Jan 29, 2015
Fueled for the Course

Golfers don’t always think that nutrition applies to them. But with the right food choices before, during, and after play, they can improve their physical and mental performance.

By Susan Kundrat

Susan Kundrat, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, is the Sports Dietitian at the University of Illinois and President of Nutrition on the Move, Inc. She is the editor of The Nutrition Edge and author of 101 Sports Nutrition Tips. She can be reached at: [email protected].

Golf is often viewed as a leisure activity, but when played in a competitive environment, players can cover more than five miles walking an 18-hole course. In four hours of play, they can burn upwards of 2,000 calories. A golfer’s nutrition is important not only to meet these physical demands, but also for staying sharp and focused throughout a round.

Unfortunately, even among some professional players, the idea that nutrition plays a role in a golfer’s performance is a foreign concept. Just five years ago, I gave a nutrition presentation to a room full of players at an LPGA event. Many of the golfers in attendance did not carry water or a sports drink with them on the course, and most waited until after they finished 18 holes to eat anything instead of having a refueling snack every few hours.

However, a better focus on nutrition and fitness for golfers can yield great results. When players learn the advantage of using nutrition to help make their bodies as strong, fit, and energized as possible, they play to the best of their abilities.

The women’s golf team here at the University of Illinois has been practicing better nutrition and fitness habits for the past several years, and it’s made a significant difference for a lot of players. Head Coach Renee Slone has been emphasizing all of the little things that make a good golfer into a great golfer, and this includes extra attention to diet.

“The team is more energized during practices, in workouts, and especially at the end of a round when it matters most,” Slone says. “The players pay more attention to what is going into their bodies and how it affects their play.”

The athletes also notice a difference. “Eating healthy is second nature for me now,” says senior Sammi Sloan. “I have moved from learning about carbohydrates, proteins, and good fats as a freshman athlete to automatically building my meals so that I meet key nutrient requirements without even thinking about it. I also think more clearly, and for golfers, that’s an important edge.”


The need for golfers to hydrate cannot be stressed enough as players are outside, often in hot weather, for hours at a time. Just a one-percent loss in bodyweight from dehydration increases the heart rate. And a two-percent drop in bodyweight from dehydration can begin to affect performance significantly–including impaired motor skills and cognitive thinking.

Going into play well hydrated and sticking to a hydration schedule is imperative. As a general rule, after their pre-round meal that includes fluids, golfers should plan to drink at least eight ounces of fluid every hour leading up to play, and at least eight to 16 ounces of water or sports drink every four to five holes.

“Starting the round hydrated and staying that way is important,” says Melinda Valliant, PhD, RD, CSSD, Sports Dietitian at the University of Mississippi. “While it’s a low intensity sport, NCAA golfers are required to walk the course and commonly play 36 holes a day. Getting in adequate fluids leading up to play can really make a difference once the golfers get on the course.”

Although some golfers prefer water, sports drinks are generally a better choice because of the added carbohydrates and electrolytes. Water may work just fine on cooler days when players are not sweating excessively, as long as they are taking in enough carbohydrates through consistent snacks during the round. The key is to ingest at least 30 grams of carbohydrates per hour, or 16 ounces of sports drink over nine holes.

In hot, humid weather, fluid intake may need to be doubled. When golfers are noticeably sweating, sports drinks are a better choice than water because of their ability to replace electrolytes, especially sodium. Players should consider storing powdered sports drink packets in their bags so they can mix them into their water bottle on the course, depending on conditions.

In moderate amounts, caffeinated drinks can be an advantage for players since caffeine may enhance alertness, but golfers should experiment with caffeinated drinks in practice before utilizing them during competition. Too much caffeine can have negative effects like jitteriness, shakiness, or an inability to concentrate.

A 2009 study from Northumbria University in England supports golfers consuming sports drinks containing carbohydrates and a small amount of caffeine. Researchers had 20 male golfers each play a round of golf, with the players consuming two different fluids before playing the sixth and 12th holes. The double-blind study found that the golfers who drank a carbohydrate-caffeine drink (6.4 grams carbohydrate and 16 milligrams caffeine per 100 milliliters) improved their putting performance and experienced lower perceived mental fatigue when compared to those who consumed a no-energy, flavor-matched placebo beverage.

Golfers should also vary hydration plans in different climates to figure out how to maintain hydration levels. For example, in cooler weather, six to eight ounces of water or a sports drink may be adequate every four to five holes, whereas in hot weather, 12 to 16 ounces of fluid in that time is more appropriate. When the weather is both hot and humid, some golfers will need to bump up their hydration plan to 20 or more ounces every four to five holes, being sure to drink at every hole.

