Exercise Nutrition for Optimal Performance by Karly Powell, ND

Exercise Nutrition for Optimal Performance

As the warm, sunny days come upon us, more of us will be getting out to enjoy the beautiful outdoors.  Whether you’re a competitive athlete, an outdoor enthusiast, or a weekend warrior, what you eat during your adventures can have significant impact on your performance, your recovery, and your overall health.  Unfortunately, many of the recommended sports nutrition products are unnatural, over-processed, and lacking in high-quality nutrition and are better off avoided.  Let’s review what should be included instead.

First, the foundation of any healthy diet is plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, organic meats, and healthy fats; athletes are no exception to this rule.  The foods that you eat everyday are going to have a far greater impact on your performance and recovery than what you eat in the moments immediately surrounding your workouts. However, when it comes to optimizing performance, there are specific nutrients that can help your body reach its peak performance.


The media has us far too concerned about electrolytes during exercise.  Yes, these minerals are essential to physical activity and regulation of body fluids; however, unless you’re working out vigorously for more than 60 minutes or in high temperatures or humidity, you are mostly losing water and should be able to maintain your electrolyte stores through your diet and adequate hydration.  I recommend replacing the sugary, electrolyte drinks with an extra serving of vegetables (especially leafy greens) and some high-quality mineral salt that day.  Avoid coffee, caffeinated teas, and sodas around your workouts, as these can rapidly deplete mineral and electrolyte stores in the body.

For those extra hot days or long workouts when electrolyte replacement is necessary, reach for coconut water or Knudson’s Recharge; I prefer these to the added chemicals and artificial colors found in the standard electrolyte drinks (Gatorade, Powerade, etc). Or consider making your own! (see my recipe below)


Carbohydrates are absolutely important to maintain energy levels during exercise. During lower intensity exercise your body can use fat as well as carbohydrates for energy, but at higher intensities you are using only carbohydrates.  Your muscles can store sugars (called glycogen) to use during exercise, but that is a limited reserve; most of us have enough sugar stores to sustain about 1:45-2 hours of exercise with optimal glycogen utilization.  Beyond 2 hours, your muscles will begin to breakdown muscle proteins for energy if you are not ingesting carbohydrates for replacement.

Similar to electrolyte drinks, many of the standard calorie replacements designed for athletes are loaded with artificial ingredients, dyes, and flavoring.  Consider fresh fruit, honey sticks, peanut butter sandwiches, or more natural replacement products such as Hammer Heed or Honey Stingers.  Aim for 150-250 calories (about 40-60g of sugar) per hour during exercise; you may see higher intake recommended, but your body can’t really absorb more that than during intense exercise.  If you are exercising beyond 3 hours, consider adding in small amounts of protein and fat; nuts and nut butters work great for this. Many companies make individually-packaged servings, which are great to stick in your pocket on the go.

Add Protein for Recovery

Replenishing carbohydrates and protein after exercise, ideally within 30-60 minutes, will help minimize your recovery time and prepare you for the next activity.  Many athletes tend to put too much emphasis on the protein here; studies show that the ideal recovery meal is a 4-5:1 ratio of carbohydrates to proteins.  This means you should have 160-200 calories (40-50g) for every 40 calories (10g) of protein.  Quinoa or rice with root vegetables, greens, and organic meat is one of my go-to recovery meals for adequate carbohydrates, protein, fats, and electrolytes.

Dr. Karly works with athletes and adventures of all abilities to determine a nutrition plan that is right for your level of activity.  She also uses herbs and supplements to maximize athletic performance, elevation acclimation, and injury recovery. Set up a free 15-minute consult to see how she can help you reach your athletic goals. 

Dr. Karly’s Exercise Elixir:

Combining my love of herbs and outdoor excursions of all types, this herbal electrolyte and calorie replacement drink is one of my go-to’s for long bike rides or days on the trail.  It’s also great to bring along on backpacking trips, as the herbs add little weight to your pack and can be brewed using the heat of the sun in a glass or metal water bottle.


  1. Combine in equal parts (by weight) nettles, hibiscus, alfalfa, oatstraw, red clover loose leaf tea
    1. Add 4 oz tea to 3 cups of boiling water; turn of heat and let stand 15-20 minutes before straining. For cold infusions, add herbs to cold water and let stand in sun for 2-4 hours.  Once your tea is strained and ready to drink, add in the rest of the ingredients
  2. 1 cup 100% cranberry juice (not from concentrate, no sugar added)
  3. 1 scoop Calcium/Magnesium powder (approx. 200/100 mg respectively)
  4. Pinch of mineral or sea salt
  5. 1 Tbls raw, local honey

This will make (2) 16 oz. servings, each providing a broad mineral replacement and 100 calories.  Consume 16 oz per hour during exercise.  If higher calorie intake is needed for high-intensity exercise, consider adding 15-20 grams D-ribose (a sugar that directly supports energy production in the mitochondria of muscle cells) powder and additional honey as needed to meet calorie demands.