As the sports nutrition consultant for Creighton University athletics, the advice I give to collegiate athletes is relatively the same advice I give to most people -- eat often, eat quality and eat enough.
Eating often is important to athletes for many reasons. Due to their high-caloric needs, athletes should eat at least every 3 to 4 hours and eat more often when training multiple times daily.
And it doesn't matter if you're a Creighton University soccer player or a recreational basketball player, eating more often is beneficial for all levels of athletes.
Breakfast is especially important as the body's metabolism (the system that converts food into energy) works best when fueled upon waking.
When your metabolism is more efficient, workouts become more productive. Energy throughout the athlete's day is also more readily available, and from what I've witnessed, this provides for better learning, study skills and attitudes!
Another way to help the body be more efficient at making energy is to eat "quality," or the right foods.
Proteins, carbohydrates and healthy fats provide necessary energy for an athlete to perform.
A distinguishing factor between foods with protein, carbs and fat is the the other nutrients included. For example, when you eat carbs from whole grains, fruits, veggies and milk, you receive other benefits, such as vitamin C, calcium and muscle-building amino acids that help performance.
Eating enough is relative to an athlete's overall goals, size, gender, sport and position played.
A general rule of thumb for the recreational athlete wanting to improve performance is to eat the number of calories that is equal to the body weight in pounds multiplied by 15 to 20. If you are male, younger, training heavily, and/or have a large amount of muscle, you should eat on the higher end of this range.
As a general rule of thumb, this applies to most people. Some people require more or less calories at different points in their training.
I can give you an example of an ideal eating schedule for an average Division I athlete. Keep in mind that several factors such as gender, sport and size will affect the energy and timing needs of each athlete.
Wake up: Small snack, such as a carbohydrate-based granola bar
Immediately after weightlifting: Carbohydrate and protein balanced recovery shake
Breakfast: Carbohydrate-based breakfast with added protein, such as an egg sandwich, yogurt and piece of fruit
Snack from the backpack: Trail mix with peanuts, raisins and pretzels
Lunch: Deli sandwich to go from the dining hall, low-fat cottage cheese, side of pasta salad, baby carrots and a carton of skim or low-fat milk
Snack: Piece of fruit
During-practice calories: Gatorade or sports drink
Immediately after practice: 8-ounces of skim chocolate milk
Dinner within an hour of finishing practice: Pasta with red sauce, grilled chicken breast with brown rice, salad with beans, low-fat dressing and extra veggies
Bedtime snack: Packet of instant oatmeal with skim or low-fat milk
If you are trying to improve your performance in a sport, start by writing down the foods you eat. Don't change everything at once or your body might not adjust well! Instead, work to improve things little by little, and take note of how it affects your training.