5 Pillars of Sports Nutrition

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"Fueling is just as much a part of training as lifting, running and learning plays," says Pittsburgh Steelers nutrition consultant Leslie Bonci. Your eating habits deserve as much focus and attention as your training. Each of the five pillars of nutrition—energy intake, nutrient timing, balanced diet, hydration and supplements—has a significant impact on your performance. Here, we break down why.

Pillar 1: Energy Intake

Calories are critical for supplying energy. "There's nothing more fundamental or foundational to nutrition than meeting your calorie needs," says Josh Hingst, University of Nebraska director of sports nutrition.

If caloric intake doesn't meet the body's energy demands, the body resorts to breaking down muscle—and performance suffers big time. Studies suggest that failing to meet caloric needs weakens your endurance, decreases muscle building, increases fatigue and impairs the immune system.

The following chart breaks down base level daily caloric needs—i.e., energy the body needs to perform critical functions (like breathing) while at rest.

Note: estimate your body fat percentage with a bathroom scale or a test at a local fitness facility.

% Body Fat 150 160 170 180 190 200 210 220
8 1180 1972 2064 2156 2248 2340 2432 2524
10 1850 1940 2030 2120 2210 2300 2390 2480
12 1820 1908 1996 2084 2172 2260 2348 2436
14 1790 1876 1962 2048 2134 2220 2306 2392
16 1760 1844 1928 2012 2096 2180 2264 2348
18 1730 1812 1894 1976 2058 2140 2222 2304
20 1700 1780 1860 1940 2020 2100 2180 2260

Find your base level calorie number in the chart, and multiply it by the factor below to account for your estimated activity level. The total will indicate the number of calories you need to consume on a daily basis.

Estimated Activity Level Multiplier Factor
Light activity 1.3 to 1.5
Daily training 1.6 to 2.0
Two-a-days 2.0 to 3.0
Weight: 170-pound athlete
Body fat: 10%
Activity level: Daily training
Formula: 2,030 (from chart) x 1.6 to 2.0 (daily training multiplier factor)
Daily caloric requirement: 3,248 to 4,060

Pillar 2: Nutrient Timing

Once you determine how many calories you need, focus on taking them in throughout the day with three meals and two or three snacks (Pillar 3 provides a meal frequency breakdown). According to Jose Antonio, CEO of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, what you eat before, during and after a workout—referred to as "nutrient timing"—"impacts how quickly you recover, how much muscle you put on and how much body fat you lose." (Watch a video interview with Jose Antonio discussing when to consume carb and protein supplements.)

To optimize performance, feed your body certain nutrients and fluids (Pillar 4 specifies fluid guidelines) during these critical periods:

Pre-Activity 2 hours prior

Nutrient Focus: high amount of carbs
Purpose: Carbs prepare muscles to work; help them relax and contract; and maintain your performance throughout a full workout or game.

During Activity

Nutrient Focus: carbs and electrolytes
Purpose: Maintain energy and hydration levels to avoid cramps and sustain peak performance.

Post-Activity 15-30 minutes after

Nutrient Focus: carbs and protein
Purpose: Muscle recovery and restoration of energy levels—i.e., to replace glycogen depleted during activity, so your muscles can rebuild for increased size and strength.

Pillar 3: Balanced Diet

Balance calories and nutrients consumed throughout the day. "The right nutrient balance will help control appetite and weight naturally, improve energy, immune function and overall health," says Julie Burns, Chicago Blackhawks team nutritionist.

But what exactly does the "right" balance consist of? For a 170-pound athlete, it breaks down like this:

Total daily calories 3,248 to 4,060
Carbs 406 to 660 grams
(50-65% of each meal)
Protein 122 to 254 grams
(15-25% of each meal)
Fat 72 to 135 grams
(20-30% of each meal)

Tavis Piattoly, New Orleans Saints sports dietitian, advises athletes to eat clean 90 percent of the time and treat themselves the other 10 percent. Eating every two to four hours equates to 42 meals per week. So, four meals per week can include "freebie" foods—high cal vices with little nutritional value (e.g., cookies, candy, chips, cakes, sodas); fast food, which is high in fat; and fried foods, also high in fat.

