Diet and Sport
As a Dietitian I am often asked about whether diet makes a real difference to sporting performance. The answer in a word is ’Yes’, definitely.
Food is our fuel. It provides the energy we need to get our bodies moving. In competitive sport, we need to optimise nutrition in order to maintain high levels of activity, often for prolonged periods.
Competitive, team sport is fantastic for many reasons, but can take its toll on your body, particularly when you start intensifying training leading up to a competition. Your body needs the right amount of nutrition at the right time to support a healthy immune system, avoid injury, to maintain bone health & lean muscle mass and to maintain energy levels during competition.
In saying that, the food you eat on a daily basis is still the most important factor. A balanced diet means that your body will be much leaner and stronger in the first place. However, fine-tuning your nutrient intake before a game to optimise performance and after the game to improve recovery are also key factors that need to be carefully considered.
What to eat before sport for preparation and endurance?
The purpose of looking closely at the food you eat leading up to a game is to make sure that you get the fuel you need from food efficiently. For this reason, the focus is carbohydrate rich foods prior to a game, because they digest and absorb more readily than fats and protein, providing fuel to muscles more efficiently.
The Australian Institute of Sport recommends having a meal about 3-4 hours before if possible or a light snack about 1-2 hours before the game. Everyone is different and it is important to remember what works for you may be different to what works for your teammates. Your performance will need to be monitored, with amounts of food adjusted until you find what works best for you.
All meals need to be nutritionally balanced, such as the examples below:
- Meal 3-4 hours before an event could include: a meat and salad sandwich plus a piece of fruit.
- Snacks 1-2 hours before may include: a fruit and milk smoothie, a cereal bar, flavoured yoghurt or milk.
- Lighter snacks within the hour may include a sports drink, sports bar or carbohydrate gel.
Some people may not be able to consume solid food before exercise because of digestive discomfort. In this case, you can try a balanced, liquid meal supplement.
During and after exercise you need to rehydrate
Have enough fluids to replace losses or as much as feels comfortable to consume. Some coaches will weigh athletes before and after a session to determine fluid lost as sweat. To maintain energy levels or to replace lost electrolytes after prolonged, high intensity sessions, you may need to consume a drink containing carbohydrate and electrolytes.
After exercise the body will be in a state of recovery. The muscles need refuelling, so it is again necessary to get the fuel you need from carbohydrate rich foods/drinks. Prolonged and high intensity exercise also cause the breakdown of muscle protein. The body will take the next 24 hours to repair and rebuild muscles. Carbohydrates help reduce the amount of muscle breakdown and protein- rich foods provide essential amino-acids needed for muscle repair and growth. Studies suggest that nutrient timing nutrient (within an hour) can enhance this process.
- 5 recovery snacks high in carbohydrate and protein
- 600ml low fat flavoured milk
- 1 large or 2 small cereal bars + 200g carton fruit-flavoured yoghurt
- 220g baked beans on 2 slices of toast
- 1 bread roll with cheese/meat filling + large banana
- 300g (large) baked potato + cottage cheese filling + glass of milk
Diet plays a critical role in the performance of athletes. Professional team players recruit Dietitians to work with the coach and sort out the best nutrition plan. Individuals can also use Dietitians to get them started on a healthy, nutrition plan. For some sports it is necessary to build muscle and bulk up and other sports a more lean physique is ideal.
I have worked with schools and high performance gyms to develop resources for elite athletes and adolescent athletes. As a Dietitian I find it very gratifying to watch athletes reach their potential through training and diet. If you would like support with finding the perfect diet to support your optimal sports performance, contact me for more information or book an appointment online.
- Australian Government, 2009. Australian Institute of Sport: Nutrition factsheets- Nutrient Timing. © Australian Institute of Sport, 2009. http://www.ausport.gov.au/ais/nutrition/fact_sheets
- Kirksick et al. 2008. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: Nutrient timing. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition20085:17. DOI: 0.1186/1550-2783-5-17 Kerksick et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2008
- International Sports and Exercise Nutrition Conference in Newcastle upon Tyne. 2016 Abstracts from the December 2016 International Sports and Exercise Nutrition Conference. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 2017, 27, S1 -S20 https://doi.org/10.1123/ijsnem.27.s1 © 2017 Human Kinetics