your diet your body quickly sheds water weight - not fat (at first). That’s why weighing yourself every day is not an accurate indication of true weight loss. If you go keto and lose 5 lbs in the first two days, it’s unfortunately not fat but initially mostly water weight.
I’m an athlete - can I be a vegetarian or vegan, too?
Being an athlete and vegetarian/vegan are not mutually exclusive. As Mindy shared, based on her experience with several of her athletes, you can 100% be an athlete and vegetarian/vegan. That said, being vegetarian or vegan does not necessarily mean you’ll be a better athlete. A few benefits Mindy sees in her vegetarian/vegan athletes include increased carbohydrate consumption which leads to more energy during workouts; and increased fruit/veggie consumption which leads to decreased stress and inflammation. However, for elite athletes that need to consume between 5000 and 7000 calories per day, a vegetarian/vegan diet can be a lot to take on. It certainly can be done - but should be done with the help of a registered dietician to make sure you are getting the calories you need. A vegetarian/vegan diet does not and cannot mean spaghetti only. Mindy and her team focus on making sure athletes get the protein they need through lots and lots of veggies - as well as essential vitamins like B12 and vitamin D and other essential nutrients through supplements. For those athletes that don’t seek the support of a registered dietician when making the transition, they often end up injured because they don’t get the nutrients they need.
Documentaries such as The Game Changers, highlighting the success stories of elite athletes turned vegan, only show one side of the story - and while it’s true that very successful elite athletes can be vegan, it may not be the right approach for everyone when it comes to performing at your best.
How do you know if you’re properly hydrated and what is the best way to replace electrolytes?
Dehydration of just 2% has been proven to decrease performance and cognition, so Mindy and her team are very focused on making sure the Jaguars are well hydrated. They even test the team’s urine regularly to gain a better understanding of hydration levels. That said, if you are not an elite athlete and not testing your urine regularly, there are other ways to understand if you are hydrated. If you are urinating once every 90 minutes and the color of your urine is the color of lemonade or lighter, then you are hydrated. If, however, you are only going once or twice per day and it’s the color of apple juice, then you are dehydrated.
Dehydration of just 2% has been proven to decrease performance and cognition.
A basic rule of thumb Mindy recommends is taking your body weight and dividing it by half to get the number of ounces you should be drinking per day. For instance, if you weigh 130 pounds you should drink 65 ounces of water per day. If you work out frequently, for every pound you lose over the course of a workout you should replace with 20 ounces of water. For instance, if you weigh yourself at the end of a workout and notice you lost three pounds, you should consume 60 ounces of water.
That said, other things to consider when working out is not just the amount of water you might be losing, but the amount of electrolytes you might be losing, too. For example, if you know you are a salty sweater (you notice white marks on your baseball cap after a workout or you feel salt on your face) then you need to consider electrolyte replacement in addition to just hydrating with water. Some electrolyte replacements Mindy uses with the Jaguars include Gatorade, Gatorlytes, the Right Stuff, and nuun tablets - each with a slightly different breakdown of sodium and other essential electrolytes. But again - it always comes back to individual goals and needs. For some, low-carb electrolyte replacements just won’t cut it, especially for high intensity, elite athletes that are exercising for more than 90 minutes. In fact, Gatorade was originally created with carbohydrates as an essential part of the hydration and electrolyte replacement equation for athletes because carbs help our bodies retain water.
Mindy’s suggested recipe for a healthy Gatorade alternative
two ounces of tart cherry juice (watermelon juice or coconut water also work)
six ounces of water
1/16 teaspoon of salt
1 teaspoon of some form of sugar, such as agave
What supplements do elite athletes typically take and why?
For delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), Mindy recommends about 10 to 12 ounces of tart cherry juice following a workout. However, for her athletes, because they require so many calories, she and her team will turn the tart cherry juice into a recovery shake that will have a three or four to one ratio of carbs to protein. Mindy also recommends using turmeric or garlic for anti-inflammatory purposes. Recent studies have shown that gelatin plus vitamin C can actually help rebuild your cartilage and collagen in your joints - and Mindy incorporates this into the daily regimen of her athletes that might be rehabbing from an injury. But studies also suggest this regimen may be crucial to preventing an injury before it even happens.
Another supplement to consider is beet powder. According to Mindy, some athletes take BeetElite prior to working out in order to enhance the nitrates in their body, increasing blood flow to muscles. If you aren’t a fan of the taste, Mindy recommends cutting it with a little bit of pineapple juice.
For athletes focused on muscle building, Mindy recommends whey protein - or eating chicken or meat within 30 minutes of a workout to get the necessary branched amino acids. But perhaps the most important consideration when choosing your protein supplement is making sure it is third-party tested. Third-parties to look out for include NSF International, Informed Choice and GMP - all used by Olympians and pro athletes. Another rule of thumb - the fewer the ingredients, the better. Too many ingredients probably means you are getting too many fillers. However, if you aren’t trying to build muscle and just focused on maintaining muscle, casein - a slow digesting dairy protein - is a great protein supplement option that allows your body to regenerate more slowly overnight.
If you are vegetarian/vegan make sure you are taking a variety of vegan proteins to ensure you are getting the right amount of amino acids.
And, for branched amino acids (BCAAs), Mindy recommends 0.1 to 0.2 grams per kg of body weight. While historic thinking suggests these should be taken post workout, current thinking is BCAAs even taken prior to a workout will still assist with performance and recovery. The main thing is making sure you are getting leucine and achieving the 0.1 to 0.2 grams per kg to ensure you are not over-consuming protein. As we discussed earlier, your body can only absorb a finite amount of protein at one time and anything in excess will ultimately be stored as fat. Following a workout, Mindy recommends consuming a 3:1 ratio of carbs to protein - and ideally within a 30-minute window.
What are some must-know biohacks?
The main thing is limiting inflammation. Having ridiculous amounts of inflammation can absolutely hinder performance. Garlic, turmeric, curry sauces and omega-3s from fish are great ways to help control inflammation following an intense workout - but I don’t recommend doing this immediately after a workout because during and immediately after workouts inflammation is a good thing.
During and immediately after workouts inflammation is a good thing.
It’s essential to stimulate the hormetic stress release so your body can go in and repair its muscles - which is typically the entire point of a workout. If you load up on the anti-inflammatories immediately following a workout you are actually fighting your body’s ability to heal and get the benefits of exercise. I recommend integrating anti-inflammatories into your regimen the day after a hard workout.
Mindy Black is an experienced Registered Dietitian located in Jacksonville, Florida. She specializes in sports nutrition and currently is the Director of Performance Nutrition for the Jacksonville Jaguars. She also works closely with several doctors and chiropractors in the Jacksonville area and is an adjunct professor at the University of North Florida. Mindy graduated from the University of Florida with a B.S. in Food Science and Human Nutrition and a Masters in Exercise Physiology. You can learn more about Mindy and her work at https://dietitiansofpalmvalley.com/ or on IG @MINDYtheRD.