How to Eat to Optimize Your Athletic Performance

Whether you’re a runner, weight lifter or casual gym goer, there are many ways to optimize your athletic performance. Sleep quality, workout intensity, supplements, stress – all these factors can impact your athletic performance. However, while the methods are many, few things are as critical to your training progress as proper nutrition.

So, how can you eat to optimize your athletic performance? Simply follow the expert advice provided by the Factor dietitian team below!

Eat Plenty of Protein

How to Eat to Optimize Your Athletic Performance - Protein for Athletes
Your protein needs will increase based on the frequency and intensity of your workouts. Most recreational gym-goers should aim to consume 0.5 – 0.6 grams per pound of body weight. But if the bulk of your gym time is spent strength training, your intake should be 0.5 – 0.8 grams per pound per day.
While protein shakes are a popular selection, some options on the market contain unnecessary ingredients and lack digestive fiber content making them a less proven source when compared to natural protein sources. If time permits, fill a quarter of your plate with high-quality animal proteins (e.g., chicken, salmon and eggs) or plant-based options (e.g., almonds and chickpeas). However, if you’re slammed for time and need to rely on a protein shake or bar, make sure it contains whey protein, as it’s shown to be a top choice for protein synthesis, which is a critical component of recovery. [1] [2]

Fuel Your Body with Daily Carbs

How to Eat to Optimize Your Athletic Performance - Carbs for Athletes
Carbs are your training fuel. As you eat them, carbs are metabolized into glucose (energy) very quickly to provide your body with immediate fuel for your workouts. As such, it’s important to keep good carbs stored in your muscles and blood to reach optimal athletic performance.
Eating carb-rich food before a workout can optimize your performance by topping off your existing muscle and liver glycogen stores. What’s more, consuming carbs during your workouts can help your body maintain elevated blood glucose levels, which can help enhance your performance and delay fatigue.
Finally, consuming carbs post-workout can help replenish your glycogen stores which prepares your body for your next training session. Bottom line – be sure to round out your plate with plenty of nutritious carbohydrate sources, such as fruit, quinoa and beans, to replenish your energy stores between training sessions.

Fuel Your Body Pre-Workout

How to Eat to Optimize Your Athletic Performance - Pre-workout Carbs
When fueling your body pre-workout, the goal is to consume carbs for fuel and protein to provide your muscles with the right balance of amino acids. Ideally, it’s best to avoid eating immediately before a workout because, as your muscles begin demanding attention, your stomach may struggle to digest food causing unwanted Gastrointestinal (GI) issues. For ideal timing, start fueling your body about 1 to 3 hours pre-workout, depending on how your stomach tolerates food.
The format, duration and intensity of your workout also play a role in pre-workout nutrition. If your workout isn’t for 3 or more hours, try having a whole grain sandwich with lean protein and fruit. But if you’re working out in 2 hours, consider a milk-based protein smoothie made with protein powder, milk and a mixture of berries. Finally, if your workout is planned for less than an hour out, consume a simple snack, like a banana or apple. [3] [4]

Optimize Post-Workout Nutrition

How to Eat to Optimize Your Athletic Performance - Post-Workout Carbs & Protein
Increasing your workout intensity or time is one way to power through plateaus and hit new benchmarks. However, the results you achieve from that additional effort will be hindered without proper post-workout nutrition. Post-workout nutrition has three purposes: replenish, repair and build.
It’s also essential to correctly time your post-workout consumption, as there is an optimal time frame for you to capitalize on your efforts. The Increased blood flow to your skeletal muscle after workouts causes nutrients to become more quickly available for your body to utilize. While research suggests that protein synthesis persists for at least 48 hours after exercise, your muscles are most primed to accept nutrients 45 minutes to 2 hours post-workout. Also, while protein is essential to recovery, carbs are equally important as your body’s carb stores can be substantially depleted during exercise.
Recovery nutrition doesn’t need to be complicated! Simple choices, like a peanut butter sandwich or a banana with almond butter, are enough. However, if your stomach is unsettled after a workout, consider consuming a nutrient-rich liquid substance, like a protein shake. [5] [6]

Stay Consistently Hydrated

How to Eat to Optimize Your Athletic Performance - Exercise Hydration Timing
Despite being a critical component to athletic performance, hydration is often marginalized or overlooked. But your body needs fluids before, during and after exercise to perform at your most optimal levels. In fact, studies show that fluid loss in as little as 2% of your body mass is enough to cause a detectable decline in your performance. What’s more, anything beyond 2% fluid loss will not only affect your performance, it will increase your risk of nausea and other Gastrointestinal (GI) problems.
Proper hydration becomes even more critical during the hotter, sweatier months of the year. If you tend to exercise outdoors, it’s important to take certain precautions during your workouts to keep your body adequately hydrated. Try weighing yourself pre- and post-workout to assess how much fluid you lost. Another precautionary tactic is to increase your pre-workout hydration, as your body often sweats faster than you can drink liquids. Especially if it’s sizzling outside!

Listen to Your Body

When it comes to performance nutrition, every body is different, and you’ll need to pay attention to how your body feels during your workout. As the duration and intensity of your exercise changes, so will your nutrition and hydration needs. If your body is feeling overly sluggish or considerably more hungry, this could be indicators that your body needs an overall boost in food intake or a tweak in the macro distribution of your meals and snacks. Don’t let yourself get locked into one plan and listen to your body while learning to fuel it for optimal performance.

Want to learn more about performance nutrition? Watch our Performance Nutrition webinar for more expert tips to optimize your athletic performance!



[1] Moore DR, Camera DM, Areta JL, Hawley JA. Beyond muscle hypertrophy: why dietary protein is important for endurance athletes. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2014;39(9):987-997.
[2] Phillips SM.  Protein requirements and supplementation in strength sports. Nutrition. 2004;20(7-8):689-695.
[3] Sports Nutrition, A Handbook for Professionals.
[4] Maughan RJ. Fluid and carbohydrate intake during exercise. In: Burke L, Deakin V, eds.Clinical Sports Nutrition. 3rd ed. Sydney, Australia: McGraw-Hill;2006:415-453.
[5] Tipton, et al. Timing of amino acid-carbohydrate ingestion alters anabolic response of muscle to resistance exercise. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab 2001;281:E197.
[6] ADA, Dietitians of Canada, ACSM, et al. American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Nutrition and athletic performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2009;41:709-731.

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written by

James Gardikas

James Gardikas

Contributing Writer