When you work out regularly, or regularly participate in a sport, it changes your nutritional needs. The higher level of competition you achieve and the harder you train, the more calories and nutrients required for replenishment. Your needs will also vary greatly depending on the type of athletic activity you engage in — the needs of a competitive bodybuilder are different from those of a long-distance runner, for example. This page will give you an overview of the two cornerstones of sports nutrition: diet and supplementation.
Diet is by far the greatest factor in overall health for everyone, from elite athletes to couch potatoes. It can be roughly broken down into four components of daily need:
Basal metabolic rate (BMR)
The exact amounts of these vary greatly by individual need and are dependent on a number of factors — primarily gender, age, body weight, amount of muscle mass, and expected physical activity/exercise output. These factors contribute to your basal metabolic rate (BMR), which is a rough amount of calories you need to consume daily to maintain your present weight. Consuming less than your BMR will cause you to lose weight, but that weight won't necessarily come from fat — the body often break down muscle before burning off fat because muscle is nutrient-dense and costly to support in terms of calories.
Also, consuming calories from any old source isn't good enough — you need to consume a balanced diet of protein, healthy fats, and carbohydrates, and you also need to make sure your daily requirements for vitamins and minerals are met. The proper ratio for protein/fat/carbohydrates and the exact amount of vitamins and minerals you need is determined by the same set of factors that determine your BMR.
Protein falls under "diet" because it's a basic daily nutritional requirement, but really, it straddles the line between diet and supplementation. Virtually all serious athletes and bodybuilders will find it impossible to compete at their desired levels without some form of protein supplementation to support their workouts.
Protein is used to repair and rebuild body tissue and also as a source of energy. It's particularly important if you're an athlete or a bodybuilder, since your muscles are almost constantly in a cycle of damage and repair.
There are nine essential amino acids that can only be obtained from foods that are high in protein. In meat, milk, eggs, and fish, which are considered some of the best protein sources as they contain all nine of the essential aminos, the amount of protein varies.
Vegetarians and vegans face a challenge in getting all nine of the essential aminos, but it can be done through various combinations of nuts, beans, whole grains, seeds, fruits, and vegetables.
There are also some benefits to using the three branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) during workouts. These will both increase endurance and maintain positive muscle protein levels during hard workouts — especially on an empty stomach or caloric deficit.
Supplementation is most commonly in the form of whey protein, a powder that is low in fat and carbohydrates. Whey protein isolate is an even more refined protein powder. It contains practically no fat, carbs, or lactose. Protein supplements are often advertised as having BCAAs, four of the nine essential aminos that are specifically used for muscle tissue repair.
Vegetarian and vegan supplementation options include pea, rice, soy, and hemp protein. Many of these supplements also contain all of the essential amino acids.
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Our Protein page goes into greater detail on each of these topics, and takes a more in-depth look at various supplements.
Carbohydrates are so named because they're a combination of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms. It gets a little complicated from there, but in dietary terms, their primary function is to be metabolized into glucose (which is made available as energy very quickly). They make up the majority of caloric intake in most diets.
Diet is by far the greatest factor in overall health for everyone, from elite athletes to couch potatoes.
Simple vs. complex carbs
You'll hear the terms "simple" and "complex" thrown around in reference to carbohydrates, and you might get the impression that "complex" carbohydrates are the only ones you should eat (especially if you visit bodybuilding forums).
Simple carbohydrates don't necessarily lack nutritional value, however, and complex carbohydrates aren't automatically nutritious either, particularly if they're processed. Carbohydrates should be evaluated individually for their nutritional value and their glycemic index — a measure of how high they'll spike your blood sugar when eaten (low glycemic foods are best for general diet and health, but high glycemic carbs have their place in the gym). You'll want to limit nutritionally "empty" carbohydrates like sugar and alcohol, and heavily processed carbs that have been stripped of their original nutritional value, like processed flour and rice.
In terms of supplementation, carbs are taken during training to increase availability of glucose for immediate energy, which allows for longer sets and higher intensity. Carbs are also used post-workout to promote muscle growth by temporarily spiking insulin.
Dietary fats can be roughly divided into four types: monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, saturated, and trans fats.
