Eating for Sport!

Putting as much effort and care into eating the right kind of diet is just as important as your training. The right diet will make all that hard training more effective and guarantee to keep up your energy levels for longer during an event or training session. The real challenge in sports nutrition is to eat well enough to be able to train hard, recover and perform well in events. Athletes no longer save their energy for the big day, by eating correctly they can train hard, become fitter and perform even better.

Basic principles

The basic principles of healthy eating apply to all athletes. Eating a healthy balanced diet will provide you with all the nutrients you need to take part in your chosen sport or activity. If you take your sport seriously, you need to get to know which foods are good sources of the nutrients you need and when to eat them.

The golden rules are:

  1. Be the right weight for your height, this means eat enough food for your level of activity. If you eat too little then you won’t be able to keep up your exercise levels
  2. Eat enough carbohydrate to keep you going during exercise
  3. Eat the right foods at the right time – the timings of meals are just as important as what you eat
  4. Drink plenty of fluids to always be well hydrated
  5. Eat a wide variety of foods to ensure you get good amounts of all the nutrients your body needs – plenty of wholegrain breads and cereals, fruit and vegetables and moderate amounts of milk, yoghurt and cheese, lean meat, fish, poultry, eggs, nuts and pulses

Carbohydrate – the best source of energy

Carbohydrate is the most important fuel for energy, so you should eat lots of foods that are rich in starchy carbohydrates.

Most importantly you need carbohydrate because this will provide glycogen (the form in which carbohydrate is stored in the body), and this is the preferred fuel for the working muscles. There are a number of different fuels that muscles can use but glycogen is the most important fuel in sport as it is stored in the muscles and can be used immediately.
The more you exercise, the more carbohydrate you need. The actual amount you need depends upon the type of exercise you’re doing, the intensity, duration and frequency of the exercise, and your fitness level.
If you get tired during your sport or activity, this might be because your glycogen stores are running low.

Glycogen is stored in limited amounts but the stronger your muscles, the greater their capacity to store glycogen, and the more glycogen they hold, the longer you can keep going. This is why athletes involved in sports like running and cycling spend time in the gym building up their muscles.

Many different foods contain carbohydrate. 
The richest sources of carbohydrate are:
Bread (including pizza base)
Breakfast cereals
Pasta, noodles
Peas, beans and lentils
Sweetcorn and root vegetables

At least 60% of the energy (calories) in an athlete’s diet should be from carbohydrate. Most people eat little more than 40% (see the pie charts). For example, a typical daily energy intake for an athlete might be 3,000 calories; 60% of this is 1,800 calories, which equates to 480 grams of carbohydrate. This is a lot! But rather than worrying about grams and numbers, as a general rule, this means that at main meals, half your plate should be taken up by one or more of the above foods.

Other good sources of carbohydrate include fruit (bananas are a great source), juices, low fat cakes (such as scones, teacakes, fruit cake), confectionery and sugary products (such as jelly babies, marshmallows, syrups and honey), sweetened dairy products (such as smoothies, milkshakes, sweetened yoghurts and low fat ice cream) and sports drinks. These should be used as snacks between meals especially when training hard.

The glycaemic index

The glycaemic index (GI) is a ranking of foods from 0 to 100 according to how quickly each food (when eaten in isolation in the fasting state, i.e. on an empty stomach) will raise blood sugar levels. When it comes to sport, GI can be extremely useful to athletes’ diets. Foods with a low and medium GI release their energy slowly, so they can help sustain energy levels over a longer period of time. For example, a bowl of porridge gives a skier plenty of energy until lunch time. Foods with a high GI give you an instant burst of energy, so they are useful when you need to take on extra energy at half-time or for refuelling after you have finished.

High GI foods

Honey; sugar of all sorts; chocolate; sweet still and fizzy drinks, bananas, watermelons, figs, dried dates and raisins; mashed potatoes, cooked carrots, squashes, parsnips and swedes; white and wholemeal bread; rye-based crispbreads; couscous, rice cakes and wholegrain cereals (including bran flakes); popcorn.

