How to create meal plans your athletes will want to follow
Between monitoring macronutrients and hydration levels, there is a lot to consider when it comes to athlete meal plans. Read on to get the best tips for how to optimize performance with the right meal plan for athletes.
Creating effective and realistic meal plans can help your clients feel supported and guided to make the right decisions for their health and wellness goals. While these are great for anyone, meal plans are even more important for athletes, since nutrient timing is crucial for optimized performance.
But how can you create an athlete meal plan that can help your clients reach their performance goals? Here is everything you need to know about energy requirements and macronutrients to create a meal plan for athletes.
Tip: Check out this article to learn more about the importance of nutrition in sports training.
Energy requirements for an athlete meal plan
Caloric intake can vary from person to person depending on activity levels, age, gender, and goals. For instance, women’s energy needs can range from 1,600-2,400 calories per day, whereas men can range from 2,000-3,000 calories per day, depending on activity levels and age.
However, if your client wants to gain or lose weight, these numbers should be adjusted accordingly. You can further determine your client’s energy needs with the BMR equation.
Disclaimer: each athlete’s needs are different, so it’s up to you to monitor your client’s performance, listen to any concerns, and adjust nutritional recommendations as necessary.
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Macronutrient breakdown in a meal plan for athletes
A good meal plan for athletes doesn’t just address calorie needs–it also includes the right amount of macronutrients.
While this can look different for everyone, there are some general guidelines for carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Let’s take a closer look at each one to get a better understanding of how these impact performance.
Tip: Learn more about sports nutrition in this extensive article.
Carbohydrates are essential for athletes, as it’s the only macronutrient that can be broken down rapidly enough to provide energy during periods of high-intensity exercise.
Generally speaking, carbohydrate intake ranges from 5-7 g/kg of body weight/day for general training needs and 7-10 g/kg of body weight/day for the increased needs of endurance athletes.
Interestingly, studies have found that many athletes fail to consume enough carbohydrates to fully replenish muscle glycogen stores. As a dietitian, you can encourage your clients to eat enough carbs to fuel their workouts by suggesting a variety of foods.
Here are some examples of what to include in high-carb meal plans for athletes:
- Vegetables (sweet/white potatoes, squash, broccoli, leafy greens)
- Whole-grain bread or crackers
- High-fiber cereals
- Brown rice
Protein is an essential macronutrient that plays a vital role in strength, muscle mass, and satiety. Thus, it’s important to make sure your client gets enough of this macronutrient, especially if they are looking to boost performance.
Check out this article for more information on how you can use protein to boost sports performance.
The Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) for protein for adults* is as follows:
- Men and women: 0.8 g protein/kg of body weight/day
- Over 65 years old: 1 to 1.2 g protein/kg of body weight/day
- Athletes and highly active individuals: 1.4-2.0 g protein/kg body weight/day, depending on training needs and goals
*These numbers will vary depending on your client’s activity level, age, and other needs.
Furthermore, experts suggest that 1.2-1.7 g of protein/kg of body weight/day can be beneficial to increase muscle mass.
Here are some high-protein foods to consider including in a meal plan for athletes nutrition plan:
- Dairy products, like Greek yogurt, milk, cottage cheese, and cheese
- Lean red meats
- Beans and legumes
- Peanut butter
- Protein powder (this should be used as a supplement to whole foods)
Not all fats are created equal. While saturated and trans-fats have been tied to adverse health outcomes, healthy fats (like omega-3s, mono- and polyunsaturated fats) may help decrease LDL cholesterol, increase HDL cholesterol, reduce risk of heart disease, fight inflammation, and increase satiety.
While there is no RDA for this macronutrient, it is recommended that 30% of an athlete’s daily caloric intake come from healthy fats. Here are some examples of healthy fats to include in your client’s meal plan:
- Olive oil
- Salmon and fatty fish
Hydration and electrolyte needs
Hydration can make or break an athlete’s performance.
A single exercise session can leave someone feeling parched, foggy, and nauseous if fluids aren’t replenished. Dehydration can compromise exercise performance and lead to dangerous health consequences, so it’s essential to ensure that your client stays hydrated before, during, and after a workout. Adequate fluid intake also helps regulate body temperature, reduce cardiovascular strain, decrease the risk of injury, and improve recovery.
Athletes can lose 6-10% of their water weight from sweat, and dehydration could lead to fatigue, reduced endurance, and poor body temperature regulation.