You can scratch trans fats off your list right away. They've been banned in many countries for years due to a stack of scientific evidence demonstrating they do anything but harm, and as of November 2013, the FDA has announced that a ban in the United States will gradually be implemented over time.
Monounsaturated vs. polyunsaturated fats
Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are the two types of fat endorsed by the FDA for being healthy and should be incorporated in a balanced diet. Be careful with polyunsaturated fats, however, as they're also high in omega-6s which, if you're not taking in adequate omega-3s, can promote inflammation.
Fish oil (and other oils derived from aquatic food sources, like krill oil) are dense in omega-3s and can help support a diet that is too rich in omega-6s. Ideally you want a 1:1 ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 in your diet, but modern Western diets often overload omega-6s by 10 to 20 times the optimal amount.
Our Healthy Fats page breaks down the various types of fats and their uses in much greater detail.
Saturated fats are a little more complex. The FDA regards them as unhealthy, but there's conflicting evidence. They can be particularly useful in bodybuilding and athletic training, and at high competitive levels are often a virtual necessity in amounts that would be regarded as "unhealthy" in a more standard diet.
Vitamins and minerals
There are 14 essential vitamins and 14 essential minerals that the body requires on a regular basis. For the most part, these can't be synthesized and must be consumed through diet and/or supplementation.
Competitive athletics and bodybuilding do increase the dietary need for certain vitamins and minerals (particularly the B vitamins), but megadosing indiscriminately can cause serious medical problems.
Please see our vitamin and mineral pages for further detail on how the body uses each and how to determine the appropriate amount for you.
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Our Pre-Workout Supplements page breaks down common ingredients found in these supplements and their purposes in greater detail.
Pre-workout formulas can have a wide range of possible ingredients, each designed for specific purposes.
See our Creatine page for further detail on the benefits of this compound, as well as medical interactions and health considerations.
Athletics and bodybuilding can put regular and intense strain on the joints. Joint supplements help to ease the pain and symptoms of joint damage and medical conditions, as well as naturally strengthen the joints.
See our Joint Supplements page for a breakdown of the different types.
Energy and Endurance
Some supplements are designed specifically to increase energy, motivation, or endurance with minimal or no calorie intake. Examples of these include caffeine pills, green tea extract, MCT oil, eleuthero, and ginseng. Natural herbal sleep aids also fall under this category, as a full and restful night's sleep is vital to maintaining optimal energy levels and performance during the day.
However, when it comes to the best workout focus and energy, the pre-workout supplements are where you'll find the most well-rounded formulas.
For improved endurance, BCAAs make a huge difference, as do the amino acids beta-alanine and acetyl L-carnitine.
It's best to get vitamins from natural food sources, but a multivitamin can help make up for diet deficiencies, or support the greater needs of bodybuilders and athletes. Individual vitamins are also available in supplement form.
Where To Buy
You can comparison shop right here at PricePlow for a complete range of sports nutrition products. Our search engine finds the best prices for you — often 30% to 50% off of retail prices — and saves shopping time so you can spend more time on your workouts.
- Trumbo, P, et. al; Journal of the American Dietary Association; "Dietary reference intakes for energy, carbohydrate, fiber, fat, fatty acids, cholesterol, protein and amino acids;" 2002
- Mangels, R; Simply Vegan; "Protein in the Vegan Diet;" 2013
- Schaafsma, G; The Journal of Nutrition; "The Protein Digestibility-Corrected Amino Acid Score;" July 2000
- Harvard School of Public Health; "Carbohydrates and the Glycemic Load;" 2014
- CNN; "Put down that doughnut: FDA takes on trans fats;" November 2013
- Simopolous, AP; Biomedicine and Pharmacotherapy; "The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids;" October 2002
- Hamilton, Johnathan; NPR; "A Scientist Debunks The 'Magic' Of Vitamins And Supplements;" July 2013
- Gualano, AB, et. al; The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness; "Branched chain amino acids supplementation enhances exercise capacity and lipid oxidization during endurance exercise after muscle glycogen depletion;" March 2011
- Shimomura, Y. et. al; The Journal of Nutrition; "Nutraceutical Effects of Branched-Chain Amino Acids on Skeletal Muscle;" 2006