It’s always best for a golfer to try out their hydration plan during practice rounds and plan ahead to be sure they know what to take in and when. Players can periodically weigh themselves before and after playing in different weather conditions leading up to a tournament to adjust intake and keep weight loss to less than one to two percent of bodyweight during the round. PRE- AND POST-ROUND

Another important part of a golfer’s nutrition is their pre-round meal. For morning rounds, it’s best to fuel with a high-carbohydrate and moderate-protein breakfast of 600 to 800 calories consisting of foods that are easily digested. Golfers should be careful to avoid large amounts of fiber because too much fiber can cause an upset stomach.

Ideal breakfast foods include whole grain cereals, whole grain breads or bagels, scrambled eggs, yogurt, peanut butter, ham and cheese, fresh fruit, and 100 percent juices, milk, extra water, and extra sports drinks. For example, two scrambled eggs, one whole grain bagel with jam, one banana, 12 ounces of skim milk, and 12 ounces of orange juice is a great mix. This meal provides 750 calories, 120 grams of carbohydrates, and 40 grams of protein, plus additional fluids.

For afternoon tee times, encourage golfers to stick with their normal daily routine, which should include getting up in time for a good breakfast and eating a moderately sized lunch. A simple lunch meal should be similar in nutrient breakdown to a pre-round breakfast. A turkey and provolone cheese sandwich on whole grain bread with light mayo and a cup of grapes, a granola bar, and a 16-ounce sports drink provides roughly 600 calories, 90 grams of carbohydrates, and 30 grams of protein. These foods can also usually be found in the clubhouse.

Finally, golfers should also be mindful of the importance of “recovery fuel” after they finish play for the day. Although they have not completed a hard, intense workout like a football player, because of the high number of calories burned, getting on a recovery schedule is helpful, especially when they will be competing early again the next day. Immediately after finishing their round, players should head to the clubhouse for extra fluids (sports drinks, 100 percent fruit juices, smoothies, chocolate milk, or water). Then, optimal meals may include:

– Chicken breast, whole grain pasta with marinara sauce, tossed salad, Italian bread, and fresh fruit

– Grilled lean burgers, veggie burgers, or turkey burgers with baked chips, fresh fruit, pasta salad, and cookies

– Grilled salmon, rice pilaf, steamed mixed vegetables, whole grain rolls, fresh fruit, and frozen yogurt.


Fueling on a schedule is the single most important part of the nutrition equation for golfers. Being on the course for so many hours at a time, players must be careful not to get low on energy. Having a fueling plan makes all the difference.

I recommend golfers eat a snack containing carbohydrates and a small amount of protein every four to five holes. Carbohydrates are needed for immediate energy and protein is good to include because it slows down digestion so there is also a more gradual release of energy to the bloodstream throughout the round. Protein also helps athletes feel more full and satisfied.

I suggest golfers start with a goal of 30 grams of carbohydrates and at least five grams of protein for each snack on the course. Some examples of this ideal combination of carbohydrates and protein include:

– Half cup trail mix – One ounce beef, turkey, or veggie jerky plus one banana – One granola bar or cereal bar plus a quarter cup mixed nuts – Half or full sports bar – Quarter cup nuts or sunflower seeds plus half cup dried apples – A peanut butter sandwich – One squeezable applesauce or 100-percent fruit purees plus half a sports bar – Quarter cup dried cherries, blueberries, and mangoes plus a quarter cup peanuts – One cup grapes or sliced apples plus one cheese stick – One sports gel plus one ounce jerky.

Amy Goodson, MS, RD, CSSD, Sports Dietitian for the men’s and women’s golf teams at Texas Christian University, recommends players focus on eating a snack around the fourth or fifth hole, a larger snack after the first nine holes, and a third snack around the 15th or 16th hole. She encourages golfers to carry foods such as trail mix with nuts, dried fruit, and granola, energy bars without coatings that will melt, granola bars, nuts, fruit, jerky, and peanut butter crackers. She also notes that golfers should avoid foods that will go bad in the sun and heat, like meats, mayonnaise, and yogurt.

Because golf requires such intense focus, it works well for players to develop a fueling routine that is comforting and not distracting. Some of the golfers Becci Twombley, RD, CSSD, Director of Sports Nutrition at UCLA, works with like to eat small amounts frequently on the course, while others prefer to eat larger snacks, but less often. Most of them have found a way to work snacking into their “routine,” whether it’s at each hole or at particular holes on the course. For example, one of the UCLA players keeps two or three Luna bars in the same pocket as her scorecard so she can grab a bite at each hole.

