Eat to Compete: Nutrition Tips for Student Athletes
Student athletes need proper fuel for juggling school responsibilities and demanding sports schedules. To complement regular workouts, practices and game schedules, UR Medicine sports dietitian Gina Giannetti offers advice to help athletes keep their nutrition and hydration game plan in winning form.
- Stick to a schedule. During the sports season, you have a more structured schedule with after-school practices and games. Time your meals and snacks to give you energy and hydration when you need them. Pack water or sports drinks, as well as meals and snacks, which you’ll need for pre-workouts and pre-game times. I advise athletes to eat a carbohydrate-rich snack 45 minutes to an hour before their event. Good examples include a peanut butter sandwich, trail mix, fruit, apple slices smeared with peanut butter, etc. Afterward, eat a meal with protein to replenish what you burned off.
- Drink up. Adequate hydration is essential. You’re going to sweat, and you need to replace fluids. During your workout or game, you should have 8 ounces of water or a sports drink every 20 to 30 minutes if you’re doing a lot of running and intense activity. To get an idea of how much you need, you can weigh yourself before a workout and right after; for every pound you lose, you should replace it with 32 ounces or a liter of water. Drink water during the day to keep you hydrated before your activity. During heavy workouts where you’re sweating a lot, it’s a good idea to have a sports drink like Gatorade. If you are doing a long, very intense workout, or two practices a day, you may need to take a salt tablet to replace the salt you lose through sweating.
- Eat right. Your balanced diet should include the right foods, at the right time, in the right quantities. Everyone needs protein, carbohydrates, and a moderate amount of healthy fats in their diet. The best diet for you will depend on your gender, your age, and your sport. Your diet may even need to be tailored based on the position you play. In football, for example, quarterbacks and running backs need to be leaner and run longer distances than linebackers, so they should be eating differently. If you need help with your eating plan, ask your coach, athletic trainer, physician, or a nutritionist for advice.
- Be smart about supplements. Most athletes can get the nutrients they need from a balanced diet, but those who do regular, intense exercise may need to supplement their intake with a protein- or carbohydrate-based supplement. Supplement bars or shakes can also be helpful after a game if you don’t have ready access to food. Remember that supplements don’t replace a good diet or the workouts you need. I see a lot of athletes take too many supplements, thinking they’ll boost performance, but only end up putting on unwanted weight.
- Get real about goals. Your diet and hydration should keep you healthy and help you get the best performance. Too many athletes come to me asking how to get a low body-fat percentage or build six-pack abs. The reality is, if you are a high school or college athlete, you are still growing and you need to feed your body. Do what you need to do to stay healthy and focus on your performance rather than how your body looks. If you are in a sport with weight limits, such as wrestling, you need to work several months ahead of your season to take the weight off gradually, rather than trying to crash-diet in a few weeks’ time.
Gina Giannetti, MS, RDN, CD-N, is the designated sports dietitian for UR Sports Medicine at the Sports and Spine Rehabilitation Center. She individually counsels a range of clientele including high school, college and elite-level athletes including the Junior Rhinos. Gina also conducts sports nutrition lectures in the community for athletes, parents, coaches, athletic trainers, sports physicians and physical therapists.