Medium GI foods
Grapes, oranges, fresh dates, mangoes and kiwi fruits; raw carrots, sweetcorn, peas and potatoes (apart from mashed); white and wholegrain pasta; porridge and oatmeal; wholegrain rye bread (including pumpernickel); brown and white rice.

Low GI foods
Apples, pears, peaches, grapefruits, plums, cherries and dried apricots; avocados; green, leafy vegetables and most other vegetables (but see above); lentils and beans; soya products.

It’s all about timing

On the day of your match or competition, your last big meal should be eaten about 3 hours beforehand. This gives the body enough time to digest and absorb all the nutrients (especially the carbohydrate) and of course the meal should contain plenty of carbohydrate foods. But don’t worry, if you can’t eat much, it’s perfectly natural to lose your appetite if you’re feeling a bit nervous. If you have been eating well all week, and have lots of carbohydrate foods the day before, you should be fine. Keep your last meal light and easy to digest and stick to things you know won’t upset your stomach. This is not the time to start experimenting with strong curries!

About 20 minutes before you start, have a last small carbohydrate snack, this will top up your energy levels. Choose a carbohydrate food or drink with a high GI. The isotonic sports drinks are a good choice.
After exercise, your muscles need carbohydrate and protein for them to refuel and recover. As soon as exercise stops muscles can refuel their glycogen stores twice as fast as normal, so it’s important to eat a meal or snack containing plenty of carbohydrate and some easy to digest protein as soon after you’ve finished exercising (this means before you get showered, changed and go home!).

Protein and sport

We need protein for our muscles to grow and repair themselves. Protein is also a source of energy.

Good protein choices include:
Lean meats and poultry
Beans, lentils, pulses and soya (TVP)
Nuts and seeds
Low fat dairy products

The amount of protein athletes need has been a topic of huge debate for many years because people who are very active, especially those who train frequently, generally require more protein than those who don’t.

However, most people in the UK eat more protein than they need, so even top athletes should be getting enough protein to meet their needs. This means there should be no need for you to increase the amount you eat of foods rich in protein and there is no need to buy protein supplements. If you are eating enough to meet your energy demands (i.e. your weight is stable) you will be getting enough protein and will not need extra quantities of protein foods.

Remember, you should be able to get all the protein you need by eating a variety of foods.


To increase the proportion of carbohydrate in your diet, you need to limit your fat intake, although not by too much as some fat in the diet is essential for good health. Concentrate on having the healthy fats in your diet (the unsaturated ones) that come from oily fish, avocados, nuts, nut butters, seeds and oils. Cut down on sources of saturates that come from fatty meat products, hard cheese and full fat dairy products, butter, cream, cakes, biscuits, pies and pastries.

Here are some useful tips to reduce fat in your diet:

Reduce your intake of fried foods, chips and crisps
Use a minimal amount of fat or oil when cooking
Use low fat spreads and low fat dairy products, such as semi-skimmed milk and low fat yoghurts
Eat lean meat and remove all visible fat or skin
Avoid fatty meat products such as pies, pasties, sausages, burgers, pate and salami
Cut down on pastries, cream cakes and biscuits that contain hidden fats
Avoid mayonnaise, salad cream and creamy sauces or choose a low fat version

Sport and supplements

You should be able to get all the nutrients you need from a healthy balanced diet – and remember that taking supplements won’t make up for not eating well.

Extra vitamin and mineral supplements should not be necessary provided you are eating a healthy balanced diet with a good variety of fruits and vegetables.

Supplementation with one or more extra vitamins will not:

X Increase performance
X Offer a competitive edge
X Prevent injuries
X Provide energy
X Build muscles

If you want to take a supplement as an insurance policy:

  1. Buy a general multivitamin and mineral supplement from a pharmacy
  2. Check with the pharmacist
  3. Take the supplement regularly in the dosage recommended – just because some is good doesn’t necessarily mean more is better
  4. Remember megadosing can be harmful to your health.

If you decide to take protein supplements, be careful that you’re not increasing your energy intake so much that you aren’t able to burn it off. If you do this, you’ll put weight on – and it might not be put on as muscle but could actually be stored as fat.

