Nutrients and Timing for the Perfect Athlete’s Snack

Although science weakly (at best) supports snacking for health in the general population, regular snacking by collegiate and professional athletes can improve performance in both sports and academics.

The Importance of Snacking for Athletes 

Collegiate athletes have higher energy needs than nonathletic peers, making it harder to consume their required daily calories through only three meals. This places importance on snacks as a strategy for obtaining additional nutritious foods. Moreover, demanding schedules of classes and sports make it unlikely to have three sit-down meals each day, so planned snacks may be even more important to ensure optimal nourishment.

Research has demonstrated performance benefits when athletes ingest nutrients and fluid at specific times surrounding activity1 in addition to consuming main meals. Pre- and post-exercise nutrient delivery has been associated with maximizing performance and positively affecting the adaptive response to exercise by maintaining blood glucose levels during exercise and improving recovery.2 The inclusion of several light snacks daily may be recommended to provide significant amounts of carbohydrate (the primary fuel for highly active cells) and avoid gastrointestinal (GI) complaints that can occur after large meals.2,3 Some research also reveals better improvements in strength and body composition with frequent protein (and also carbohydrate) dosing throughout the day compared with few doses or a single larger dose.4

Defining and Timing Healthy Snacks 

“Snack” has no clinical definition, but it is commonly known as smaller amounts of food eaten between larger meals. Heavy marketing by food manufacturers has influenced the public’s perception that snack foods are highly processed and come in packages, but in reality, snacks can consist of healthy, whole foods. Snacking on healthy, whole foods such as fruit and vegetables has been shown to have a positive impact on weight, whereas persons who snack on processed foods between meals have an increased risk for obesity.5,6 Snacks can be packaged for convenience, but most snacks should consist of the same foods recommended for an athlete’s daily diet: whole foods including fruits, whole grains, vegetables, lean protein, and healthy fats.7 To ensure nutrient variety, most snacks should be mixed (i..e., contain more than one food group represented), with the exception of snacks consumed very close to exercise.

Recommendations for amounts and proportions of specific nutrients (specifically carbohydrates and proteins) around activity depend on timing and intensity of the activity, body composition goals, and individual tolerance. Strategic ingestion of natural foods high in compounds such as dietary nitrates (e.g., beet juice) and polyphenols (e.g., cherry juice) also show positive performance benefits.8.9

Most collegiate athletes need at least two snacks daily in addition to three larger meals. More snacks are justified depending on body composition goals (e.g., more snacks for muscle gain) and timing of training or competition. For example, additional snacks make sense after late evening training sessions or between daily double intense training sessions. During all-day volleyball tournaments, for example, with only 1 to 2 hours between games, replacing larger meals with multiple snacks makes it easier for athletes to nourish themselves adequately, lowering the risk of stomach upset. The bottom line is that the required number of daily snacks is highly variable, based on the individual athlete’s schedules, training, and personal needs.

Snacking Situations

Snacks Removed from Training or Competition Time:

General snacks removed from activity should have a mixed nutrient profile, containing at least two food groups: a food high in protein, and at least one complementary whole food from another food group (vegetable, fruit, whole grain or healthy fat). Except as a “Plan B” option, this is not the time to rely on highly processed sport foods (shakes and bars); these products are formulated or use around activity, tend to be calorie-dense, and are overused by both athletes and the general population. Nutrient-dense, high-fiber foods such as vegetables and whole grains are best choices at this time.

Examples of snacks farthest away from training or competition:

  • Hummus, carrots, whole grain pretzels
  • Peanut butter on celery, apple
  • Beans and cheese wrapped in a corn tortilla, red pepper, salsa, and guacamole
  • Half turkey and avocado sandwich on whole grain bread, broccoli spears
  • Whole grain muffin with nuts and dried fruit
  • Tuna with tomato slices, whole grain pita

Before exercise. Snacking before exercise helps maximize glycogen stores and maintain glucose levels so the body is prepared for, and can adapt to, training; it also minimizes exercise-associated muscle damage.3,7 As the time of the snack gets closer to exercise, it should become smaller and contain less protein and much less fat and fiber. A snack too small can lead to hunger during exercise, whereas a meal too large or containing too much fiber or fat can cause GI distress. Snacks should be high in carbohydrate, with high-glycemic foods preferred for some, because they are easier to digest and enter the bloodstream faster, making the fuel more readily available to the exercising cells.10 For athletes in strength and power sports, small amounts of protein may be included in the pre-exercise snack.2

Examples of pre-exercise snacks:


3-4 hours before       Whole grain pancake, poached egg, fruit, nuts, maple syrup; low-fat milk, water

Pasta with red sauce, chicken, fruit, water

30-60 minutes before       Banana, sports drink

Dried fruit, crackers or pretzels, water


During exercise. For most athletes, it is unnecessary to ingest nutrients other than water during low to moderate-intensity activities lasting 90 minutes. However, in endurance-type or high-intensity sports lasting longer than 60 to 90 minutes, consumption of about 30 to 60 g per hour of carbohydrates (predominantly high-glycemic carbohydrates) has been repeatedly shown to extend endurance performance.10 Carbohydrate consumption during exercise may also benefit athletes who are not well-nourished at the onset of exercise, or who have not consumed a pre-exercise meal, or who have restricted energy intake for weight loss.7

