Managing Macros: A Guide for Athletes

Macronutrients, otherwise known as “macros” in the nutrition world, are essential for health. While many fads and trends suggest elimination of one or more of these significant groups, carbohydrates, protein, and fats should have a special focus in the nutrition profile of an athlete. Recent specific emphasis has been placed on protein, pushing carbohydrates and fat into the backseat, but each macronutrient has benefits that can help support performance goals.

Carbohydrates 

Carbohydrates (CHOs) are the main source of energy for the body and brain – a requirement for athletes. When intake is too low, energy levels, strength, stamina, and decision-making may suffer, and during workouts this may lead to poor performance and increased injury risk. CHOs contribute to maintenance of intensity and hydration, and prevent muscle breakdown. Some CHOs are easily broken down and provide quick body fuel, including white refined starches, sports drinks, fruit snacks, and pretzels. Other carbohydrates take longer to breakdown and provide fuel for later. These include 100% whole grains, oats, and granola. As an athlete, consuming adequate carbohydrates at appropriate times can make a big difference in training, performance, and overall athletic success. (Fruits and vegetables contain carbohydrates too.)

Protein 

A healthy nourished body can perform at higher levels, and protein can keep it functioning properly. In addition to building up our muscles during recovery, protein’s tasks include producing enzymes for metabolism, hormones for communication, and antibodies for immunity. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, and out of the twenty, our bodies can only produce nine, making it essential that we get a variety of food sources. Athletes should consume protein with all meals and most snacks, especially within 45-60 minutes post workout. Consider sources such as chicken, turkey, seafood, dairy, eggs, tofu, nuts, beans, and legumes.

Fat

Fat – “Dun, dun, dun”…. This huge player in cibophobia is actually an essential component of a quality performance diet and should not be avoided. Fats serve many functions including maintenance of body temperature, immune support, organ protection, and vitamin and mineral absorption. In addition, fats provide energy for low-intensity aerobic and endurance exercise. Too little fat may contribute to decreased energy levels, poor immune function and nutrient absorption, and inconsistent menstrual cycles. Acknowledging the type of fat you are consuming is the key to making healthful choices. Unsaturated fats regulate cholesterol and blood pressure, while saturated fats, if eaten in abundance, can increase cholesterol level, risk of heart disease, and inflammation. Omega-3 fatty acids are specifically important unsaturated fats in your diet as they can reduce inflammation, support brain health, and have even been linked to decreased risk of concussions. You’ll find these in (but not limited to) fatty fish, walnuts, olive oil, and flaxseed. While you can still enjoy dairy, meats, baked and fried foods in moderation, it is important to acknowledge your total intake. Too much of this deliciousness can contribute to overall consumption of inadequate amounts of carbohydrates and proteins, additional weight gain and health issues such as diabetes.

Final thoughts 

Macronutrient needs vary depending on the sport, position, season of competition, intensity, duration of exercise, as well as the athlete’s height, weight, sex, age, and body composition goals. There is a lot to consider here. A Registered Dietitian, preferably one who specializes in sports nutrition, can help you figure out the right balance of macronutrients fit specifically for YOU.