Nutrition Considerations For Performance Gains

Lori Russell, MS RD CSSD
by Lori Russell, MS RD CSSD
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Nutrition Considerations For Performance Gains

Weight loss and cutting calories tend to steal the limelight when it comes to information on how to best fuel your body for athletic success. However, not every athlete wants to lose weight. Many athletes are looking to put on weight in the form of lean muscle tissue to improve body composition and power output.

Eating for gains is unique from eating for bodyweight maintenance or loss. Muscle building is an anabolic process, meaning the body is creating tissue. A body has more than 600 muscles, so adding to that mass requires extra calories.

Of course, if you just load up on calories alone, the weight gain might be more fat mass than lean tissue mass. It is important to eat the right combination of high-quality foods while continuing to push yourself physically to make the extra calories work for, not against, your goals.


If you do not consume the amount of calories needed for supporting general health and the additional energy output of training, the body may be forced to tap into stored energy. This is a catabolic (breaking down) process, while gaining is the exact opposite: anabolic (building up).

To build additional muscle mass, your body requires extra calories. The exact amount of calories needed for health, activity and gain goals varies from person to person. To get a good estimate of overall metabolic needs, plug your current information and goals accurately into an energy tracking app, such as MyFitnessPal to ensure you are consuming enough.


Protein gets all the attention when it comes to muscle mass, but neglecting healthful fats and complex carbohydrates stalls your lean tissue gains. Carbohydrates are required for energy production. Skimping on starchy vegetables, grains and fruit leaves you feeling too fatigued to execute the physical training required to stimulate muscle growth. Drastically restricting carbohydrates forces your body into utilizing stored amino acids for energy, taking away from your muscle mass. These macronutrients also contain vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients to allow the metabolic process of tissue growth to occur.


This macronutrient provides amino acids, the building blocks of tissues, to your body. Protein needs increase when aiming to gain muscle. Many athletes associate protein intake with animal intake. Animal tissue can be an effective way to get protein, but it isn’t as clear-cut as eat more, gain more. Animal protein intake, like any calories, should be high in quality. Pasture-raised eggs, local game, grass-fed beef, organic dairy and wild seafood are all excellent choices to supply muscle-building materials.

However, plenty of plants contain protein and should not be overlooked. For example, oatmeal is considered a carbohydrate but actually contains 4 grams of protein per cooked cup. Lentils, beans, tofu, tempeh, edamame, hummus, mung bean sprouts, quinoa, buckwheat and nuts can all provide protein that stimulates muscle synthesis and maintains a very healthy, lean body.

For best results, take in a variety of protein sources and emphasize plant sources. Regardless of source, protein should be consumed at regular intervals and distributed evenly at meals and snacks.


When it comes to eating for performance and body composition, there are always strategies and supplements that can provide an extra boost.

Leucine is an amino acid essential for stimulating muscle building. Aim to consume foods high in leucine such as milk, cheese, chicken and tofu. Consuming a branched chain amino acid supplement containing leucine before, during or after endurance training might help prevent muscular breakdown.

There is also evidence that consuming a large dose of casein, a slow-digesting protein, before bed can improve muscle synthesis overnight, meaning your body is working toward your gain goals while you sleep. Being dehydrated might create the look of lean muscles, but this is deceptive. Muscle tissue actually stores more water than fat tissue. This might be why fit athletes suffer less performance decline from being dehydrated than their less fit peers. To help your muscles grow, drink more H2O!

When considering your dietary choices as an athlete, it is crucial to determine your goals — aesthetics, performance and health — and choose the types of foods and amounts that correlate with those goals. If you are struggling to match intake with your body and performance goals, reach out to a board-certified sports dietitian who can assist you in building a personalized plan.

About the Author

Lori Russell, MS RD CSSD
Lori Russell, MS RD CSSD

Lori, MS RD CSSD is an accomplished sports dietitian; she holds a Master’s Degree in Human Nutrition and Certification as a Specialist in Sports Nutrition. As a current professional road cyclist and previous elite marathoner and ultra-runner, Lori knows firsthand that food can enhance or diminish performance gains. She understands the importance of balancing a quality whole food based diet with science-backed performance nutrition and strives to share this message with others. Learn more about her @HungryForResults.


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