Examples of during-exercise snacks, as tolerated:

  • Sports drinks
  • Gels
  • Blocks
  • Bananas
  • Crackers

After exercise (recovery). Ingesting a combination of protein and carbohydrate within 30 minutes after exercise is important for recovery. The amount depends on duration and intensity of exercise, but for most athletes 15 to 30 g of protein and 2 to 4 times that amount of carbohydrates are recommended.2,11 Essential amino acids (EAA), including leucine, can increase the rate of muscle protein synthesis. All animal protein (including meat, eggs) are excellent sources of EAA, but liquid sources such as skim milk and sport recovery beverages (with added whey protein) increase protein synthesis rate because of improved digestion and absorption.

The post-exercise snack should be followed by a larger meal with a mixed nutrient profile (from all food groups) within 2 hours; the inclusion of foods high in omega-3 fatty acids and polyphenols (e.g., fatty fish, nuts and seeds, and tart cherries or tart cherry juice) in an athlete’s recovery regimen will help reduce muscle damage and pain.9

Examples of post-exercise snacks:

  • Chocolate milk
  • Sport recovery shake
  • Greek yogurt with banana
  • High protein cereal with milk and fruit
  • Egg on English muffin, fruit
  • Lean meat or peanut butter sandwich, raisins
  • Smoothie made with tart cherry juice, yogurt, banana

Snacking after dinner or before bed. There is some concern that night meals cause excess fat gain or disrupt sleep, but research does not support this conclusively. Night meals may be appropriate and even necessary after late night practices, night games/competition, or back-to-back sessions. These meals should be as healthy as any other planned meal. Athletes also need to be aware that sleep deprivation can trigger appetite.12 To help athletes maintain a healthy weight, it may be prudent to educate them on the difference between appetite caused by fatigue or boredom and appetite caused by physical hunger (indicating the need to refuel for nourishment).

Snack Mishaps

Athletes should be encouraged to avoid these common snacking mistakes:

  • Skipping a snack because timing or type of food isn’t ideal. Generally, eating something is better than nothing. Athletes should stash extra portable snacks in gym bags, lockers, and cars – and replenish regularly.
  • Eating too large of a snack before exercise. This often happens if meals earlier in day did not supply enough nutrition, resulting in super-sized appetites before activity.
  • Not planning snacks for the day. Unplanned meals and snacks often result in less-than-optimal choices, because impulse eating can take over when hunger sets in.
  • Skipping recovery snacks after exercise (thinking it will help with weight loss). Delaying recovery nutrition not only misses the window for maximum glycogen resynthesis priming the body for the next workout, but also limits muscle growth, reducing total lean body mass.
  • Eating only processed sport foods as snacks. When only highly processed sport foods replace whole foods at snack time, a great opportunity to consume fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals is missed.



  • Burke L. Practical Sports Nutrition. Human Kinetics; 2007.
  • Kerksic, C, Harvey T, Stout J, et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: Nutrient timing. J Intl Soc Sports Nutr. 2008;17. Accessed January 5, 2015.
  • Carlsohn A, Nippe S, Heydenreich J, Meyer F. Carbohydrate intake and food sources of junior triathletes during a moderate and an intensive training period. Int J of Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2012;22:438-443. Print
  • Mamerow MM, Mettler JA, English KL, et al. Dietary protein distribution positively influences 24-h muscle protein synthesis in healthy adults. J Nutr. 2014;144::876-880.
  • Phillips S, Bandini LG, Naumova EN, et al. Energy-dense snack food intake in adolescence: longitudinal relationship to weight and fatness obesity research. Obesity Res. 2004;12:461-472.
  • McCrory, MA, Fuss PJ, McCallum, et al. Dietary variety within food groups: association with energy intake and body fatness in adult men and women. Am J Clin Nutr. 1999;69:440-447.
  • Rodriguez NR, DiMarco NM, Langley S. Position of the American Dietetic Association, Dietitians of Canada, American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009;109:509-527.
  • Jones AM, Vanhatalo A, Bailey SJ. Influence of dietary nitrate supplementation on exercise tolerance and performance. Nestle Nutr Inst Workshop Ser. 2013;75:27-40.
  • Bowtell JL, Sumners DP, Dyer A, Fox P, Mileva KN. Montmorency cherry juice reduces muscle damage caused by intensive strength exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2011;43:1544-1551.
  • Burke LM, Hawley JA, Wong SHS, Jeukendrup AE. “Carbohydrates for training and competition. J Sports Sci, 2011;29 (suppl1):S17-S27.
  • van Loon LJC. Role of dietary protein in post-exercise muscle reconditioning. Nestle Nutr Inst Workshop Ser. 2013;75:73-83.
  • Spiegel K, Tasali E, Leproult R, van Cauter E. Effects of poor and short sleep on glucose metabolism and obesity risk. Nature Rev Endocrinol. 2009;5:253-261,


