The importance of correct nutrition for the sports & active person

Sporting performance and food

seaford 10k

Good diet and nutrition can enhance sporting performance. Carbohydrates should be the basis of the sports person’s diet. For most, a varied healthy diet will provide vitamins and minerals, as well as protein to promote growth and repair of muscle tissues. Adequate fluid intake is essential to help performance and prevent dehydration.

The link between good health and nutrition is well established. Interest in nutrition and its impact on sporting performance is now a science in itself.

Whether you are a competing athlete, a weekend sports player or a dedicated daily exerciser, the foundation to improved performance is a nutritionally adequate diet.

The basic training diet should be sufficient to:

  • Provide enough energy and nutrients to meet the demands of training and exercise
  • Enhance adaption and recovery between training sessions
  • Include a wide variety of foods like wholegrain breads, cereals, vegetables (particularly leafy green varieties), fruit, lean meat and low-fat dairy products to enhance long-term nutrition habits and behaviours
  • Enable the athletes to achieve optimal body weight and body fat levels for performance
  • Provide adequate fluids to ensure maximum hydration before, during and after exercise
  • Promote the short and long-term health of athletes

Carbohydrates and exercise

During digestion all carbohydrates are broken down into sugar (glucose), which is the body’s primary energy source. Glucose can be converted into glycogen and stored in the liver and muscle tissue. It can be used as a key energy source during exercise to fuel exercising

Muscle tissue and other systems. Athletes can increase their stores of glycogen by regularly eating high-carbohydrate foods.

If carbohydrate in the diet is restricted a person’s ability to exercise is compromised because there is not enough glycogen kept to fuel the body. This can result in a loss of protein (muscle) tissue, because the body will start to break down muscle tissue to meet its energy needs and may increase the risk of infections and illness.

Carbohydrates are essential for fuel and recovery

Current recommendations for carbohydrate requirements vary depending on the duration, frequency and intensity of exercise. Foods rich in unrefined carbohydrates, like wholegrain bread and cereals, should form the basis of the athlete’s diet. More refined carbohydrate foods such as white bread, jams and lollies) are useful to boost the total intake of carbohydrate, particularly for very active people.

Athletes are advised to adjust the amount of carbohydrate they consume for fuelling and recovery to suit their exercise levels.

  • Light intensity exercise (30 minutes/day) 3-5g per kg of body weight a day
  • Moderate intensity exercise (60minutes/day) 5-7g per kg of body weight a day
  • Endurance exercise (1-3 hours/day) 6-10 g per kg of body weight a day
  • Extreme endurance exercise (more than 4 hours/day) 8-12 g per kg of body weight a day

Pre-event meal

almonds and fruit

The pre-event meal is an important part of pre-exercise preparation. A high-carbohydrate meal three to four hours before exercise is thought to have a positive effect on performance. A small snack one or two hours before exercise may also benefit performance.

Some people may experience a negative response to eating close to exercise. A meal high in fat or protein is likely to increase the risk of digestive discomfort. It is recommended that meals just before exercise should be high in carbohydrates and known not to cause gastrointestinal upset.

For example:

  • Cereal and low-fat milk
  • Toast/muffin/crumpets
  • Fruit salad & natural yoghurt
  • Pasta with tomato-based sauce
  • Low-fat breakfast or muesli bar
  • Low-fat creamed rice

Eating during exercise

During exercise lasting more than 60 minutes an intake of carbohydrate is required to top up blood sugar glucose levels and delay fatigue. Current recommendation suggest 30-60g of carbohydrate is sufficient and can be in the form of:

  • Lollies, sport gels
  • Low-fat muesli
  • Sport bars
  • Sandwiches with white bread.

It is important to start your intake early in exercise and to consume regular amounts throughout the exercise period. It is also important to consume regular fluid during prolonged exercise to avoid dehydration. Sports drinks, diluted fruit juice and water are suitable choices. For people exercising for more than four hours, up to 90g of carbohydrates per hour is recommended.

Eating after exercise

colour run

Rapid replacement of glycogen is important following exercise. Carbohydrate foods and fluid should be consumed after exercise, particularly in the first one or two hours after exercise. To top up glycogen stores after exercise, eat carbohydrates with moderate to high glycaemic index in the first hour or so after exercise. This should be continued until the normal meal pattern resumes.

Suitable choices to start refuelling include:

  • Sports drinks
  • Juices
  • Cereal with low-fat milk
  • Low-fat flavoured milk
  • Sandwiches
  • Pasta
  • Muffin/crumpets
  • Fruit
  • Yoghurt

Vitamin Supplements

A well-planned and nutritionally adequate diet should meet an athlete’s vitamin and mineral needs. Supplements will only be of benefit if your diet is inadequate or you have a diagnosed deficiency, such as an iron or calcium deficiency.

Use of vitamin and mineral supplements is potentially dangerous and they should not be taken without advice of a qualified health professional.

Water and sporting performance


Dehydration can impair a sports person performance and in extreme cases, may lead to collapse and even death. Drinking plenty of fluids before, during and after exercise is very important. Don’t wait until you are thirsty. Fluid intake is particularly important for events lasting more than 60 minutes of high intensity or in warm conditions.

Water is a suitable drink, but sports drinks may be required, especially in endurance events or warm climates. Sports drinks contain some sodium, which helps absorption.

Using salt tablets to combat muscle cramps is no longer advised. It is lack of water not sodium that affects the muscle tissue. Persistent muscle cramps might be due to zinc and magnesium deficiencies.
Things to remember

  • Good nutrition can enhance sporting performance
  • A well-planned, nutritious diet should meet most of an sport persons vitamin and mineral needs and provide enough protein to promote muscle growth and repair.
  • Foods rich in unrefined carbohydrates, like wholegrain bread and cereals, should form the basis of the diet.
  • Water is a great choice of fluid for athletes to help performance and prevent dehydration.
  • Eat more carbohydrates to supply the body with efficient energy and fuel found in grains, starchy vegetables, fruit, low-fat dairy products and carbohydrate replacement drinks.
  • Get enough water and electrolytes.
  • When your diet is not enough, extra vitamins and minerals will help your body get the nutrition it needs for exercise.
  • Try vitamin C.

These recommendations are not comprehensive and are not intended to replace the advice of your doctor.

Many Thanks

Mark Hart

The importance of correct nutrition for the sports & active person