The Sports Nutrition Pyramid
Sports nutrition doesn’t have to be all or nothing—there are plenty of steps between!
Good sports nutrition—nutrition designed to increase both short- and long-term performance—requires you first eat enough calories to fuel your performance and recovery, then to time your fuel optimally, then choosing the best fuels for your goals, and finally matching your fueling needs to your training. The lower tiers build to the higher tiers and cannot be rearranged without losing some efficacy in the process.
There are numerous other aspects to good sports nutrition that are left out here, such as food choice, supplementation, hydration and so on. However, these are the basics that must be met for all athletes!
At the base of our pyramid is eating enough! Yes, eating to fuel your body’s needs, plus the needs based on the demand of your sport, training, etc. Food is fuel. Read that again: food is fuel. Calories are simply a measurement of energy. Foods with more calories produce more energy. Foods with fewer calories produce less energy.
All athletes are fueled by calories. In car racing, you don’t cut back on fuel for your car (gasoline) if you want to race your best; as a runner, sprinter, goalie, point guard, etc, you can similarly expect better performance when you fuel your body adequately. Additionally, someone who is racing a car doesn’t put yucky, low quality gasoline in their car. They put high quality, premium quality gasoline in the car. Athletes are no different. Fueling with fast food is not really fueling. However, fueling with whole foods is the premium, quality fuel our bodies require.
The majority of clients I see are not taking in enough energy (calories). Especially my student athletes. I have never had to restrict a client on calories for their goal, even when that goal is fat loss.
Knowing your energy needs is an important piece to the puzzle. If you like to do math, you can estimate your resting metabolic rate (RMR) with minimal effort.
The basics of determining your ideal caloric intake are these:
Determine your resting metabolic rate (RMR), use this formula:
Men: (10 × weight in kg) + (6.25 × height in cm) - (5 × age in years) + 5
Women: (10 × weight in kg) + (6.25 × height in cm) - (5 × age in years) - 161
Multiply your RMR by 1.2 to get the total number of calories burned on a typical sedentary day.
Add calories burned from activity estimates on a day-to-day basis.
The above formula is The Mifflin-St Jeor formula, created in the 1990s, provided an alternative and more valid estimate of RMR. Each formula method does have a margin of error, (i.e., 55 calories), which, extrapolated over a one-year period, it amounts to almost six pounds of energy or body weight.
Furthermore, these formulas also imply that all individuals of the same gender, age, height and weight have the same RMR, a fact that is certainly not accurate. Your lean body mass will significantly influence RMR and should always be considered.
Enter, a BodPod assessment, which will give you your RMR based on your actual body composition, not simply your weight alone as the math-only method does. Similar to how body mass index (BMI) is not an accurate measure of health because it only considers weight and height, not actual composition.
The beauty of eating enough calories is that it’s easy and yields a tremendous benefit, regardless of what form those calories actually come in (at least assuming a regular mixed diet). Your energy will be higher, you’ll recover faster, and you’ll perform better. It’s only the beginning though.
Nutrient timing is another way of describing your daily eating pattern. When I work with clients, I will ask the following questions:
How often do you eat?
How much food do you eat per meal?
How is your energy level during training?
One of the cornerstones of nutrient timing is protein frequency. Basically, you should aim to get at least 20 grams of protein every 3-4 hours as that accounts both for how much protein it takes to maximally trigger muscle protein synthesis as well how long it takes your muscles to “cool down” and need another dose. With just this in mind, we can see that there’s a benefit for athletes consuming smaller meals more frequently (though a “smaller meal” for an athlete may be “normal” for a less active individual!).
Nutrient timing is also important to consider for carbohydrates. Regardless of the overall carb content of your diet, whether 15% or 75%, it pays to concentrate some carb intake during and around exercise because that’s when our body has the greatest need for them. The remainder should be spread out evenly amongst the rest of your meals.
Even if you don’t count macronutrients, you can follow some basic rules of nutrient timing:
Eat 5-6 meals per day, spacing them 3-4 hours apart. This helps stabilize blood glucose levels.
Eat a high-protein item in every meal and snack. Then add your produce.
