Sports Nutrition


Sports nutrition is the practice of maintaining optimum nutrition and diet to support individual athletes in achieving peak performance in physical activity, either recreational exercise or participation in competitive sports.


The purpose of sports nutrition is to support the skills, power, strength, speed, and endurance of athletes. These attributes require physical training and the correct nutrition, including the selection of appropriate types and quality of foods essential to the success of training effects. Individuals who engage in any type of physical activity, from a personal workout to improving general fitness or preparing for a major professional sporting event, can benefit from understanding the role of good nutrition in athletic performance.


Sports historians often point to the Greek fighter Milo of Crotona, who competed in five Olympic Games between 532 and 516 BCE, as an ancient example of early interest in sports nutrition. Records indicate that Milo ate 9 kilograms (20 pounds) of meat and 9 kilograms (20 pounds) of bread and drank more than 8 liters (18 pints) of wine every day while preparing for a fight. The fighter obviously knew that his diet would have some effect on his athletic performance; however, we learn little more about sports nutrition from this historical example. A scientific basis was largely lacking until studies on the physiology of exercise were done in the mid-nineteenth century, starting with the first monograph published by William H. Byford, a physician and professor at the Rush Medical School in Chicago. His monograph, “On the Physiology of Exercise,” marks the first time those two words occurred together in a journal article title. However, Byford's article had little impact, and it was more than 30 years before the first textbook on the subject was published: On the Physiology of Exercise, by E. M. Hartwell, of Johns Hopkins University. In 1892, George W. Fitz established the first formal laboratory of exercise physiology at Harvard University, which remained in operation for another half century.

In the early twentieth century scientists began to evaluate ways in which carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and other nutrients affected a person's strength, speed, endurance, and other physical attributes, exploring the relationship between human physiology and exercise. Some basic facts were in place for continued study throughout the next century. An essential step in that process occurred in 1954 with the creation of the American College of Sports Medicine, which became a leading institution in the study of sports nutrition.


The human body requires certain nutrients in order to stay alive and maintain the functions of the body's organ systems. The essential nutrients required for optimum health include carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, and other metabolites as needed.

A complex organic compound consisting of carbon, hydrogen, and water that is the primary energy source for the human body.
An inorganic ion, such as sodium, potassium, or calcium ion, which is essential for normal body functions.
An organic compound that has a number of functions in the body, one of which is the production of energy when carbohydrate supplies are depleted.
Nutritional supplement—
A substance, such as a vitamin, mineral, amino acid, or herb, taken to compensate for the lack of some essential nutrient in one's daily diet.
A complex organic compound that can be used as a source of energy for the body but that is primarily used for the construction of cells and tissues, for the production of enzymes in the body and for other functions.

The specific nutritional recommendations for an individual athlete depend on a number of factors, including the individual's gender, age, overall health status, exercise level, skill level, and level of commitment to exercise or sport. Although anyone who follows general guidelines for a healthy everyday diet will likely be nutritionally fit for almost any type of exercise or sporting activity, most athletes benefit from consulting a coach, trainer, nutritionist, sports physician, dietitian, or other expert about nutrition and dietary requirements before, during, and after a specific physical activity. Many experts believe that the ideal dietary program for an athlete should supply similar nutrients as that of the average person, but with the ability to meet the higher energy requirements demanded by athletic activity. The American Dietetic Association (ADA) has listed a number of benefits associated with proper nutritional practices, including the following:

Diet and nutritional concerns

The nutritional recommendations for exercise and sports typically fall into three general categories: preexercise nutrition; during-exercise nutrition; and postexercise nutrition. Nutritionists often suggest carbohydrates as the primary component of pre-exercise meals, with relatively smaller amounts of protein and fat. Carbohydrates provide the energy stores needed for any exercise or sporting event. A diet recommended by the American Dietetic Association, for example, calls for items such as whole fruit, oatmeal, peanut butter, honey, lean hamburger, yogurt, turkey, and cheese three to four hours before exercise and a sports drink and additional fruit up to a half hour before the exercise.

Nutrition during exercise according to the ADA should consist primarily of the carbohydrates and electrolytes needed to replace those lost through sweating during the exercise. Sports drinks (e.g., Gatorade) provide balanced electrolytes in a carbohydrate-rich juice; coconut water provides the same electrolytes without added sugars. Both are quick to enhance energy levels. Small amounts of fruit, jams, honey, and whole-grain bread can also be consumed during exercise.

The goal of post-exercise nutrition is to replace nutrients lost during exercise. Recovery nutrition should begin soon, as early as 15 minutes and no later than one hour, after completion of the exercise. Again, foods that provide quick carbohydrates are preferable as a first meal, including sports drinks, smoothies, fruits, and whole-grain bread or crackers. A main meal should include a high-quality source of protein such as turkey; tofu; eggs, lean steak; fresh, lightly cooked vegetables, especially dark leafy greens (e.g., kale, collards, spinach, chard); and carbohydrates such as brown rice or whole-grain pasta.


See also Carbohydrate ; Fat ; Nutrient timing .



Katch, Victor L., William D. McArdle, and Frank I. Katch. Essentials of Exercise Physiology. Philadelphia: Wolters Wolters Kluwer, 2016.

Pate, Russell R., and David M. Buchner, eds. Implementing Physical Activity Strategies. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2014.

Plowman, Sharon A., and Denise L. Smith. Exercise Physiology for Health, Fitness, and Performance. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer Health/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins Health, 2014.


Kramer, S. H., D. A. Bauer, M. T. Spicer, et al. “The Effect of Six Days of Dietary Nitrate Supplementation on Performance in Trained Crossfit Athletes.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 13 (November 2016): 39–44.

Thomas, D. T., K. A. Erdman, and L. M. Burke. “American College of Sports Medicine Joint Position Statement: Nutrition and Athletic Performance.” Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 48 (March 2016): 543–68.


Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Sports and Performance.” (accessed November 14, 2011).

National Agricultural Library, U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Fitness and Sports Nutrition.” (accessed November 14, 2016).

President's Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition. (accessed November 14, 2016).


American College of Sports Medicine, 401 W. Michigan St., Indianapolis, IN, 46202-3233, (317) 637-9200, Fax: (317) 634-7817, , .

American Dietetic Association, 120 S. Riverside Plaza, Ste. 2000, Chicago, IL, 60606-6995, (800) 877-1600,, .

International Society of Sports Nutrition, 600 Pembrook Dr., Woodland Park, CO, 80863, Fax: (719) 687-5184, (866) 740-4776,

David E. Newton, AB, MA, EdD
L. Lee Culvert

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.