To Load or Not to Load? Carb/Protein Fueling for Student Athletes

To Load or Not to Load? Carb/Protein Fueling for Student Athletes
Some of the best memories I have as a student athlete are team dinners the night before big basketball games or track meets. As a former sprinter, I would relish the opportunity to load up on spaghetti and breadsticks. Loading up on the right amount of carbs and protein can give athletes an advantage on the field.

Fast forward to my life now as a dietitian with a passion for working with current student athletes, and I realize the silliness of my carb loading, especially given the fact I sprinted for maybe 90 seconds at the average meet. 

The truth is, different types of sports (power sports vs. endurance sports), and even positions within the same sport, require different types and ratios of fuel. Simply put, recommendations won’t be the same for let’s say a body builder compared to a long-distance runner. 

Carbohydrates (e.g., whole grains, pasta, fruit, vegetables, low-fat milk) are vital for supplying energy, and are the primary fuel for workouts and games. The amount we need, however, varies by the length of time and intensity we’re training or competing. Consider this chart for some general recommendations:

Recommended Daily Needs for Athletes

Training time per day

Daily grams of CARBS per pound of body weight

1 hour moderate
Example for 150lb athlete

2g 2.5g
300 – 375 grams per day

1 hour intense


1-2 hours

3.5g 4g

2-4 hours

4 – 4.5g

Ultra endurance

4 5.5g

It would make sense that an endurance athlete like a cross-country runner training for two to four hours a day would need more fuel per pound than a power athlete like an offensive lineman, who may total only an hour of intense activity per game. That’s why my carb loading before sprinting events was unnecessary. Keep in mind, these carbohydrate recommendations should change day to day, depending on the intensity/duration of training or competition. 

Combined with carbohydrates, protein found in lean meats, eggs, low-fat dairy, beans, nuts and seeds is another vital nutrient. Protein helps promote muscle repair and growth, as well as strengthens the immune system. For recommendations on protein needs, see the table below:

Recommended Daily Needs for Athletes

Type of training

Daily grams of PROTEIN per pound of body weight

Example for 150lb athlete

0.54 0.64
81-96 grams per day

Power (muscle gain)

0.72g – 0.81g

Power (maintenance)

0.54g 0.64g

Power (weight restricted)

0.63g – 0.81g

While the recommendations included above are valuable, it’s also important to remember that we eat real food, not single nutrients. With that said, here’s a great snack option before performing: one-half peanut putter and jelly, plus one cup low-fat milk (35g carb, 14g protein, 10g fat, 270 calories).

You can learn more about what to eat before, during and after competition by visiting

To discover how Holland Hospital can tailor your diet to improve athletic performance, call (616) 394.3344 for an appointment or more information. 


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