How to create meal plans that your athletes will actually want to follow

Between monitoring macronutrients and hydration levels, there is a lot to consider when it comes to optimizing athletic performance with nutrition. Read on to get the best tips for how to create a meal plan for athletes.

As a nutrition professional, it’s important to create a realistic (and effective) meal plans that athletes can adhere to while enhancing sports performance. Meal plans are important, as they provide enormous benefits for your clients, and help them feel supported and guided to make the right decisions for their health goals.

A great meal plan is almost like training wheels for clients; it teaches them how to put great tasting healthy meals together and can show them correct portion sizes or how to space out meals. This is especially important for athletes, as nutrient timing is crucial for optimized performance.

However, creating client meal plans can be an overwhelming and daunting task that many dietitians tend to shy away from. Meal plans are tedious and can take hours to prepare, and clients might not follow through because the foods may not fit in with their lifestyle or dietary preferences. This leaves both the dietitian and client feeling frustrated.

So, how can you create efficient and effective meal plans for athletes that will support them in their performance goals? Before diving into how you can create a meal plan for athletes, let’s first discuss why macronutrients are important, and why these should be evaluated before doing any meal planning.

Energy requirements

The average non-athlete person requires about 2,000 calories per day to maintain their weight and be properly nourished, but someone who is regularly active and demands more energy could require anywhere between 2,200 to 3,000 calories per day (depending on whether they are male or female) [3, 4].

While caloric needs are important, athletes should also have a combination of carbohydrates, fats, and protein for a well-balanced nutritional plan. However, since each athlete’s needs are different, it’s up to you (as the nutrition professional) to monitor your client’s performance, listen to any concerns, and adjust nutritional recommendations as necessary.

Macronutrient breakdown for athletes

Based on your client’s needs and performance goals, the amount needed of each macronutrient can vary, but as always, be sure to monitor how your client feels and adjust their macros as necessary.

For example, the recommended macronutrient breakdown for female runners is protein (1.4-1.6 g/kg/day), carbohydrates (8 g/kg/day), and fats (0.5–1.5 g/kg/day), but if your client isn’t performing well with this nutrient breakdown, you can make changes to boost performance [12, 13].

Here are some general guidelines for carbohydrates, protein, and fat, as well as some suggested foods for each one.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are essential for athletes, and as a dietitian, it’s important to make sure your clients are eating enough of this macronutrient. Depending on the exercise, carbohydrate intake ranges from 5 to 7 g/kg/day for general training needs and 7 to 10 g/kg/day for the increased needs of endurance athletes [16].

Unfortunately, with the rise of low-carbohydrate diets (such as the keto diet), many athletes have cut the carbs to rely primarily on fats for energy. However, this strategy can actually hinder performance due to limited glucose availability and increased oxygen demands. An athlete on a low-carb diet will simply have less glucose available to fuel training sessions than a carbohydrate-fed competitor, and research to date suggests that this impairs performance, even if carbohydrate is temporarily restored pre-workout [5].

Studies have also found that athletes on a low-carb diet (such as keto) performed 4-15% lower than those eating a high carbohydrate diet [14]. In addition, low-carb athletes experience early onset fatigue during short-duration activities and can become deficient in nutrients (such as fiber, calcium, magnesium, selenium, vitamin C and B-vitamins) which can potentially impact performance [15].

If you’re looking for some good carbohydrate sources for your athletic client, here are some options that also contain a plethora of vitamins and minerals [9]:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables (sweet/white potatoes, squash, broccoli, leafy greens)
  • Whole-grain bread or crackers
  • High-fiber cereals
  • Quinoa
  • Brown rice
Protein

Depending on training needs, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American College of Sports Medicine recommend 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein/kg/d for athletes, or 2x the RDA [10, 17]. Some high-protein foods include [9]:

  • Eggs
  • Greek yogurt
  • Milk
  • Cheese
  • Lean red meats
  • Poultry
  • Fish
Fats

While there is no RDA for this macronutrient, it is recommended that 30% of an athlete’s daily caloric intake come from healthy fats [18]. Some examples include [9]:

  • Avocados
  • Nut butter
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Olive or canola oil
  • Flax seeds

Hydration and electrolyte needs

Hydration can make or break an athlete’s performance, so it’s important that this is part of their nutrition plan. Athletes can lose 6-10% of their water weight from sweat, and dehydration could lead to fatigue, difficulty exercising, and poor body temperature regulation [6,7]

To avoid this, athletes should be consuming both water and sports drinks since they are packed with carbs and electrolytes (which are lost in sweat) and will work in tandem to improve athletic performance and aid in recovery after exercise [8]. Depending on each athlete’s response, it is recommended for them to consume a minimum of two cups of fluid before training and then approximately 4 to 6 ounces every 15 minutes during training.

5 tips for creating an athlete’s meal plan

Now that we have covered macronutrients and hydration needs, let’s discuss how you can use this information to create a meal plan for your athletic clients that supports 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, adding five servings of fruits and vegetables per day will help improve training and recovery time as well as strengthen the athlete’s immune system [10]. Additionally, you should encourage your athletic clients to limit their consumption of refined grains and sugars, and power up on whole-grain sources instead, as they would benefit from the high fiber content [10].

2. Look at the bigger picture.

Age, different sports, and personal goals all play a role in sports nutrition and should be closely examined when creating a meal plan. For example, heavy weight lifters should increase creatine intake, or soccer players may need to up their carbohydrate intake [1, 2]. 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.

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 client’s meal plan. It’s suggested for athletes to consume 15-30 g high-quality protein and 15-90 g of carbohydrate post-workout to accelerate recovery, replenish fuel stores and promote muscle synthesis [11]. 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!

Summary

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, 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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