Sep 24, 2020, 9:32:41 AM CDT Feb 3, 2023, 1:44:20 PM CST

Nutrition for athletes: What to eat during season and off-season

Learn what athletes should eat when their sport is in season and what they should eat during the off-season to support their nutrition and sports performance goals

Athlete eating healthy meal Athlete eating healthy meal

While there isn't a one-size-fits-all diet for athletes, there are certain foods that will better fuel their performance than others. Each athlete should consider their training goals, type of sport and level of activity, which will affect their nutrition needs.

Learn more nutrition tips for athletes to consider.

What should athletes eat during off-season?

Athletes should use their off-season as a time to focus on their nutrition. Purposeful eating habits will help them get the most out of their off-season training.

Following a minimally processed, balanced diet with a variety of colors is ideal. It's also important to aim for three meals and two healthy snacks per day.

A healthy diet in the off-season is going to help build a foundation for next season. Typically, during the off-season, athletes are training harder in the weight room, and practices can be more intense. If their diet isn't optimized to support getting the most out of their training, they're missing out on an opportunity for off-season growth and training adaptations.

During the off-season, athletes should think about supporting their body after recovering from tough training sessions. The types of food that athletes eat during the off-season should also support long-term goals they may have. Whether it's improving overall health, achieving specific weight goals, or preventing injury, the off-season is the time to make any significant adjustments to their nutrition habits.

Off-season is a great time for athletes to practice new strategies and tweak their performance nutrition. If athletes would like to try a new pre-game meal or hydration strategy, the off-season is the perfect time to experiment with different performance nutrition options.

What should athletes eat when their sport is in-season?

The diet that athletes should follow when their sport is in-season should be similar to what they were eating during the off-season. It's always best to incorporate wholesome foods as often as possible and minimize the intake of highly processed foods.

If an athlete is experiencing a similar intensity or duration in their sport as they were during their off-season training, food intake can stay the same. During the sports season, the primary goal of performance nutrition is to support the athlete staying healthy for the duration of the season and properly fueling athletes for game day. They should focus on consuming carbohydrate-rich meals before a competition and recovering with both carbohydrates and protein afterward. A good game day meal will fuel sports performance and set athletes up for success.

How much protein should athletes consume?

Protein needs tend to stay consistent during the off-season and in-season. The carbohydrate need is what will change when an athlete is playing their sport vs. when they aren't. More intense activity requires a higher carb intake. Whether that is on game days or during heavy training in the off-season, if an athlete is engaging in intense activity or several bouts of activity in one day, their body's need for carbohydrates will be elevated.

What foods should athletes avoid?

When athletes are considering making changes to their nutrition, it is more beneficial to focus on what they can add to their diet instead of trying to "avoid" certain foods. Athletes should look at their eating habits and see where they could benefit from adding foods they don't consume often enough - whether that is dairy, pre-activity carbohydrates or vegetables.

There's really not anything that athletes can't ever eat. It's just the when, how and why that should be considered.

Of course, processed food should be consumed in moderation, and it's best to avoid high-fat foods before training or competing. A high-fat meal shortly before activity may take a toll on an athlete's digestion, and subsequently, their performance.

It's important to keep nutrition top of mind year-round. The actions athletes take in the off-season set them up to be successful when they're playing their sport. Whether that is training, recovery or nutrition, think of the off-season as being a time to capitalize on implementing a balanced, healthy lifestyle.

For young athletes, eating the right foods is as important during off-season as in-season. Learn how athletes can best target their sports nutrition year-round.

Learn more

The dietitians at Children's Health Andrews Institute can help athletes reach peak performance through meal planning before, during and after game day – and all season long. Learn more about our wide-range of orthopedic and sports performance services available to help athletes improve their game.

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