Andrea Q. Vintro, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, is the owner of Nutrition Logic, LLD in Portland, OR. Posted with permission of Sports, Cardiovascular, and Wellness Nutrition (SCAN). www.scandpg.org




Running Stairs for Conditioning

Regardless of whether you are at home or on the road, running stairs and stadium steps are effective ways to get your athletes in shape, keep them in shape and provide an alternative to running sprints on the field. Before you start asking your athletes to sprint up the nearest staircase, there are some basic do’s and don’ts for stair running workouts. While simply running up and down a good flight of stairs will give your athletes a good workout, there are some basic rules for stair climbing that can help maximize results and minimize the risk of injury.   (more…)

Speed Facts

Speed* is one of the five tools that scouts, coaches and management look for when evaluating talent, and the only tool that is used on both offense and defense in game situations. Everyone appreciates the importance of speed, but how much do we actually know about speed in game situations. The following information was obtained by measuring times from home plate to first base on both home and opposing teams during MLB games for over 20 years and is presented to help coaches and players understand how speed is used during game situations. (more…)

Getting Your Game Face On

During my five plus decades in professional baseball as a player, special advisor, club president, CEO and team owner, I’ve known a lot of players, especially pitchers, who started getting their game face on a day ahead of when they were scheduled to pitch. I didn’t. I would get focused and prepared, but my work came in the four or five days between starts. I was usually more relaxed than ever just before going out to warm up before a game. That was the time I felt the best because I knew that I had worked hard and was confident that I was prepared. I learned early in my career that the only thing that I could control in baseball was my preparation, and I never wanted to start a game knowing that the opposition was better prepared than I was. When I went out there to warm up, all the preparation was behind me and I had a job to do. Once I started to concentrate on doing my job, I switched gears and my game face went on.

gameface (more…)

The Relevance and Importance of Speed Reserve in all Sports

Having worked with sprinters and speed athletes for most of my life, I am always fascinated at how making an athlete faster can benefit them in many ways. One of the key concepts passed on to me by Charlie Francis was the concept of “Speed Reserve”. By training an athlete to be faster, you can increase his or her abilities not only in the max acceleration and max speed realm, but also for all of the sub-max speed activities that occur in the spectrum below max performance abilities. As illustrated in the diagram below, if you can increase an athlete’s max acceleration and speed, all of that athlete’s sub-max capabilities will be elevated as well. Thus, an athlete that runs a 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds will find it very easy to cruise around the field at a velocity equivalent to a 4.7-second 40-yard dash.


The Value of Timing Speed

Speed is one of the five tools that scouts, coaches and management look for when evaluating talent, but one of the most neglected skills in the player development process. I realized the value of timing speed in college. We were running sprints in football and the first sprint was at half-speed, the second was at 60% and the third was 70%. The plan was to progressively increase speed every rep up to 100%. At approximately 80% of full speed I was out in front and based on my running speed at the time, there was no way I should have been out in front compared to the rest of the team. As we crossed the finish line, a big lineman picked me up by the shirt and said, “You idiot! The only difference between full speed and half speed is that you run at the same velocity, but make an uglier face!” I then realized that when training for speed, the only way to ensure quality of effort is to time every sprint.


Modified Pick-Up Drill for Conditioning

Pick-up drills have been used in baseball for decades to improve lateral movement, enhance fielding and improve conditioning in both pitchers and position players. The traditional approach is to have a player and coach face each other, approximately 10 feet apart. The coach kneels on one or both knees with a baseball in one hand as the player gets down in a fielding position without a glove. The coach then rolls the ball approximately 3-5 feet to one side and the player responds by shuffling 2-3 steps laterally to the ball and then breaking down into a good fielding position with the chest up, shoulders over knees, back flat, hips and knees bent and arms and hands down in front of the body. The player fields the ball with both hands, tosses it back to the coach underhanded and then shuffles in the opposite direction to field the next ball. The drill usually concludes after 10-20 tosses to each side.


Using a Weighted Sled for Acceleration Improvement

Before even beginning, let’s clear up one point.

Sport is about acceleration, not speed.

We have a problem in sports. Coaches consistently use the wrong term when discussing the quantity they covet most. Tests like the ten-, twenty- and forty-yard dash are actually tests of acceleration not speed. You only need to look at world-class sprinters to realize that top speed is not even achieved until approximately 60 meters. As coaches our interest is not in top speed but, rather in acceleration, the zero to sixty of the auto world. How rapidly an athlete accelerates will determine success in team sports, not what the athletes absolute speed is. (more…)

Tall Plank Shoulder Taps for Core Torsion Control

Assessing anti-rotation pillar strength is important prior to loading the spine with torsional activity. From a tall plank position, you can assess torsional control by observing this test/exercise. Beyond observation, this technique can be used a conditioning exercise to improve anti-rotational pillar strength and stability.

Execution. Start in a tall plank position with feet shoulder-width apart and hands on the floor under the shoulders. Set the core, slowly lift the right hand and tap the left shoulder. Pause for 1-2 seconds, return the right hand to the starting position and repeat the pattern lifting the left hand and tapping the right shoulder. To correct faulty movement and improve control, start with slow, controlled, alternating taps for 5-10 reps. Stop when fatigue or loss of control sets in.