Athletes and professional coaches are more aware than ever before of the importance of nutrition in sport. While there is an array of factors that contribute to an athlete’s overall performance in their chosen sport, food is a critical piece to the puzzle, providing the energy needed. The approach to nutrition in sports is different from that of nutrition for overall health. This blog post helps to shed some light. If you’d like to know more about our course, Sports Nutrition Course for Weight Control & Performance, check out the programme outline here.

Nutrition in Sports vs Health

Sports nutrition is the study and practice of hydrating and fuelling your body with the aim of improving athletic performance. The ultimate goal is improving performance, realising true potential and when executed properly, a scientific, person-centred nutrition plan can help you do just that. Over the years, sports nutrition has changed and morphed in parallel with the growing awareness of the role that exercise plays in overall health and awareness. Today, with the help of more science and research, nutrition in sport is now rapidly growing, developing ever more new ways to help people run longer, lift more, swim further or do whatever sport they want to do just that bit better.

Benefits of sports nutrition

The ideal diet for an athlete is not very different from the diet recommended for any healthy person. And while certain sports require the athlete to fit a certain weight group or body fat, the benefits to nutrition in sports spans beyond just aesthetics.

  • Enables you to train longer and harder
  • Delays onset of fatigue
  • Maintains a healthy immune system
  • Enhances performance
  • Improves recovery
  • Improves body composition
  • Reduces potential of injury
  • Helps with focus and concentration

Nutrition in Sports – Basic Overview

It is well established that what an athlete eats can affect his/her ability to train, recover and compete. What we eat and drink provides us with energy. How we train and the type of sport we choose to compete in places certain energy demands on the body. The amount, composition and timing of food intake can profoundly affect sports performance.

An individual’s needs will vary depending on a multitude of factors – age, genetics, gender, sport, lifestyle. This is where combining bespoke training for weight-loss/performance with a personalised nutrition and lifestyle plan vastly improves client outcomes and satisfaction.

Following a pyramid created by Eric Helms, the order of importance when it comes to optimal nutrition runs in the following pattern.

Nutrition in Sports – the foundation is behaviour & lifestyle

The core, the root and foundation of any nutrition and training programme is what happens outside of the gym/pitch/court etc. Balancing stress and sleep, mobility, social relationships, recovery and lifestyle to match your sports goals lays the groundwork and sets you up for success in all subsequent elements. Yet, it’s often the most under-appreciated or neglected. Think about it – the average amateur athlete might spend 1-2 hours in the gym at 5x per week. What happens for the other 158 hours?

Nutrition in Sports – Macronutrients & hydration

Food is made up of three macronutrients – fat, carbohydrate and protein. The ultimate goal of nutrition in sport is to balance these macro and micronutrients to achieve optimal energy output and at times body composition for the intended sport. The split of how many of each a person needs will depend on personal and sports-specific factors. For example, the ketogenic is probably not the best approach for a CrossFitter but there are anomalies in the sport who thrive on a higher fat diet. Not only that, but the macronutrient requirements will also shift with the phases of training – a conditioning phase may require more carbohydrate compared to a structural rebuild and so on.

The average sedentary person needs about 2-3 litres per day. However, for the athlete, hydration needs can increase significantly depending on sweat and training demands. Specific fluid needs will vary from athlete to athlete depending on body weight, exercise and environmental conditions. However, hydration becomes not only just water intake but also electrolyte balance.

Nutrition in Sports – Micronutrients

In addition to balancing these macros, the goal is to also obtain optimal micronutrient intake i.e. vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients etc. This is of critical importance to mention and again far too often neglected. Micronutrients help support a healthy body, managing a host of factors such as injury prevention, muscle building, immune support, recovery and more. Again, it’s not uncommon to see individuals neglect this in favour of empty calories – whether for simply getting in enough calories (remember some might require quite a lot of food over the course of a day) or the opposite cutting calories (to make weight).

Nutrition in Sports – Nutrient Timing

When it comes to nutrition in sports, nutrient timing begins to play a role for the purpose of performance. To maximise the training session, it’s important to look at pre, during and post nutrition. Not only that, there might be other nutrient timing demands to align in time for game day/competition. Again the requirement will depend on the individual and the sport. This is also where at times, it might result in having to look at packaged sources of energy i.e. energy gels, protein shake etc. While this should be avoided where possible, at the end of the day training for sport is different than training for health. You want to isolate and maximise nutrients at certain specific times which isn’t always possible with whole food.

Nutrition in Sports – Supplements

The basis of a good diet is rooted in whole food and proper hydration. However, when it comes to sports nutrition, the physical demands of training may require additional support. Again the specific detail around this will depend on individual needs and requirements. A note to remember to always check what’s allowed/banned in your particular sport. As a final note, you get what you pay for. The supplement industry is a huge multi-billion dollar enterprise but it’s also highly unregulated. Choose your supplements wisely, look to independent third-party research and ask questions!

Who can benefit from sports nutrition?

Meeting energy requirements through whole food sources is essential in order to function and perform at your peak! Anyone can benefit from looking at nutrition for sports, not just elite athletes. Certainly, we are seeing more and more people take training to the next level, competing in triathlons, marathons and obstacle races.

Curious to learn more?

Moving beyond the era of simply counting calories and macros, functional sports nutrition address deficiencies, dysfunctions and imbalances mainly through individually tailored adjustments to food and lifestyle. Consequently, the aim is to restore optimal health and function using a personalised approach that supports the individual’s unique blend of goals, needs, circumstances and preferences.

As we see ‘one-size-fits-all’ rapidly giving way to more effective bespoke approaches in weight control, sports performance and healthcare, fitness enthusiasts and professionals are keen to update and enhance their understanding and practice.

Check out more information on our upcoming Sports Nutrition Course for Weight Control & Performance