Drinking for sport

It is very important to remain well hydrated during training sessions and on the day of the event. If you get dehydrated it can stop you performing your best, so it’s important to make sure you drink enough. Becoming dehydrated is very easy as the body can lose up to 1-2 litres through sweating, even on colder days. Drink plenty of water before you train and get into the habit of drinking regularly throughout the day and not just waiting until you feel thirsty.

The fluid we have when we’re exercising should be on top of the usual 1.5 litres (6 to 8 glasses) we need every day – more when it is hot.

Try to get used to drinking while you are training and competing, it may feel uncomfortable at first but, once you are used to it, you will be able to take in more water and carbohydrate to improve your performance. Sports drinks are formulated to provide optimum amounts of water and carbohydrate (in the form of glucose), which are absorbed rapidly. Rehydrating with these drinks after a training session or an event is also very important for recovery.

If you can’t afford to buy expensive sports drink, make your own at home, try fruit juice mixed with water, well diluted fruit squashes, or juice drinks will hydrate you and give you some energy. But remember that these drinks, like sports drinks, contain lots of sugar, and could lead to tooth decay if you don’t look after your teeth.

To help keep you hydrated:

  1. Don’t wait until you feel thirsty
  2. Drink lots before you start exercising
  3. Keep some drink to hand so you can reach it whenever you need it while you’re exercising
  4. Drink plenty when you’ve finished

Top tips

  1. Before the event, training should be less intense and carbohydrate intake should increase. Take plenty of carbohydrate at each meal and include lots of high carbohydrate snacks between meals. Try to drink 2-3 litres of fluid per day.
  2. On the day of the event, eat your final meal about 3 hours before the event starts. Keep drinking!
  3. Just before the event you may wish to boost your energy levels with a high energy snack, choose a carbohydrate food with a high GI and is quickly absorbed, try something sugary such as a sports drink or glucose tablets.
  4. After the event you need to start refuelling your glycogen stores by eating more carbohydrate and also drinking plenty of fluids to help recovery.

Pie chart

Meal Ideas


Chose a combination of the following:

Fruit juice
Fresh, stewed or tinned fruit and low fat yoghurt
Muesli or breakfast cereal (with semi-skimmed milk)
Bread, rolls or toast with a little low fat spread, jam, marmalade or honey
Poached egg on thick sliced toast
Warm rolls or muffins with sliced banana
Scotch pancakes with maple syrup

Main Meals and Puddings

Thick vegetable soup with bread roll
Pizza (thick crust), lots of vegetables and a little cheese
Baked potato with cottage cheese, tuna, baked beans or chilli con carne
Wraps, pitas, baguettes and rolls, thin spread of low fat spread and
filled with low fat cheese, ham, chicken, salmon or tuna and plenty of salad
Rice with low fat meat sauce
Risotto made with tuna, lean ham or chicken
Pasta with low fat tomato or meat sauce
Rice pudding, creme caramel, sorbet ice low fat ice cream banana custard or fruit salad

Drink plenty at every meal – water, fruit juice, fruit squash, sports drink

Light Meals and Snacks

Bagel with low fat soft cheese
Toast with jam or honey
Banana sandwich
Scone, muffin, teacake
Apple cake, carrot cake, gingerbread, fruit cake
Breakfast cereal with raisins and semi-skimmed milk
Fruit yoghurt or flavoured milk drink
Muesli or cereal bar
Pancakes and maple syrup with fresh fruit
Dried fruits – apricots, figs, prunes
Banana and grapes

Example day
Breakfast (to be eaten3 hours before training)
Bowl of porridge with semi-skimmed milk
Carton of orange juice
Pre-training snack (20 mins before)
Banana smoothie
Post-training snack
Bagel with low fat cream cheese
Baked potato with tuna and sweetcorn and low fat mayo
Fruit Low fat yoghurt
Pre-event snack (20 mins before)
Isotonic Sport drink
Post-event snack (immediately)
Cereal bar
Evening meal (within 1 hour of finishing)
Chicken and vegetable stir-fry with noodle