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Nutrition for Rodeo Athletes

Updated: 6 hours ago

Do you struggle with the challenge of meeting nutrition demands as rodeo athletes? Do you suffer from low energy or injury?

cowboy's riding dangerous bull

Rodeo, second to baseball, is the epitome of American values and a fast-growing type of contact sport. (1) Rodeo athletes experience unique nutrition challenges with frequent road travel, high physical demands, and high risk for brain and bodily injuries. (2)

Nutrition is crucial to support muscle mass, focus, and recovery.

I am a sports dietitian in Washington County, Texas where many rodeo athletes reside during their time off the road, building strength and recovering from injury at Shea Competitive Edge.

Andrew Shea PT, DPT, CSCS, Cert. DN says, “Eating right, especially on the road is tough! This makes it hard to recover between rodeos and keep the body healthy and strong. There are some ways to help though, and knowing what to get at the quick stop or what’s good from hospitality is really important! The same thought and quality of what is fed to your horses should be given to your diet as well.”

Let’s talk about the energy demands of rodeo athletes, quick stop grocery shopping, event recovery, concussion, and disordered eating.

Energy Demands

Rodeo events require a lot of strength (muscle), power, speed, and agility. Measurement of calorie needs has not been fully researched, and a sports dietitian is your best resource to determine your individual nutrition needs during the competitive season and off-season.

Events such as those listed below involve intervals of high-intensity activity requiring carbohydrates and creatine phosphate energy sources. (3)

  • bareback riding

  • steer wrestling

  • bull riding

  • breakaway roping

  • wild cow milking

  • saddle bronc riding

  • team roping

  • barrel racing

Foods high in carbohydrate on rustic wooden background. Top view

Carbohydrates are the primary source of energy during your events when there is little or no oxygen available (anaerobic). Include carbohydrate-rich food sources at every meal and snack. During the competitive season, aim to fill half of your plate with carbohydrate-rich foods.

PRO TIP: Baked potatoes and mashed potatoes are higher sources of carbohydrates than french fries.

Carbohydrate-rich food sources readily accessible to the rodeo athlete include:

  • pretzels

  • crackers

  • fruit juice

  • chocolate milk

  • granola bars

Try choosing starchy vegetables and whole grains when available at restaurants to increase vitamins and minerals.

Creatine is an amino acid found primarily in meat and fish, but it can also be produced in the liver and kidneys and taken as a supplement. Creatine is the quickest source of energy in the body for short bursts of activity lasting 10 seconds or less. (4)

Mix of steak meat : salmon , beef , pork and chicken

Believe it or not, food sources of carbohydrates and creatine can be found when you are shopping for groceries at quick stops.

Quick Stop Grocery Shopping

Quick stop shopping has come a long way, but rodeo athletes do not always have the luxury to stop in larger towns with more options (where do you park a trailer in a parking lot full of vehicles?!?).

The best option is to plan your route ahead of time. If possible, arrange your travel plans to pass through larger towns during less busy times. (This might mean sleeping during the day and traveling through the night.)

If you find yourself lucky enough to pass through a town with a wide variety of options–stock up!

Larger quick stop stores have many healthy options for rodeo athletes.


  • whole grain bread (white or wheat)

  • popcorn

  • pretzels

  • instant potatoes

  • refried beans

  • canned beans

  • fresh fruit

  • fruit juice

  • Naked fruit smoothies

  • eggs (boiled or deviled)

  • tuna (kits, pouches, and canned)

  • premade ham or turkey sandwiches

  • beef jerky

  • protein bars

  • protein drinks

  • low-fat milk

  • meat tacos

  • breakfast tacos

  • brisket sandwiches

  • peanuts

  • sunflower seeds

  • pistachios

  • trail mix

  • peanut butter and jelly

  • V8 juice


Planning ahead before leaving home and stocking up on nonperishable foods is also a great way to get started and provide better available options until you are able to get settled at your temporary destination.

Whether you are shopping at quick stops as you travel or stocking up on groceries before you get on the road, be sure to include the right foods to support recovery from your events.