Eat more carb-rich foods during and around exercise. Prior to exercise, you may wish to have a quick acting carb, like a banana. As recovery, you may choose something like a sweet potato or chocolate milk, to replace the glycogen you just used (glycogen is simply stored glucose).
With just these three tips, you’ll get even more benefit out of the calories you’re eating (assuming you’re eating enough calories to begin with). If you don’t mind counting macros, though, you can do even more with nutrient timing.
Depending on the type of athlete you are, your basic macronutrient goals will differ. Generally, the longer your competition, the longer you are active in the competition, the more carbohydrates you need in your diet. For example, an endurance runner will need more carbohydrate than a sprinter, generally.
For an endurance runner, their macro breakdown might look like:
100-120 grams of protein
Is 55-65% carbohydrate.
Is 20-30% fat.
There is very little point in measuring macros unless you’re eating enough calories in the first place and, ideally, timing your meals well. If you are eating adequately and timing nutrients, though, then you can dial in your macro goals to get the most out of your diet performance- and recovery, at which point there’s only one step left: diet periodization.
Diet periodization only makes sense in the context of training, so before we discuss it we need to briefly discuss training. Most recreational athletes do not need periodization. If you are training and utilize training periodization, diet periodization is beneficial.
Just like the sports nutrition pyramid, the training pyramid is a similar concept consisting of the following steps, each building on the previous:
Practicing Enough: Simply getting enough practice in your sport, whether it be time on the court pitch or specific hands-on drills.
A la Carte Side Training: Doing nearly any sort of sport-specific side training, like drills, lessons, or specific trainings.
Training Routines: Adhering to a training schedule instead of just training randomly.
Training Periodization: Mixing your training up to prevent plateaus and work different aspects.This also includes changes to allow for pre-season and post-season activity to prevent injury and burnout.
Simply put, diet periodization is the synchronization of your diet to your training; it means committing to reassessing every other step of the pyramid whenever your training goals change. If your training routine is meant to maximize strength gain, you increase your calories to match that. If you’re working power, you increase the relative presence of carbohydrates to amply fuel anaerobic energy systems. If you’re trying to lean up, you cut calories. Regardless of the change, you’re doing the work to match diet to training.
What makes sense for you?
Every step offers a benefit—but when does the work become too great for the benefit received? Ultimately, that depends on you and your sport/athletic goals.
Sports nutrition is just a piece of the puzzle, and in many ways it only makes sense to put as much effort into it as you put into any other aspect of your sport training. If you struggle to simply get out and play your sport enough, nutrition will only get you so far—you need to engage in sport and train more to reap the performance benefits of a great diet, though you’ll still likely do well to be cognizant of your total caloric load (and adjust it accordingly). If you train on occasion, it’s worth timing your nutrient intake to maximize performance and recovery for those training sessions. If you’re dedicated to your training, you should also be dedicated enough to your diet to ensure you’re getting the most benefit from your training.
If you match your sports nutrition to your training, you’re all but guaranteed to benefit as much as can be expected—and anytime the two become out of sync, you can expect the other to hold you back. When you find yourself putting much more effort into one or another, it’s time to reassess your priorities and bring them back in line.
Mifflin MD, St Jeor ST, Hill LA, Scott BJ, Daugherty SA, and Koh YO, (1990). A new predictive equation for resting energy expenditure in healthy individuals. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 51(2):241-247.
What you need to know about nutrition periodization. Team USA. (n.d.). Retrieved December 16, 2021, from https://www.teamusa.org/USA-Triathlon/News/Blogs/Fuel-Station/2020/March/03/Nutrition-Periodisation
Kelly Sherman, MS, NC, CGP, CPT, is a holistic sports nutritionist specializing in athletes transitioning from high school athletics to college athletics. She has a master’s degree in nutrition and is degreed in exercise science as well as a certified personal trainer. With over 20 years of experience in the field, she combines the best of both nutrition and sports sciences to best help her clients reach their potential. To nourish is to flourish!
All content of this blog is intended for general information and is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Please consult a medical professional before adopting any of the suggestions on this page. You must never disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking medical treatment based upon the content of this blog.