Many pro athletes have nutritionists and meal planners who help them eat for optimum performance. The rest of us? We have to fend for ourselves. And while you could spend dozens of hours combing through nutrition books and journals in search of an eating plan that gives you an edge, you probably don’t have that kind of time to spare. Good news: You can upgrade your game instantly by following these six tried-and-true nutrition rules. (And while you’re at it, be sure you know the basics.)
Each of your meals should provide a combination of carbs from whole grains, vegetables or fruits; proteins such as lean meats, peanut butter or dairy; and healthy fats from foods like olive oil, nuts or salmon.
Your mom was right when she said that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. (Read Never Skip This Meal: Why Athletes Need Breakfast.) A proper morning nosh awakens your metabolism, improves your focus, memory and mood, and boosts your energy levels all day long.
Though you probably grew up on a three-meals-a-day diet, recent research indicates that athletes do better by eating five or even six smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day. Try to consume an equal number of calories in each meal or snack, and space your eating sessions about three to four hours apart.
Your car doesn’t run without fuel, and the same is true of your body. Training on an empty stomach, whether in a workout, practice or a game, is like trying to drive with the tank on E—you’re bound to stall. A pre-workout meal provides your body with a readily available source of energy. For best results, consume a lean protein and slow-burning carbs like brown rice, sweet potatoes or oatmeal about an hour or so before training begins.
You want to drink enough water to replace what you lose through sweat, but remember that hydration is an ongoing process. Make sure your fluid intake is adequate at all times—before, during and after activity. (See Guidelines for Effective Pre-Workout Nutrition.)
Exercise depletes your body of energy and can damage muscle tissue, so it’s important to replenish your glycogen stores (the body’s main source of fuel) and supply some protein for muscle repair within about an hour of working out. Studies indicate that taking in a 3:1 ratio of carbs to protein can help you accomplish both goals. Aim for 15 to 30 grams of protein and 30 to 90 grams of carbs after your workout. (Need ideas? Try these Post-Workout Foods for Any Occasion.)