Event Recovery

Protein is crucial for muscle recovery after events or exercise sessions in the off-season. Protein repairs muscle and carbohydrates “refill” muscles with energy (glycogen).

Protein sources accessible and portable for rodeo athletes include protein drinks, milk, cheese, boiled eggs, beef jerky, and tuna. Consume 20 to 30 grams of protein within 30 minutes up to 2 hours after an event.

20 to 30 grams of protein:

  • palm size portion of chicken, beef, fish, or deli meat

  • 1 to 2 scoops of whey protein powder (choose NSF Certified for Sport)

  • 4 boiled eggs

  • 1 can tuna or tuna pouch

  • hamburger patty

  • 2½ cups of low-fat milk (chocolate or regular - 1½ pints purchased at the quick stop!)

  • protein bar with at least 20 grams of protein

BONUS: Protein foods are also a source of vitamin B12 needed for balance, brain function, and nerve function.

Carbohydrates should be included with recovery if you have another event that same day or the next day. If you plan to travel in the days following an event or have a couple of days between events, carbohydrates do not have to be included in immediate recovery.

PRO TIP: Your best bets at the quick stop for a high-quality protein source that supports muscle repair, reduces inflammation, promotes joint health, and protects your brain are tuna and sardines.

Let’s discuss the role of foods and brain protection before and after a brain injury.


Rodeo athletes are at high risk for brain and bodily injury. (2) (5) Sport culture encourages quick "return to play", and long-term brain effects after your rodeo career should be considered.

Symptoms of Concussion

  • headaches

  • dizziness

  • fatigue

  • depression

  • irritability

  • memory problems

A concussion is an injury to the brain as a result of a bump, blow, or jolt to the head or the body. (6) This means that when you are riding a spinner or rank, thrown out the backdoor or freight trained - your brain is shaken against your skull, and this bruises your brain.

Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to have a protective effect on the brain in traumatic brain injury, essentially acting as a “cushion” to the brain. (7) (8)

Tuna* is an excellent source of the omega-3s DHA and EPA, and the amount may vary in different types ranging from 80 mg to 240 mg per 3 oz serving. Other food sources of omega-3 include mackerel, salmon, herring, sardines*, flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts*.

*Look for these foods when you are grocery shopping at quick stops.

Food rich in omega 3 fatty acid

  • Consume omega-3-rich foods at least two to three times per week, but some individuals may need more.

  • Test your omega-3 index levels regularly to maintain a level of 8-12%. (9)

  • Consider taking a high-quality omega-3 supplement.

It is always best to consult with a dietitian or your primary care physician before taking a nutrition supplement. If you decide to supplement, choose a triglyceride form with at least 1,000 mg DHA + EPA per soft gel.

Consider omega-3 foods and achieving an adequate omega-3 index level a top priority for focus, brain health, and brain protection now and after your rodeo career.

various sports supplements on a black background

Creatine is an energy source for rodeo events, but there is also promising research supporting creatine supplementation and brain health offering rodeo athletes potential brain injury protection. (10)

If you decide to supplement with creatine, talk to a sports dietitian to discuss if supplementation is appropriate for you, and always choose a product that is NSF Certified for Sport for quality, safety, and effectiveness.

Disordered Eating

Rodeo is associated with a competitive personality and a need for a lot of muscle mass relative to your weight (high power-to-weight ratio). This makes rodeo athletes vulnerable to disordered eating habits such as vomiting or severe food restriction prior to events.

Disordered eating habits can lead to dehydration and low energy levels. This can result in weakness and lack of focus putting you at risk for injury (or death).

Seek help from your doctor or a dietitian if you feel like you struggle with disordered eating.

Nutrition Finals

Nutrition is essential for the rodeo athlete’s performance and health after sport or career. The lifestyle and culture of the sport present many challenges to supporting energy, strength, focus, and health.

Focus on a diet including high-quality carbohydrates and protein at every meal with an emphasis on fats rich in omega-3.

Consult with a dietitian to create a portable nutrition plan to support your rodeo performance and brain health.