Sport nutrition basics — how to win at any sport

When talented, well-trained and enthusiastic athletes meet in competition, attention to detail can make all the difference between defeat and victory. What you eat and drink affects how well you train and whether you can compete at your best. Registered dietitian and sports nutritionist Linia Patel shares some tips.

Good food choices support intensive training while limiting risk of injury and illness. Photo: Naveed Osman Good food choices support intensive training while limiting risk of injury and illness. Naveed Osman

When talented, well-trained and enthusiastic athletes meet in competition, attention to detail can make all the difference between defeat and victory. What you eat and drink affects how well you train and whether you can compete at your best. If you want to be able to train harder, race faster, recover quicker, and win at your sport, you need to get your food and fluid intake right.

Five top sports nutrition tips

  1. Practice makes progress. Get into good nutrition habits during your training phase. Find out what foods and drinks work best for you before, during and after exercise.
  2. Fuel up with carbohydrates. They provide your muscles and brain with the best fuel to meet the demands of training and competition.
  3. Get a good start. Have a pre-exercise meal that is high in carbohydrates, moderate in protein, and low in fat. Be sure to include some fluid as well.
  4. Keep topped up. You will get more out your body by keeping your energy and fluid intake up during the competition.
  5. Replenish. Put back what you use. Start refuelling with carbohydrate and protein foods as soon as possible after competing.

Practice makes progress

Good food choices support your intensive training while limiting your risk of injury and illness. In general, a diet that provides enough energy from a wide range of healthy foods will meet your carbohydrate, protein and fat requirements for training and competition. However, one-size doesn't fit all, so know which foods and drinks work well for you before, during, and after training or competition. Avoid letting food-related issues stress you out – tournament day is not the day to try something new!

Fuel up with carbohydrates

No matter what your sport, carbohydrates are vital for optimal performance. Your muscles and brain rely on them as their main source of fuel. The amount you need will depend on your training programme and the type and duration of exercise. In general, the more intense the training programme, the more carbohydrates you need to eat. Carbohydrates are stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen. The body's stores of glycogen are limited and need to be topped up each day.

In the days that lead up to your tournament, it is particularly important that you fuel up with carbohydrates. Eat meals and snacks that are high in complex carbohydrates, such as basmati rice, noodles, wholegrain bread and crackers, breakfast cereals, fruit and vegetables.

Get a good start

Eat meals and snacks that are high in complex carbohydrates, including fruit and vegetables. Photo: Naveed Osman Eat meals and snacks that are high in complex carbohydrates, including fruit and vegetables. Naveed Osman

Be well prepared by eating a high-carb diet for a few days in advance of your event. Some people feel nervous and can't face a large meal on the day of the tournament, so preparation beforehand is key. A pre-exercise meal is a way of topping up stores on the day and preventing hunger.

Research has shown that eating before exercise improves how well you perform when compared to exercising without any food. Your pre-exercise meal should be high in carbohydrates, low in fat, and moderate in protein. This will ensure your meal is easy to digest and keeps your glycogen levels topped up. Stick to foods that you are familiar with.

Food eaten before exercise is only useful once it has been digested and absorbed. This means that you need to time your food intake so that the fuel you eat is available to you when you need it. Not only is what you eat important, but the size and timing of the meal also matter.

In general foods that are higher in fat, protein and fibre will take longer to digest. Smaller quantities of food will take less time to digest than larger quantities of food. A guide is to have a meal about 3 – 4 hours before exercise and a lighter snack about 1 – 2 hours before. Remember – you will need to test out which foods, what amount and what timing will suit you best.

The following foods are suitable to eat 3 – 4 hours before exercise:

  • Breakfast cereal such as porridge and milk;
  • Bread rolls such as pitas, wraps or bagels with lean meat or tuna filling;
  • Couscous salad with tuna or feta cheese;
  • Chicken and vegetable risotto;
  • Chicken or tofu vegetable stir fry with noodles;
  • Pasta with a tomato based sauce.

The following snacks are suitable to eat 1-2 hours before exercise:

  • Low fat milk shake or fruit smoothie;
  • Fruit salad with fruit flavoured low fat yogurt;
  • Sports or cereal bar (check labels for carbohydrate and protein content);
  • Breakfast cereal with milk (if practical);
  • Fruit (e.g. a banana).

Good breakfast choices include:

  • Bowl of porridge with low fat milk;
  • Bowl of cereal with low fat milk;
  • Toast with jam;
  • Yogurt and fruit.

Remember to include a drink with your meal. This could be water, juice or a sports drink. Being hydrated plays a big role in getting the most out your body.

Tip: Smaller meals nearer the time of the event will prevent stomach upsets.

Keep topped up

To achieve your best, keep topping up on carbohydrates and fluids during the competition, particularly for exercise that lasts longer than 90 minutes or for high-intensity exercise. This can be a challenge as there may be limited access to food or fluid, and you may have a very limited time between events, so think ahead and be prepared.

Keep topped up with foods and drinks that are high in carbohydrates and easy to digest. Good examples are:

  • Sports drinks;
  • Fruit smoothies (try the Apple Of My Eye or Banana Blush smoothies);
  • Fruit (e.g. ripe bananas);
  • Cereal or sports bars;
  • Breakfast cereal with low fat milk or milk alternatives;
  • Jam sandwiches.

Your choice of drink should depend on the intensity and duration of exercise, and your training goals:

  • Choose water for low to moderate intensity exercise that lasts less than an hour (i.e. when sweat losses are low);
  • Isotonic sports drinks are suited to moderate to hard sessions that last longer than an hour (i.e. when sweat losses are greater).

Replenish

Replenish your energy with a fruit smoothie after exercising. Photo: Naveed Osman Replenish your energy with a fruit smoothie after exercising. Naveed Osman

Congratulations! You've come out of the first competition day victorious and are into the next round. Your priority should be to replenish the energy stores you have used (glycogen) and the fluid and electrolytes you have lost (sweat).

Think of recovery after exercise as part of the preparation for the next session, particularly if you have a limited time (6 – 24 hours) to recover. Maximise your recovery by refuelling as soon as possible after exercise. Research shows that the optimal window period for replenishing what you have lost is within 30 minutes after exercise.

Opt for high carbohydrate, moderate protein, and low fat foods. Be sure to have something to drink as well. Good examples of a recovery snack are:

  • Low fat milk, flavoured milk or fruit smoothie;
  • Sandwich including a cheese, meat or chicken filling;
  • Fruit salad with low fat fruit-flavoured yogurt;
  • Commercial recovery shakes and bars.

Take home message

Good food choices can help you get the most out your body. Find out which foods and drinks work best for you and when you prefer to consume them. Once the big day arrives, get a good start by having a carbohydrate-rich pre-exercise meal that is easy to digest. During the competition, keep your carbohydrates and fluids topped up. When you are done – celebrate, and be sure to replenish what your body has lost.


Linia Patel is a United Kingdom-based registered dietitian and sports nutritionist.