Whether you are a bodybuilder, a professional athlete or simply exercising to improve your health, sports nutrition plays a key role in optimising the beneficial effects of physical activity. Making better decisions with your nutrition and hydration can result in improved performance, recovery and injury prevention.
Nutrition professionals offer a range of services to support your health and sporting goals. This can range from a daily food diary, to a comprehensive food and nutrition plan for training and competitions.
On this page well will explore the importance of sports nutrition and how a sports nutritionist can support your training regime. We will also cover the nutrients and supplements that are frequently included in an athlete’s dietary program.
The importance of sports nutrition
Consuming the right balance of food and drink is important for everyone. Yet those actively participating in sport on a regular basis need to be aware that it can also affect their performance. Athletes, for example, may need more calories than the average person. So if you’re an athlete, or simply someone who’s made the decision to start exercising on a regular basis, you shouldn’t let a good nutrition plan fall down on your list of priorities.
Sports performance and energy
Fats, protein and carbohydrates all provide your body with fuel to maintain energy. Carbohydrates are the primary fuel used by working muscles. Adequate intake is essential for preventing muscle fatigue. While you should monitor your fat intake, you should not 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 formation of cell walls. Protein can be used as a source of energy and is critical for building new muscle tissue. If you are taking part in resistance training, your body will require additional protein.
To maintain a healthy weight, eating well is crucial. If you are looking to lose weight for sport, strictly reducing your protein, fat or calorie intake 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.
It’s crucial to stay hydrated when you are taking part in sports. Inadequate fluid intake leads to dehydration. This affects your performance, and can be dangerous for your health too. 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 can be helpful.
After the event
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.
How a sports nutrition professional can help
The aim of a sports nutritionist or dietitian is to create a nutrition plan for an individual’s training needs. The plan will incorporate both food and hydration. It doesn’t matter if you're casually exercising or training for a professional event, sports nutrition is integral to performance. These strategies 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 be required to assess not just an individual's training and diet but also their lifestyle, day to day habits, supplements and if you are taking any medication. A nutrition professional will also be able to analyse and support you with your long and short-term goals.
If you are looking to improve your diet to complement your training plan, use our advanced search tool to find a sports nutrition professional in your area that can help.
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. Simple sugars are naturally found in milk products, fruit and vegetables. They can also be added to foods using 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 in which they occur naturally as these foods also contain fibre and important nutrients.
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.
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, dairy and chips. 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 foods include meat, fish, eggs, pulses, nuts, seeds and soya products.
Supplements are used by athletes, bodybuilders and sports men and women to boost their strength, performance and recovery. They are available in numerous different forms ranging from multivitamins and minerals through to protein, creatine and various other ‘ergogenic’ aids.
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 which 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 sports men 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 is made up of all of the essential amino acids which are 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.
Staying well hydrated during exercise and training is extremely important. Even a small amount of dehydration could be detrimental to performance levels. Drinking water is a good way of keeping yourself hydrated during exercise periods. Yet some individuals also opt for energy drinks, particularly those who undertake endurance events such as long distance running.
Many energy drinks contain electrolytes such as sodium, which help to stimulate thirst and encourage drinking, as well as enhancing the body’s ability to hold water. In addition, the carbohydrates contained in many energy drinks can provide individuals with extra energy which may be needed in the latter stages of training.
Content reviewed by dietitian, Danielle Davies. All content displayed on Nutritionist Resource is provided for general information purposes only, and should not be treated as a substitute for advice given by your GP or any other healthcare professional.
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