Sports nutrition plays a key role in optimising the beneficial effects of physical activity, whether you’re a bodybuilder, a professional athlete in training or exercising to improve your mental and physical health.
Making informed decisions with your nutrition and hydration can result in improved performance, injury prevention and quicker recovery but it's difficult to know where to start with so much conflicting information readily available. That's where the help of a professional nutritionist can aid your decisions, and ultimately improve your performance.
Nutrition professionals offer a variety of services to support your health and sporting goals. This can range from a daily food diary to tips for eating after workouts or a comprehensive nutrition plan for training and competitions.
What is sports nutrition?
Sports nutrition is the study and implementation of a diet/plan that is designed to increase athletic performance. Best performance is achieved by providing the right amount of food type (protein, carbohydrates, fats, fibre, etc.), fluids and nutrients to maximise energy and aid in sports recovery. It's most common in endurance and strengthening sports. Sports nutrition differs from regular nutrition because athletes require different levels of nutrients than non-athletes.
The importance of sports nutrition
Consuming the right balance of food and drink is important for everyone and those actively participating in sports need to be aware that it can also affect performance. For example, athletes may need more calories than the average person, or individuals training for bodybuilding competitions may need to increase their protein intake: a good nutrition plan is key to your success.
Sports performance and energy
Fuelling your body with the right foods is essential for sports performance, importantly fats, protein and carbohydrates which maintain the body's energy.
- Carbohydrates are the primary fuel used by working muscles, so adequate intake is essential for preventing muscle fatigue.
- While it's important to monitor your fat intake, you shouldn't remove it from your diet completely. Fats provide fatty acids that can be used as a source of energy - especially if your exercise sessions last longer than one hour. Fats also provide the building blocks for hormones and the formation of cell walls.
- Protein can be used as a source of energy and is critical for building new muscle tissue. If you're taking part in resistance training, your body will require additional protein.
Nutrients are fuel for the body. In order for our physical and mental health to remain strong and healthy, we need to consume a balanced diet of nutrients that can carry you through everyday life. Not only whilst performing sports activity, but before and afterwards. Important nutrients include:
There are two key forms of carbohydrates – starchy or complex, and simple sugars. Simple sugars are carbohydrates found in refined products and provide a sweet taste such as white bread and sugary cereals. Naturally found in milk products, fruit and vegetables, they can also be added to foods such as white sugar, brown sugar, honey, molasses and maple syrup etc. Though all of the sugars which we eat (whether they occur naturally or are added) are used by the body in the same way, it is better to get your simple sugars from foods which they occur naturally in, as these foods also contain fibre an important nutrient.
Complex carbohydrates, also known as starches, include grains such as bread, pasta and rice. Similarly to simple sugars, there are some complex carbohydrates that are better than others. Processed refined grains such as white rice and white flour are less favourable as the nutrients and fibre are removed.
Instead, nutritionists recommend that where possible, individuals opt for unrefined grains, which are still packed full of vitamins, minerals and fibre.
The body’s ability to store carbohydrate as fat has been severely overblown (and I think it all stems from a gross misunderstanding of how insulin works and just how beneficial exercise can be for body composition). Should you be eating refined sugar from highly processed foods with every meal? Certainly not, but no one would ever envisage this as being a ‘healthy’ way of eating anyway. That’s also assuming all carbs are digested and metabolised the same way, which is also a common misnomer.
- Jamie Wright, Sports Nutritionist.
Fat is an essential component of any diet as it helps the body to absorb nutrients as well as being a great source of energy. Although fats are important, we should still attempt to monitor how much we are eating. Large amounts could lead to excess weight gain and could result in an increased risk of serious health concerns.
Saturated fats are commonly found in animal products and processed foods such as meat and dairy. This type of fat is not considered to be healthy for the heart and is thought to raise your LDL (bad) cholesterol levels.
Unsaturated fats are found in foods such as avocados, olives, nuts and oily fish. They are considered to be heart-healthy, can work to lower your LDL cholesterol levels and raise your HDL (good) cholesterol levels.
Protein is present in every cell of the body and is important for helping to build and repair tissues. It’s also used to make enzymes, hormones and a variety of additional body chemicals as well as forming the building blocks of bones, muscles, cartilage, skin and blood.
