What Foods Give Instant Energy to an Athlete?

What an athlete eats can have a significant impact on their energy levels and sports performance. Although every person is a little bit different, there are general nutrition principles that all athletes should understand. Athletes need to know what to eat and when to eat it! 

Carbohydrates provide a source of quick energy for athletes. Most athletes need more carbohydrates than the average person because they need that energy to be available for their active lifestyle. Protein and fat play extremely important roles in the body, especially for athletes, but providing quick, accessible energy is not their main purpose. Easily digestible carbohydrate sources are the best foods to eat before and during exercise.

The best carbohydrate foods to eat for instant energy for an athlete are fresh fruit such as bananas and apples, Greek yogurt, dried fruit, sweet potatoes, bagels, rice, or tortillas.

Read on for more information about how carbohydrates provide instant energy to the body, good sources of carbohydrates to eat before and during exercise, and other important foods for athletes.

Why Are Carbohydrates Important for Athletes?

Carbohydrates are important for EVERYONE, but especially athletes. Your body is like a machine that consistently needs energy to power it. Athletes push their body even harder when they exercise, requiring even more energy! 

When you eat carbohydrates, they get broken down into sugar molecules (AKA glucose) and enter your bloodstream. Insulin helps that glucose to get into all the cells of your body where it is used for energy.

Low-carbohydrate diets are very popular right now, but they are always inappropriate for athletes and will hurt your performance. Don’t be tempted by this fad diet- your body needs carbohydrates every day!

What Foods Contain Carbohydrates?

There are a lot of foods that contain carbohydrates. It is the most common macronutrient in our diet. Grains and starches like bread, pasta, rice, crackers, tortillas, etc. are good sources of carbohydrates. Fruits are also good sources of carbohydrates. Dairy products typically have a good amount of carbohydrates, but many can also be a good protein source.

While vegetables are primarily made up of carbohydrates, they don’t provide a whole lot of energy. Some vegetables are referred to as “starchy vegetables” and have a higher carbohydrate content than others. The starchy vegetables are potatoes, peas, and corn.

Athletes need a variety of carbohydrate sources in their diet. Keep things interesting by mixing up your meals and snacks and trying new foods frequently! Each food contains a different vitamin and mineral make-up and provides unique benefits for your body!

Which Foods are Best to Eat Right Before Exercise?

Even though pasta is a great source of carbohydrates, you might not feel so good if you have a big bowl of chicken alfredo immediately before you exercise. It is important to understand the composition of the foods you eat and the effect they will have on your body. In this example, there is a good amount of fat and protein in the alfredo sauce and meat. 

Things like protein, fat, and fiber are so important for your body, but they do slow down digestion. You don’t want to have your body working hard to digest food while it needs to be powering your muscles in a workout! If you are having that more complete meal with protein and fat at least 2-4 hours before exercise, it might be alright since it is high in carbohydrates and your body will have plenty of time to break it down before your workout.

It is usually best to eat regularly throughout the day so that you do not have to eat a ton of food right before your exercise. The closer you get to exercise, the more you should focus on straight carbohydrates that are easy for the body to digest quickly. Maybe you have some alfredo 3 hours before your workout or game and then a snack 45 minutes before!

Having a high carbohydrate snack close to exercise is a great way to give your body an extra energy boost right before a workout.

Here are some of my favorite go-to snacks for quick energy:

  • Fruit leathers, layered fruit bars, fruit snacks
  • Whole fruit, dried fruit
  • Fruit juice, sports drinks
  • Applesauce squeeze pouches
  • Pretzels
  • Toast with jam
  • Fruit smoothie (you might do ok with a little bit of protein in it, but stick mostly to fruit)

What Foods Give Instant Energy During Exercise?

Not everyone needs to refuel during exercise, but for athletes exercising for more than an hour and a half, it is definitely going to be helpful to get in some carbohydrates during your workout. 

For some athletes that don’t workout for quite that long, it still might be helpful to get in extra fuel mid-workout. Teens that have early morning workouts often benefit from having some carbohydrates during exercise, especially if they have a hard time fueling properly before their workout. 

If you feel like your energy is low during your workout, work with a sports dietitian to determine if you are fueling properly prior to your workouts and if eating during your workouts would be beneficial for you.