“They pick the same foods every time they play,” Twombley says. “They also plan the times that they will eat. My golfers say it enhances their rhythm on the course.”

Some players may not want to eat on the course at all, but educating them on the value of doing so is key. Tara Gidus, MS, RD, CSSD, Team Dietitian for the Orlando Magic, has also helped PGA, LPGA, collegiate, and recreational golfers enhance their performance. When talking to players about nutrition during play, she focuses on the benefits they will see on the course. “Golf is a game of concentration, so if fluids or fuel are lacking, then reaction time can slow, concentration is difficult, and accuracy suffers,” she says.

When competitive players play two rounds in one day, fueling and hydration become even more paramount. If golfers are playing 36 holes, being prepared with a quick “lunch” on the course could be a difference maker.

Twombley makes sure the team’s coaches have boxed lunches ready for the players when they finish the first 18. Some golfers choose to get in a fast lunch like a sandwich, baked chips, fruit, and extra fluids before heading out again. Others prefer picking up extra snacks and sticking with the same nutrition routine they employed during their first round. Either way is fine as long as players get the nutrients they need. (See “Sample Menu: 36 Holes” below for a more detailed example.)

When it comes to nutrition for golfers, a lot of what a golfer eats–and when–boils down to personal preference. But there is no disputing the fact that nutrition is important for golfers’ bodies and minds.

Susan Kundrat is the editor of The Nutrition Edge, which is available from Training & Conditioning. Go to: www.Training-Conditioning.com and click on “Books & DVDs.”


Helping golfers figure out what to eat and drink before, during, and after play should be the focus of nutrition planning, but there are many other areas of nutrition education that can benefit players as well. Golfers can make their biggest strides in strength and overall fitness when they have breaks from tournaments, or for collegiate athletes, during the off-season. This is a time to focus on high-quality eating, maximizing key nutrients and antioxidants, optimizing fueling around workouts, and helping athletes learn how to eat well when on the run.

I have found that short mini workshops lasting 20 to 30 minutes help our golfers eat better all year long. Here are some ideas for topics and what the workshops can entail:

Lean Muscle Foods: Show athletes how to pick five low-cost, easy-to-prepare, high-protein food options, review the nutritional values, and make easy, fast meals that incorporate them. My top five foods include canned tuna, cottage cheese, yogurt, pre-cooked whole chicken, and peanut butter. Fast meals may include whole grain pasta with marinara sauce and cooked chicken, steamed veggies, and a fruit/yogurt smoothie; tuna sandwiches with baked beans and mandarin oranges; and grilled sirloin burgers (on a Foreman grill) with pre-made spinach salad and a small dessert.

Homemade Trail Mix: Purchase the ingredients for an easy, high-energy trail mix the team can mix together, bag up, and take with them on the course. Explain why the trail mix is a great on-the-course snack and give instructions on how much to eat during a round. I recommend one serving every four to five holes or one serving with a sports drink every nine holes.

For 12 servings, mix together two cups Cheerios, two cups Quaker Oat Squares, two cups Frosted Mini Wheats, one cup dried cherries, and one cup honey roasted peanuts. Each serving contains 165 calories, 32 grams carbohydrate, four grams protein, five grams fat, and 115 milligrams sodium.

Five-Minute Breakfast: Review and prepare five five-minute breakfasts that provide whole grains, fruit, and a high-quality protein to show players how easy it is to eat well before tournaments–and every day for general fitness and training. Good options include:

– Microwavable omelet with a whole grain bagel and a banana – Greek yogurt, fruit, and granola parfait with orange juice – Smoothie made with milk, frozen fruit, and whey protein with a granola bar. – 30-Minute Meals: A team cooking class is a great way for the players to learn how easy it is to cook nutritious meals quickly. Because golfers have to spend a lot of hours on the course, time management is key for them off it. I utilize undergraduate dietetics students at Illinois to help develop and teach these workshops and it’s a win-win for the athletes and students.


Round One

Hole Five: Half a sports bar and eight to 16 ounces of water or sports drink Hole Nine: Snack size bag of homemade trail mix and eight to 16 ounces of water or sports drink Hole 14: Half a sports bar and eight to 16 ounces water or sports drink Post-Round: Turkey sandwich, single-serving bag of baked chips, banana, and eight to 16 ounces water, juice, or sports drink

Round Two

Hole Five: Granola nut bar and eight to 16 ounces of water or sports drink Hole Nine: Quarter-cup almonds and eight to 16 ounces water or sports drink Hole 14: Quarter-cup dried apples, one ounce jerky, and eight to 16 ounces water or sports drink Post-Round: 16 to 32 ounces water or sports drink and recovery meal


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