This post is a short primer for nutritional considerations with track and field athletes.

Athletics is a demanding sport that requires athletes to participate in various running, throwing, and jumping activities. Success in track and field requires athletes to train for power, speed, strength, and endurance and this is where proper nutrition plays a critical role. This ‘Beagles Bites’ post explores the nutritional requirements for track and field athletes, with a particular focus on the amount of carbohydrate, protein, and fat needed to support their training and competition.

Carbohydrate is the preferred source of energy for both the muscles and the brain, making it a vital component of a student athlete’s diet. According to a study by Burke et al. (2011), track and field athletes should consume between 5 and 7 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight each day.

For example, a 165-pound (75 kg) athlete needs to consume between 375-525 grams of carbohydrates daily, spread throughout the day. The amount of carbohydrate consumed will vary depending on the athlete’s phase of training – pre-season, competition, or off-season. During pre-season, when training demands are the highest, athletes should aim for the higher end of their carbohydrate needs. However, during the off-season, when training intensity and duration is generally lower, athletes can shift to the lower end of their carbohydrate needs. Remember, carbohydrates are really important during all phases of training and competition and are found in a variety of foods, including grains, fruits, vegetables, milk, yogurt, beans, and simple sugars.

Protein is another critical building block of a track and field athlete’s diet and it is necessary for repairing and building muscle tissue. Track and field athletes should consume between 1.2-1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight each day. For a 165-pound (75 kg) athlete, this would be 90-128 grams per day, spread evenly throughout meals and snacks.

It’s important to aim for a variety of high-quality protein foods such as dairy (milk, yogurt, and cheese), eggs, lean beef, poultry, fish, legumes, and beans. I also strongly advise against athletes relying heavily on protein bars and shakes as they can put them at risk of missing key nutrients, macronutrients and vitamins.  In addition, there may be an enhanced risk of these supplements not coming from suitably robust sources and that may mean an enhanced prospect of an athlete unintentionally ingesting a banned substance.

Fat is also a really important energy resource for athletes and many track and field athletes fail to get adequate fat in their diet. According to a study by Tipton et al. (2018), track and field athletes should consume at least 1 gram of fat per kilogram of body weight each day, with an emphasis on including heart-healthy fats such as avocados, nuts, nut butter, seeds, and olives. For a 165-pound (75 kg) athlete, this would be a minimum of 75 grams of fat per day. As track athletes tend to be more at risk of low body fat than field athletes, it is especially crucial for them to consume enough fat to avoid long-term health concerns.

Fuelling and hydrating before, during, and after training and competition is also critical for track and field athletes to have high-quality training sessions. The size and composition of the pre-practice or pre-competition meal depend on how much time there is before the activity starts. In an ideal scenario, athletes should eat a nutritious, balanced meal that is high in carbohydrates, moderate in protein and low in fat about 2-4 hours before the event. During practice or competition, athletes should aim to consume carbohydrates in the form of sports drinks, solid gels, or bars, which provide quick and easily digestible energy. After practice or competition, athletes should focus on rehydration and refuelling by consuming fluids, electrolytes, carbohydrates, and protein within 30 minutes (more below).

Hydration next and this is also critical to performance and recovery. It is recommended that track & field athletes drink enough fluids to maintain hydration throughout the day. During practice and competition, athletes should drink enough fluids to match the amount lost through sweat. It is important to drink fluids before feeling thirsty as thirst is not a reliable indicator of hydration status. Athletes should drink fluids before, during and after practice and competition.

Sports drinks can be useful for athletes engaging in high-intensity activities lasting longer than 60 minutes. They contain carbohydrates and electrolytes, which help to maintain energy levels and fluid balance. However, it is important to read the label and choose a sports drink that contains less than 10% carbohydrate to avoid any gastrointestinal distress.

Proper recovery nutrition is important to help the body rebuild and repair after intense training sessions and competition. After a training session, the body’s glycogen stores are depleted, and muscle tissue is broken down. As signposted above, consuming carbohydrates and protein within 30 minutes after exercise can help replenish glycogen stores and rebuild muscle tissue.

Target a snack that contains 20-30 grams of high-quality protein and 0.5-0.7 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight. For a 165-pound (75 kg) athlete, this would be 15-21 grams of protein and 80-105 grams of carbohydrate. Examples include a turkey sandwich on whole grain bread, Greek yogurt with granola and fruit, or if you really must use them, a protein shake made with milk, fruit, and protein powder.

While a well-balanced diet should provide all the nutrients needed for optimal performance, some athletes may be tempted to use dietary supplements to gain an edge. However, it’s important to note that supplements are not regulated like medications and their safety and efficacy are not always supported by scientific evidence.

In addition, as discussed above, some supplements may contain banned substances that can result in a positive drug test. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has (a huge) database of banned substances which includes many dietary supplements. Athletes should always consult with their coach or a dietitian or healthcare professional before using any dietary supplement.

So, proper nutrition and hydration are essential components of a track and field athlete’s training plan. Consuming adequate calories, carbohydrate, protein and fat throughout the day, and having a fuelling, hydration, and recovery plan that supports the demands of training and competition, can help optimise performance and prevent injuries. Athletes should also be cautious when considering the use of dietary supplements and should always chat it through with their coach in the first instance.