Daily fluid intake recommendations can vary. However, studies suggest that endurance athletes should assess fluid loss by weighing themselves and limiting the losses to 2–3% during exercise >90 min.
When it comes to hydration, water is best. However, sports drinks can be beneficial because they contain a combination of water (for hydration), carbohydrates (for quick-burning fuel), and electrolytes (to offset those lost in sweat).
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5 tips for creating a meal plan for athletes
Now that we have covered macronutrients and hydration needs, let’s discuss how you can use this information to create meal plans for athletes that support their performance goals.
1. Variety is key
While carbs, protein, and fat are essential for an athlete’s meal plan, it’s important to have varied food items that provide a plethora of nutrients.
For example, instead of having egg whites, toast and fruit for breakfast every morning, switch it up with some oatmeal, berries, and a dollop of peanut butter. These different options will not only keep your client excited about their meal plan, but it will provide them with a variety of nutrients to help with athletic performance and enhance overall health.
2. Look at the bigger picture
You should evaluate your client as a whole instead of just providing a meal plan based on nutritional calculations alone. Each meal plan should be tailored to each individual athlete and updated regularly to ensure that your nutrition care plan helps enhance your client’s athletic goals.
For instance, if your client is a heavy-weight lifter, you may want to increase their creatine intake. However, if you have a soccer player or an endurance runner, you can consider boosting their carbohydrate intake.
Furthermore, age, different sports, and personal goals all play a role in sports nutrition and should be closely examined when creating a meal plan.
3. On game day, stick to what is familiar
When game day arrives, have your clients stick with their usual diet instead of trying something new. This will ensure that athletes don’t experience any negative physical effects (such as an upset digestive system) and can perform their best.
If your clients are traveling for an away game, encourage them to pack a variety of foods and drinks so that they have healthful options instead of relying on the food provided at the venue.
4. Have a post-workout plan
Post-workout nutrition is crucial for recovery, so it’s important to incorporate this into your meal plans for athletes.
Studies have found that consuming 20-40 g of high-quality protein within two hours of exercise can stimulate robust increases in muscle protein synthesis. It’s also shown that consuming 0.8 g of carbs/kg of body weight can further replenish fuel stores.
And, as always, don’t forget to include hydration as part of this plan!
5. Find what works for them
To best optimize an athlete’s meal plan, be sure to listen to them and understand how they feel, what’s working/not working, and if they have other food preferences. After all, a meal plan should never be set in stone; it should evolve to fit nutritional needs. By working in tandem with your clients, you can optimize their diet accordingly and help them feel and perform their best!
Daily meal plans for athletes
Even though every athlete will have different needs, here are some sample meal plans of what foods to include to help boost recovery and performance.
Early morning workout
Eating before an early morning workout is optional and depends on your client’s goals, the type of workout they’re doing and its duration, and how their body responds to food. However, studies show that skipping a meal before workouts can decrease performance in some exercises, so if your client can tolerate it, you should encourage eating something beforehand.
Here are some early morning workout meal ideas for both cardio and strength training.
- Whole grain toast with nut butter
- Whole grain crackers with cheese
- Smoothie with milk of choice and a banana (you can also include a scoop of protein powder if desired)
- Oatmeal with berries
- Scrambled eggs and toast
- Turkey sandwich with lettuce and tomato slices
- 1 hard-boiled egg and 1 cup of applesauce
- A fried egg sandwich with cheese and tomato
Lunchtime practice or late afternoon practice/game
This is a good time to include protein (to help stimulate muscle growth) and carbs (to replenish glycogen stores), so here are good examples of starch and protein combos.
- Salad with lean protein, beans, veggies, and salad dressing
- Sandwich with soup
Build the best meal plans for athletes with Nutrium app
Nutrium’s sports nutrition software has everything you need to enhance your client’s performance. With Nutrium, you can track each athlete's nutrition, which will go a long way in improving performance and taking your team to the next level.
You can also use Nutrium to calculate the BMR through ten Haaf et al. equations, make the sum of skinfolds, and plan different nutritional recommendations for different days.
Creating a meal plan for an athlete can be a daunting task, but with the right tools, you can offer a nutritional support plan to help your clients boost their athletic performance. Before creating any meal plans for athletes, you should do a thorough assessment of your clients’ needs, goals, and age to get a more accurate understanding of their needs.
While macronutrient and hydration needs are essential when it comes to athletes, it’s important that you tailor these to each athlete and work in tandem with them to ensure optimal nutrition support.
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