Sports Performance and Nutrition


Part III – Nutritional Timings and Food Choices for Athletes
Part I – Energy Requirements  |  Part II – Nutritional Guidelines  |  Part IV – Hydration and Supplements

Once an athlete has a good grasp of the quantity and proportions of energy necessary to optimally fuel their activity, they must implement a strategy to fulfill these requirements.  While there is sufficient evidence to show that eating the correct amount of calories is the most important factor in achieving peak performance (1), eating the best types of calories at the correct timings certainly plays a large role in the optimization of performance.  The daily eating pattern aims to satisfy the energetic toll of exercise, but requires careful augmentation lead up to, during, and shortly after exercise.

As previously discussed, on a daily basis, and according to their specific level of activity, an athlete should feed him/herself the correct number of total calories to achieve an energy neutral state, in roughly the following proportions: 55-70% carbohydrate, 20-25% fat, and 10-15% protein.  First and foremost, athletes should spread these calories out evenly, in small frequent feedings throughout the day.  One study showed that people who spread their calories evenly experience dramatic performance improvements over those who consume the exact same number of total calories, only in larger and less frequent meals (2).  Noted improvements include higher power and endurance, a rise in lean body mass, and a drop in body fat (3).

There is still little consensus on what constitutes the ‘ideal’ dietary intake of foodstuffs.  Asking ten different experts will most certainly yield ten different opinions.  However, since athletics take a very high toll on the body, fuelling with the healthiest possible nutrients should be a major priority.  A whole foods anti-inflammatory diet, similar to the ‘Mediterranean Diet,’ has been shown to provide a solid nutritional foundation (4), while protecting against short-term injury and long-term development of chronic disease (5).  Inflammatory muscle soreness and joint pain universally affects athletes (6), so feeding the body in a way that reduces the inflammatory response can only be of benefit.  Vast literature exists on implementing an anti-inflammatory diet.  In general it avoids processed foods, red meat, potatoes and dairy, and promotes brightly coloured fruits and vegetables, lean meats and fish, whole grains, olive and coconut oil, nuts, seeds, legumes, and culinary spices (4).

Athletes tend to focus more intently on their nutrition immediately leading up to physical activity, and are less vigilant in their day-to-day eating behaviour.  This can prove costly, since the nutritional stores that power activity operates most efficiently when filled between physical activity sessions, not immediately before or during (7).  Many athletes will participate in a purposeful ‘carbohydrate loading’ program to maximize the availability of glucose to power activity, which has been found to be a performance booster for many people (8).  Nevertheless, nutritional tweaks in the hours leading up to training or competition do have a bearing on performance.  A pre-event meal should be eaten 1.5-2 hours before competition that consists of 200-300 grams of easily digestible carbohydrates, in order to saturate sugar stores.  Foods with high fibre content, fat, and protein all delay gastric emptying, and should be avoided until after competition to avoid cramping, acid reflux, nausea, and vomiting during competition.  Foods that tend to sit well during athletics include pasta, fruit, vegetable juice, and bread.  It should go without saying, but never consume foods on competition day that have not been rigorously tested in training.

During competition is an athlete’s time to reap the benefits of all their hard work. For short duration sports, the pre-event nutritional strategy is sufficient for most athletes to sustain optimal energetic output.  However, in exhaustive exercise, additional fueling of carbohydrate and electrolyte, in the form of gel or sports drinks, may be necessary to sustain athletic output.

After exercise, athletes are depleted of sugar, and require replenishment.  However, due to poor appetite, most athletes delay adequate post-event recovery by 2.5 hours (9), worsening next day soreness.  The ideal post-exercise meal contains both carbohydrates and proteins, and serves to refill exhausted sugar stores and improve muscle recovery (10).  A meal consisting of 1.0 g/kg of carbohydrate and 0.1 g/kg of protein should be sought as soon after exercise as the appetite will tolerate (11).


Read more in this four-part Sports Nutrition series:
Part I – Energy Requirements for Athletes
Part II – Nutritional Guidelines for Athletes
Part III – Food Choices for Athletes
Part IV – Hydration and Supplements for Athletes

1. Chen Y, Wong S, Wong C, Lam C, Huang Y, Siu P. The effect of pre-exercise carbohydrate meal on immune responses to an endurance performance run. British Journal of Nutrition. 2008; 100: p. 1260-1268.

2. Benardot D, Martin D, Thompson W, Roman S. Between meal energy intake effects on the body composition, performance, and total caloric consumption in athletes. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 2005; 37(5): p. 339.

3. Hawley J, Burke L. Meal frequency and physical performance. British Journal of Nutrition. 1997; 77: p. 91S-103S.

4. Serra-Majem L, Roman B, Estruch R. Scientific evidence of interventions using the Mediterranean diet: a systematic review. Nutr Rev. 2006;: p. 27-47.

5. Softi F, Cesari F, Abbate R, Gensini G, Casini A. Adherence to Mediterranean diet and health status: meta-analysis. British Journal of Medicine. 2008;: p. 337-344.

6. Cleary M, Sweeney L, Kendrick Z, Sitler M. Dehydration and symptoms of delay-onset muscles soreness in hyperthermic males. Journal of Athletic Training. 2005; 40(4): p. 288-297.

7. Burke L, Kiens B, Ivy J. Carbohydrates and fat for training and recovery. Journal of Sports Sciences. 2004; 22: p. 15-30.

8. Welsh R, Davis J, Burke J, Williams H. Carbohydrates and physical/mental performance during intermittent exercise to fatigue. Medicine and Science in Sports. 2002; 34: p. 723-731.

9. Niekamp R, Baer J. In season dietary adequacy of trained male cross-country runners. International Journal of Sports Nutrition. 1995; 5: p. 45-55.

10. Gibala M. Dietary protein, amino acid supplements, and recovery from exercise. GSSI Sports Science Exchange. 2002; 15(4): p. 1-4.

11. Zawadzki K, Yaspelkis B, Ivy J. Carbohydrate-protein complex increases the rate of muscle glycogen storage after exercise. Journal of Applied Physiology. 1992; 72(5): p. 1854-1859.