Our diets can have a huge impact on sporting performance, whether an elite footballer or amateur triathlete. Many athletes however, fail to get even the basics of nutrition right. As a result, they suffer costly consequences such as fatigue, poor recovery, impaired immunity & ill-health and gastrointestinal symptoms to name a few. It’s not just about your post-game shake or the glucose gels you gulp down during a race. It is important to look at the bigger picture, and by this, I mean your entire diet.
What is a balanced diet?
Depending on how much focus we place on nutrition, we can start improving our health, mood, energy levels and performance just by simply getting basics right and consuming a well-balanced healthy diet. I’m talking a diet rich in fruit & vegetables, healthy protein sources such as fish, eggs, pulses and lean meat, dairy and alternatives, plenty of starchy carbohydrates (our primary fuel) and finally oils and spreads from unsaturated sources to provide essential fatty acids.
In sports nutrition, a healthy balanced should form the foundations of any nutrition strategy and this is essential for simply maintaining good health. Beyond this is where general advice lacks precision. Without a strong nutritional background, it can be difficult to understand and cater for just how specific your needs actually are.
Whilst general healthy-eating advice provides useful, evidence-based recommendations for the general public, as an athlete you will require greater precision in order to appropriately fuel and replenish your body efficiently. In response to exercise and increased energy expenditure, you subsequently increase the volume of nutrients that your body uses. So how do we know how much more?
Precision and Performance
This all-important question is dependent on variable parameters such as body shape & size, sport, intensity, duration etc. and this results in significant differences between each athletes individual requirements. Linking this then to the diet and how/when these nutrients should be consumed, we then need consider various other factors that may need to be accounted for such as:
• What volume of nutrients are needed to meet individual requirements?
• Dietary changes to achieve body compositional changes (i.e. adapting fat & muscle mass)
• Goals – e.g. low-carbohydrate training strategies
• Nutrition timing – when and what to eat?
• Fitting the diet around busy work & training schedules
• Meal/snack planning, shopping & preparation
• Food preferences & allergies/intolerances
Once nutritional requirements have been calculated and factors accounted for such as lifestyle, food preferences, training schedule etc., it becomes evident just how much we can tailor nutritional strategies to optimise the impact they have on our performance and overall goals.
What does a tailored nutritional programme look like?
The table below demonstrates just how different our nutritional needs are, based on the intensity and duration of exercise. The table requirements columns shows how these have been calculated using evidence-based guidelines, whilst the columns on the right shows how these were practically managed for the individual by designing 3 different meal plans that accommodated his lifestyle, training and various other factors such as those previously discussed.
Consider these requirements and how difficult it may be to achieve these volumes around a full-time job and family commitments for example– tricky right? Also consider that your requirements may need to account for deficits incurred on the previous day or even anticipate an upcoming event that requires extra provisions in order to optimise your energy stores for example.
So what does that mean for me?
As previously mentioned, first and foremost it’s important for us all to follow a healthy well-balanced diet in order to achieve good health. For many people, this may be as far as they want to go in terms of moderating their diet and that’s absolutely fine. However, tailored and periodised nutrition plans are a vital element for those of us who really want to maximise our training gains and optimise performance whilst achieving new goals.
In summary; nutrition is a key player in helping you to improve performance. You may not need to dedicate as much time as you do for your training, but don’t neglect it completely because if you can’t get your nutrition right, your training and performance will suffer!
The Eatwell Guide. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/the-eatwell-guide/
Thomas, D., Erdman, K., & Burke, L. (2016). Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Journal Of The Academy Of Nutrition And Dietetics, 116(3), 501-528.
Author: Robbie Green