Below is a sample meal plan Calories Carbs (g) Protein (g) Fat (g)
Breakfast 2-3 whole-grain waffles (e.g., Eggo); 1 hard-boiled egg; 1C strawberries;
8 oz. orange juice
484 78.02 16.77 14.2
Morning Snack PB sandwich with sliced banana and
1 tbsp. honey; 1 apple
524 64 14 18
(15-30 minutes prior)
Carbohydrate drink, such as Gatorade Prime 01 100 25 0 0
(within 30 minutes)
1 scoop/packet of vanilla protein powder (e.g., Myoplex Light or Original) mixed with 20 oz Gatorade 205 38 23 2.5
Lunch 6 slices lean roast beef on whole-wheat bread with 1 slice provolone cheese, low-fat mayo, lettuce and
tomato; grapes; baked potato; V8 Fusion
735 108 31 17
Afternoon Snack Non-fat plain or Greek yogurt with
1 tbsp sugar-free pancake syrup
165 17 11 8
Dinner 6 oz grilled chicken, beef or fish; 2C whole-wheat pasta with marinara; carrots, cauliflower and broccoli;
8 oz low-fat milk
1069 142 67 32.3
Evening Snack 1/2C low-fat cottage cheese; banana 187 32 15 1
Totals 3469 479 178 93

Pillar 4: Hydration

Staying hydrated is critical for sustaining strength, speed and endurance. Too often, athletes sabotage their performance by not drinking enough fluids during the day or during a game. Jenna Stranzl, sports nutritionist for Major League Strength and consulting R.D. to the Philadelphia Flyers, warns that dehydration can greatly hinder performance, causing cramping, headaches and fatigue—resulting in slower sprints, shorter jumps, faulty pivots and delayed reaction time.

Soak in the following fluid guidelines to stay hydrated all day long.

Throughout the day

Juice, water, enhanced water, tea and low-fat milk with every meal


Goal: Start your activity in a hydrated state

Fluids: 13 to 20 ounces. For activity lasting less than an hour, water is adequate. Over an hour, opt for a sports drink, because it stimulates thirst, which means you'll drink more.


Goals: Prevent dehydration, maintain energy and keep the body cool for sustained strength and speed

Fluids: A sports drink is a good option, because its carbs, sodium and potassium help maintain blood sugar levels so you can exercise longer before fatiguing. Look for one with approximately 14 grams of carbs and at least 70 mg of sodium per eight ounces; consume six to 12 ounces every 15 minutes.


Goal: Replenish fluid and electrolyte deficits

Fluids*: Choose a drink high in simple sugars, because they refuel your muscles quickly. Try 100 percent fruit juice, a recovery shake, or a high protein drink like low-fat chocolate milk.

*The amount you need to consume depends on how much body weight you lost during activity. Weigh yourself before and after activity. Consume 20 to 24 ounces of fluid for each pound lost.

Pillar 5: Supplements

Nutrition experts agree that athletes should concentrate first on eating properly before even considering supplements. If a nutrient deficiency still exists with a balanced diet, a supplement can be used to remedy it.

When supplementing your diet, stick with nutrients found naturally in food or produced by the body. Don't ingest mysterious substances, which could have unknown consequences. This way, you simultaneously maximize strength gains and cure dietary deficiencies.

Multivitamins, protein, glucosamine, beta-alanine and flaxseed oil are all supplements that can benefit athletes, depending on their needs.


Provide a variety of vitamins and minerals essentialn for daily activities. Proper intake improves recovery and increases endurance, energy and aerobic capacity.


Vital for repairing muscles after they've been broken down by intense exercise or competition. Amino acids in protein are the body's building blocks for making muscles bigger and stronger. Without adequate protein, this process can't occur. Protein supplements, such as whey powder, supply protein without delivering significant amounts of fat or calories—an added benefit to athletes trying to reduce body fat.


A way to keep joints loose and lubricated (i.e., healthy and feeling good); improve their shock-absorption capacity; and reduce stiffness. A study in The British Journal of Sports Medicine concluded that people who took glucosamine supplements daily for 12 weeks experienced a decrease in knee pain.


A naturally-occurring amino acid that delays fatigue. It works by reducing the effects of lactic acid, the source of that uncomfortable burning sensation you feel when exercising at your limit. It doesn't directly stimulate muscle growth, but it can improve the quality of your workouts by allowing you to perform additional reps to challenge your muscles. Watch an exclusive video with pro cyclist Craig Lewis about using Beta-Alanine to combat muscle burn.

Flaxseed Oil

A great source of omega-3 fatty acids (O-3FA), an essential fat. The body doesn't produce it, so O-3FA must be consumed through diet or supplementation. Adequate intake speeds recovery and reduces muscle inflammation after workouts or competition. It also improves cardiovascular function and overall health. Some studies also link O-3FA to increased strength levels.

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