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A Guide to Post-Sport Nutrition for Former Athletes

There comes a time in almost every competitive athlete’s life when they must step back from competition or retire altogether. Whether it’s an injury, aging, a different lifestyle or changing priorities, it’s a rare athlete who keeps competing at a high level for life.

When you scale back or end your life as a competitive athlete, you’re no longer training at a high level. And that means the nutrition you need to fuel your body changes. 

Transitioning from healthy eating as an athlete to healthy eating as an exerciser or a more sedentary person isn’t always easy. 

“The nutritional needs of retired athletes shift as they age and become less active. Although their calorie, carbohydrate, protein, fat and hydration requirements decrease, balanced nutrition is important throughout life,” said Jacquelin Danielle Fryer, a registered dietitian specializing in sports nutrition with Banner Sports Medicine Scottsdale. “Retired athletes must still prioritize their health and well-being through a well-balanced and nutrient-rich diet if they want to feel their best as fit and active adults.” 

Read on to learn how to adjust your diet to match this major change in your life.

You won’t need as many calories

Fueling workouts, games and competitions takes a lot of calories. When those activities aren’t part of your life anymore, you’ll need to scale back the amount you eat. This transition can be challenging, especially if – like most athletes – you’ve been highly active for a long time.

To compensate for this change, as well as for your metabolism slowing down as you get older, you’ll need to center your diet around nutrient-dense foods. You’ll also want to stay active, even if you no longer match the intensity level you had as an athlete.

Every former athlete is different. Your age, genetics, gender and overall health mean your eating plan will be unique. You’ll want to find the food choices that work best for you.

The nutrients you need

“By consuming a variety of nutrient-dense foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats every day, former athletes can ensure that they are getting the necessary nutrients to maintain a healthy lifestyle,” Fryer said. “As a sports dietitian, I pay close attention to whole foods rich in vitamin B12, vitamin D, vitamin K, calcium, zinc, magnesium omega 3 fatty acids and iron.”

Anti-inflammatory foods like vegetables, especially leafy greens, are good choices for retired athletes who have injured joints or muscles during their careers. “They help to reduce inflammation in the body,” Fryer said.

Here’s a closer look at some of the key nutrients for former athletes.


Protein helps you build, repair and maintain your muscles. As a general guideline, you’ll want to get 1.2 to 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight daily. And you want to spread your protein intake across your daily meals and snacks. 

For protein, reach for:

  • Lean meats such as chicken, turkey and seafood
  • Plant-based options like tofu, legumes and quinoa
  • Dairy products, including yogurt and cheese
  • Eggs

Fats, especially omega-3 fatty acids, are important for nourishing your body and mind and keeping your heart and joints healthy. 

Limit saturated and trans fats and choose:

  • Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and trout
  • Nuts and seeds, including almonds, chia seeds and flaxseeds
  • Avocado
  • Extra virgin olive oil

Carbs give your body energy. It’s best to limit the simple carbs found in sugary snacks and focus on complex carbs, which help your blood sugar levels stay stable. 

Good complex carb options include:

  • Whole grains like brown rice, quinoa and oats 
  • Legumes like beans, lentils and chickpeas
  • Colorful, non-starchy vegetables

Vitamins and minerals are important parts of your post-sport diet. These micronutrients support your immune system, bone health, metabolism and more. A balanced diet that includes the protein, fat and carb sources mentioned above should help you get the micronutrients you need.

If you think you need supplements for any micronutrients, talk to a health care provider. Some people who may need supplements include people who don’t get much sun exposure or do not consume enough vitamin D and K rich food sources; vegetarians and vegans, who may need more vitamin B12; and women, who may need additional calcium.

Adjusting portion sizes

When you’re no longer active in competitive sports, your energy needs change. Since you don’t need as many calories, you’ll need to make your portion sizes smaller. This shift can be challenging if you’re accustomed to eating large portions to help fuel your performance. 

“Retired athletes find that their body needs less fuel as their body composition begins to change,” Fryer said. “If you're no longer exercising at a high intensity, the first step is reducing portion sizes of processed and ultra-processed foods and beverages that promote weight gain. Instead, focus on nutrient-dense foods that provide the energy and nutrition you need.”

Here are some ways you can balance the amount you eat with your calorie needs:

  • Eat within a 10-to-12-hour window each day or have three or four well-balanced meals daily: Eat every three to five hours, and do not forget to continue having an essential recovery meal within 60 minutes of your workouts. Choose protein and carbohydrate-rich choices, like low-fat milk, fruit and complex carbs. Or have a protein powder mixed with low-fat milk and a cup of berries. “The servings may be smaller, but adequate recovery nutrition after a workout does not end after retirement,” Fryer said.
  • Use smaller plates if you need to decrease your overall intake: They can create the illusion of a fuller plate and make you feel satisfied.
  • Listen to your body: Pay attention to hunger and fullness cues. Eat slowly and pause between bites so you notice when your body signals that it's satisfied.
  • Eat mindfully: Appreciate the flavors, textures and aroma of your food. Be present and set aside screens and tasks.
  • Divide your plate: Have sections for different food groups such as vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains. This strategy helps you visualize a balanced, right-sized meal. 
  • Be careful of liquid calories: Consider choosing water or other low-calorie options instead of sugary beverages and alcohol. Drinking plenty of water can keep you hydrated and help you feel fuller.
  • Portion your snacks: A serving size of a snack helps control calorie intake compared to eating directly from the container. 

You may want to get expert help

Transitioning from eating as an athlete to eating when you’re less physically active may not be easy. You may want to talk to a dietitian. They can consider your health history, lifestyle and preferences and help you:

  • Learn about your nutritional requirements.
  • Set goals for managing your weight, maintaining your muscles and enhancing your well-being.
  • Optimize your nutrient intake.
  • Make lifestyle changes you can maintain.
  • Adapt to change.

“Retiring from elite sports can be a challenging transition that leads to changes in your identity, body and lifestyle,” Fryer said. “It is important to get help transitioning to post-competition life before any physical or mental challenges arise.”

A dietitian can give you science-backed nutritional strategies, a supplement protocol and education so you can understand how athletic retirement affects your dietary needs. Connecting with a sports psychologist to help your overall well-being during this transition can also be helpful. 

The bottom line

Transitioning away from a career as an athlete can be challenging, and one of the toughest parts can be adjusting your diet to your new activity level. Managing portion sizes and focusing on whole foods can help former athletes fuel their bodies and feel their best.

If you’re a competitive athlete approaching the end of your career or a former athlete and you’d like help designing a diet that’s right for you and your needs, reach out to a Banner Health expert.

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