It is important to eat the right things during exercise or else it could actually slow you down, make you feel sick, and impair your performance. Eating during exercise is very similar to eating right before your workout. Focus on carbohydrates that will digest quickly and provide immediate energy.

Liquid carbohydrates usually are digested faster than those in foods. For that reason, sports drinks like Powerade and Gatorade are great sources of instant energy during exercise. 

If you have a break somewhere during your workout, things like fruit, dried fruit, sports gels and chews, and applesauce are quick, portable, and convenient things to have on hand to snack on.

Other Important Foods For Athletes

Yes, instant energy is important to sports performance. Eating enough carbohydrates will greatly improve your performance as an athlete. However, your body has a need for other important foods and nutrients as well. Here are some other nutrition essentials for athletes:


Athletes constantly push their body to its limits. With so much stress and strain on your muscles, they need the proper fuel to repair themselves. Protein is the building block of the body for that purpose. It is so important for athletes to eat enough protein in order to get the most out of their workouts, to build muscle, and to prevent injury.

Here are a few good sources of protein for athletes:

  • Eggs
  • Milk, cheese, greek yogurt
  • Meat, poultry, fish
  • Nuts, nut butters, and seeds
  • Protein powders and drinks (talk to a doctor to see if a supplement would be appropriate for you and which ones are safe to use)


Fat is an important nutrient for athletes. It is essential for the absorption of certain vitamins, helps decrease inflammation in the body, improve cholesterol levels and promote a healthy heart. Additionally, athletes tend to have higher calorie (energy) needs, and including healthy fats can help fill those needs.

Athletes should try and include some of these healthy fat sources in their diet:

  • Nuts, nut butter
  • Seeds (Chia, Flax, Hemp)
  • Avocado
  • Oils
  • Fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines)

Vitamins and Minerals

Vitamins and minerals help protect the body from excessive damage and keep things functioning their best. For athletes who are putting a lot of strain on their bodies, those extra nutrients are so important! For most people, it is recommended that you get 5 servings of fruits and vegetables each day, but for athletes, it is beneficial to get even more.


You probably have heard how important hydration is for athletes. Dehydration can have a huge negative impact on athletic performance. An easy way to calculate how much fluid you need is to base it off of how many calories you expend. Get in 1 mL of water for each calorie you expend. So if you need 2,000 calories per day, you should be getting 2 liters of water. 

Your fluid needs will likely fluctuate day-to-day depending on energy expenditure, temperature, weather, and more. A sports dietitian can help you come up with a good hydration plan and ensure that you are getting enough, but not too much water. Drinking too much water can also have harmful effects. 


Dairy can be beneficial in many ways, but one of the most important for teenage athletes is the calcium content. Calcium helps promote strong bones and prevent injury. The teenage years are when your bones need calcium the most and it will benefit you for the rest of your life! If you are not consuming very much dairy, talk with a doctor or dietitian to determine if you need a calcium supplement.


Fiber is found in many whole grain products, seeds, fruits and vegetables and is a compound that our body cannot digest. Fiber helps your digestive system stay regulated and keeps your gut happy! An unhappy gut makes for an unhappy athlete and can really impair performance. Most people are not eating enough fiber, but by including a variety of healthy foods in your diet, it is totally doable!


Carbohydrates are essential for athletes. Carbs provide quick energy and can greatly improve athletic performance. The closer you get to exercise, the more you should focus solely on consuming carbohydrates. Carbs are also the proper fuel if you need something during your workout.

After your workout, make sure to replenish those carbohydrate stores that you just burned through, but remember that your body also needs protein and fat to heal and recover. 

Most importantly, listen to your body. What works for one athlete might not work for you! Experiment with different carbohydrates and see which foods make you feel and perform your best. Your body will thank you for giving it what it needs.


Gordon B. Choose healthy fats. Eatright.org. Published on August 6, 2019.

NHS. The truth about carbs. www.nhs.uk. Reviewed on January 9, 2020.

Katherine Harmer, RDN

I'm a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with a love for coaching others to success in their health goals, especially teenage athletes. Tennis was my sport of choice in high school. Now I'm a little bit older, a little bit smarter, and a little bit worse at tennis.

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