Nutrition for Maintaining Strength All Season Long

Some athletes who come in for a nutrition consult might have some kind of body composition goal – usually these athletes come in with the goal to gain lean mass (muscle) or lose fat mass. Body composition goals are set for many reasons, and may be related to improving performance, but many athletes aren’t setting these goals at the right time of the year, so they’re sacrificing their performance.

  • The off-season is a good time to solidify an eating routine with better nutrition habits, and to meet goals such as losing weight/body fat or gaining lean mass.
  • Once the season starts, athletes should focus on maintaining their weight for the most part, but many athletes have a hard time with this because of their busy schedules and high energy needs.
  • Some athletes work hard during the off-season to increase their muscle mass and strength, but end up losing weight throughout the season, which can result in losing that hard-earned lean mass, increase injury risk, cause fatigue, and decreased performance during the most competitive part of the season.
  • Some weight loss may be expected early in the season as the practice schedule may increase, but if athletes are skipping meals and failing to recover properly, they will likely run into problems later in the season.
  • Other athletes might have a goal to lose weight during the season, but this is more easily done in the off-season or early in the season and athletes who want to lose weight often aren’t advised on how to lose weight without sacrificing performance.

Athletes can follow these 3 tips to maintain weight and strength and perform well all season long:

1) Start the day with a well-balanced breakfast.

Many young athletes can get into the habit of skipping meals, and claim it’s because they’re not hungry in the morning, don’t have enough time, or just don’t know what to eat.

Breakfast skippers usually can’t make up for those calories they skipped by eating more later in the day, which isn’t good news for keeping body weight stable and maintaining lean mass. Some athletes can make up for the calories, but they usually end up overeating the wrong things at meals, or grabbing any convenience foods they can find after they’ve gone too long without eating.

Choose a breakfast that contains carbohydrates (toast, oatmeal, whole grain cereal), protein (eggs, milk, Greek yogurt, peanut butter, nuts, meat), and a piece of fruit or vegetable for extra nutrition.

An easy breakfast that can be modified based on an athlete’s nutrition needs is a fruit smoothie. To make an easy smoothie, add the following ingredients to a blender and enjoy:

Fruit: 1 cup frozen blueberries, strawberries, or peaches or 1 banana (try freezing slices for a thicker smoothie)

Protein: 1 cup plain Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, or 1 scoop protein powder

Healthy Fat: 1 Tbsp peanut butter, ground flax seeds, or chia seeds (adding extra nut butter/healthy fats helps add calories easily if athlete has experienced weight loss in the past)

-Liquid: 1-2 cups milk and/or water (milk adds protein + extra nutrients).

Extras: Add a couple handfuls of spinach for some added nutrition. Ice cubes and frozen fruit will help make the smoothie colder/thicker. Adding oatmeal before blending will also add some fiber and make the smoothie thicker.

Smoothies are a great way to add nutrition easily (for instance, if you don’t like vegetables, you can easily hide several handfuls of spinach in here…), and they’re simple to make and modify based on your needs.

2) Choose energy-dense/high-calorie foods, but make sure they’re high-quality foods as well!

Sports training and competition isn’t an excuse to eat whatever you want. Instead, eating a meal or snack every few hours and choosing high-quality foods is a better way to get in plenty of calories and good nutrition during the day.

The best snacks contain a mix of carbohydrate + protein or fat, so instead of reaching for candy bars, fast food, cookies or sports bars and powders, grab a whole food option such as:

  • Apple and peanut butter
  • Mixed nuts and raisins
  • Small bowl of cereal
  • Greek yogurt with berries
  • Hardboiled eggs and hummus
  • String cheese and grapes
  • 1/2 a peanut butter and jelly
  • Tuna on whole grain crackers

For high calorie options, choose foods such as nuts and nut butters, avocado/guacamole, cheese, eggs, and whole fat dairy. Jill Castle, the dietitian and author behind the book “Eat Like a Champion” (great nutrition reference book for parents of young athletes) recommends that snacks be 100-250 calories to help athletes meet their overall calorie needs for the day, but also be high in nutrients to help kids meet their vitamin and mineral needs for the day. This is a good guideline when searching out snacks (containing a certain amount of calories, but also being high in nutrition) because, for example, 250 calories of apple and nut butter is going to contain a lot more nutrition than 250 calories of chips or cookies.

3) Prioritize recovery

Athletes who prioritize post-workout recovery are the athletes who stay strong all season long, maintain their weight, and can continue to play at a high level.

Recovery should be an all-day process, but post-workout, athletes should focus on 3 things:

  • Hydrating with fluids and electrolytes: drink plenty of fluids post-workout/competition and monitor urine color (lighter = well hydrated).
  • Refueling with carbohydrates (body weight divided by 2 in grams)
  • Repairing with protein (15-20 grams post-workout)

If athletes are going home after practice, they should aim to get a balanced dinner that contains some sort of protein (chicken, beef, fish, beans, eggs, dairy) and carbohydrates (whole grains such as brown rice, quinoa, whole grain bread, whole grain pasta/spaghetti/noodles, or starches like potatoes and sweet potatoes). If they won’t be home within an hour after practice or competition, the athlete should definitely pack a snack that contains a healthy carbohydrate and protein (see tip #2!) and eat a real meal whenever possible.

4) Meet with a dietitian!

Athletes of all ages and from all sports can benefit from meeting with a dietitian. From picky eaters, to special dietary needs, to body composition goals and knowing how many calories, protein, carbohydrates and fat they need in a day – a dietitian can help athletes set a nutrition goal that will help them perform better in their sport.

Make an appointment today with the Sanford Sports Science Institute Dietitian by calling 605-312-7878 or e-mail her any questions at