Protein-rich foods include meat, fish, eggs, pulses, nuts, seeds and soy products.
Supplements are often used by athletes, bodybuilders and sportsmen and women to boost their strength, performance and recovery. They are available in different forms ranging from multivitamins and minerals to protein, creatine and various other ‘ergogenic’ aids.
Should I take them?
Before individuals opt to take any form of supplement they should ensure their diet is healthy, balanced and suits their sport. Those who do decide to take additional nutrients in supplemental form should always consult an accredited sports dietitian or a registered nutritionist who specialises in sports nutrition. They will be able to assess your suitability for a particular supplement.
Common sports supplements include the following:
Simply explained, creatine is a high-energy compound that helps to store and provide energy. It is produced within the body, occurs naturally in fish and meat and can also be taken in supplement form. As a dietary supplement, creatine is used by athletes and sportsmen and women to increase muscle strength and explosive power. It is intended to help you train for longer and also to boost performance during frequent high-intensity exercise.
Whey protein is a natural protein present in milk, containing very little fat, carbohydrate or lactose. Whey is what is known as a naturally complete protein. This means that it contains all essential amino acids needed in the average daily diet.
As well as housing the perfect combination of amino acids, whey protein also contains what is known as a 'branch chain of amino acids' (BCAAs), which are the first ones to be used during intense training. The whey protein provides the body with these amino acids and in turn, they assist with repairing and rebuilding lean muscle tissue.
Another benefit of whey protein is that it is extremely easy to digest. This means it is absorbed quickly and can provide instantaneous nourishment to the muscles.
Read nutritionist Rebecca Jennings' MSc ANutr checklist for taking supplements.
How can a sports nutrition professional help?
A sports nutritionist can create a tailored nutrition plan to support an individual’s training regime and goals. The plan will incorporate both food and hydration integral to performance, but tailored nutrition can also help to:
- increase energy levels
- promote good health
- help manage weight
- improve concentration
- develop body composition and growth
- enhance recovery
To create the best nutrition strategy, a sports nutrition professional will assess not just an individual's training and diet but also their lifestyle, day to day habits, supplements and regular medication needs.
To maintain a healthy weight, eating well is crucial. But with many diet promotions on offer, it can be hard to get correct, healthy advice. This is where a nutritionist can be helpful in advising on losing weight for sport and performance: it's common that people deciding to lose weight will strictly reduce protein, fat or calorie intake. This can not only have a negative impact on your performance, but it can severely harm your body.
The types of food that you should include in your diet for optimum sports nutrition include:
- whole grains
- sources of lean protein and low-fat dairy produce
- healthy fats
A specific sporting event out your body under stress, even more so if your nutritional needs aren't being met, a nutritionist can advise and deliver strategic plans for you to follow in order for optimum performance.
Even if things haven’t gone to plan in your game, or you’ve had to walk the last half-mile of your run because of fatigue, you shouldn’t neglect your nutritional needs. It should be a priority, no matter what the result is. Athletes, casual runners, footballers and so on typically do not consume enough fluids when they are taking part in events, or even training. So restoring the balance after the event is crucial. Water is perfect for rehydration.
It’s crucial to stay hydrated when taking part in sports: inadequate fluid intake leads to dehydration as the body is trying to cool down through sweating. This not only affects your performance, but it can also be extremely dangerous to your health and develop further complications. Although dehydration can happen in any activity, it’s more prevalent when exercising in hot and humid conditions.
Water is perfect for rehydration, but if you are engaged in physical activity for longer than one hour, sports drinks that include electrolytes or natural coconut water can be helpful. Electrolytes, tiny charged particles, are essential for maintaining a healthy sodium and potassium balance in our bodies. They help to stimulate thirst and encourage drinking, as well as enhancing the body’s ability to hold water.
For more information on water intake, The British Nutrition Foundation has detailed advice on hydration for daily life.
Finding a sports nutritionist
If you think you could benefit from seeing a sports nutritionist, you can find a qualified professional on Nutritionist Resource. 'Nutritionist' is not a formally monitored profession in the UK, so we recommend checking to see if they hold a membership with a professional body. All our members listed on Nutritionist Resource are verified and will help you work towards achieving your goals, whatever they may be.