Advice To Consider For Healthy Sports Nutrition

Why Is Sports Nutrition Essential?

Whether you are a body builder, 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. Consuming the right balance of food and drink is important for everyone. If you are actively participating in sports then it is important to be aware on a regular basis that your sports nutrition is essential and affects your overall performance. If you are an athlete, or simply someone who has made the decision to start exercising on a regular basis, you should add a good nutrition plan as your list of priorities. At the most basic level, nutrition is important for athletes because it provides a source of energy required to perform the activity. The food we eat impacts on our strength, training, performance and recovery. 

How Does Sports Nutrition Impact Performance?

Not only is the type of food important for sports nutrition but the times we eat throughout the day also has an impact on our performance levels and our bodies ability to recover after exercising. However when exercising, your body will use up more energy. Unless you are trying to lose weight you may find that you need to eat more food to give your body the extra energy it needs.We should all aim to eat a healthy, varied diet based on the principles of the Eatwell Guide, which matches our energy needs. This advice still applies when taking part in regular physical activity, such as going to the gym, swimming, running, and cycling or team sports. Following healthy eating guidelines alone can support an active lifestyle. 

Eating well for physical activity and sport can have many benefits including:

• Allowing you to perform well in your chosen sport or activity;

• Reducing the risk of injury and illness;

• Ensuring the best recovery after exercise or a training programme.

A healthy diet for sport and exercise should contain plenty of starchy foods, plenty of fruit and vegetables, some protein foods and some dairy foods. It is also important to stay hydrated.

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Sports Preparation Tips

Meals eaten before and after exercise are the most important in sports nutrition but you should really be careful with everything that you put into your body. As a general rule of thumb athletes should eat about two hours before exercising and this meal should be high in carbohydrates, low in fat and low to moderate in protein.

Carbohydrates are the main source of energy that powers your exercise regime and protein is required to aid muscle growth and repair. After exercising you need to replace the carbohydrates you have lost and you need to ensure proper muscle recovery by including protein in your post training meal. The proportions of protein and carbohydrates that you require will vary depending on both the intensity and type of sport so to get your individual balance right you should contact a qualified dietitian for professional help with your sports nutrition.

Before Exercise

• Ideally, your pre-exercise meal should be low in fat and contain a portion of starchy foods, such as porridge, pasta or potatoes, and should be around 2-3 hours before exercising. For example, if you have an exercise class at 5pm, have your pre-exercise meal at around 2pm.

• However, if you leave eating before exercise any longer or don’t eat anything at all, you may lack energy and risk feeling light headed during exercise.

• You could eat a small snack between your pre-exercise meal and exercise to top up energy levels. If you do, it is best to wait 30-60 minutes before taking part in any vigorous sports or exercise.

• Making sure you are well hydrated before you start an exercise session is important, so try to drink regularly throughout the day and with your pre-exercise meal.

During Exercise

• Consuming some carbohydrates during exercise can enhance performance but this generally only applies to individuals participating in endurance or high intensity sports that last over 60 minutes, as this is when carbohydrate stores may substantially decrease (e.g. marathon/long distance running, football games or competitive swimming events).

• It is important to consume plenty of fluids during exercise, especially if you are sweating heavily (also to replace electrolytes lost from sweating) and/or the environmental temperature is high.

• Try to sip small amounts of fluids whenever possible during exercise to stay hydrated. Don’t wait until you feel thirsty, as this is a sign that you are already partly dehydrated. Keep sipping water before and during the activity, if possible, to keep hydration levels topped up.

After Exercise

Food and fluid intake is also important for optimum recovery after exercise.

• After a long run or exercise class, your carbohydrate stores will be lower, so it is important to replenish them, especially if you are doing more exercise later on that day or the following day.

• The post-exercise meal should be based on starchy foods (preferably wholegrain) and include some high quality, lean protein. Consuming this as soon as possible after exercise will be most beneficial for recovery, restoring glycogen levels and muscle protein.

• If you are unable to have a meal soon after exercise, try to have a small snack that contains carbohydrate and protein, such as a banana and a glass of low fat milk, within the first 30-60 minutes following exercise to begin the recovery process, especially if you have exercise within the next eight hours.

• Don’t forget your meals should always be balanced so make sure you include fruit and vegetables to provide other important nutrients.

• To replace the fluid lost from sweating, it is vital to restore hydration levels as part of recovery, so remember to drink plenty of fluids after exercising.  

Tips For Planning Your Meals

• Preparation - your pre-exercise meal, whether it is breakfast or lunch, should be around 2-3 hours before and include a good amount of starchy foods to ensure you have enough fuel in the tank. A small snack 30-60 minutes before exercise can help to top up energy levels.

• Recovery – base your post-exercise meal on starchy foods and include some high quality, lean protein to help restore glycogen levels and muscle protein.

• Both meals should also include some fruit and vegetables.

• Good snacks for immediately after exercise should contain some protein, such as unsalted nuts or a glass of milk.

• Try to opt for wholegrain carbohydrates and high quality protein foods, as well as nutrient-rich snacks.

Healthier Meal Choices

Porridge with low fat milk and fruit Baked potato (skin on) with tuna, and salad (use low fat mayonnaise) Wholemeal pasta with grilled chicken and vegetables in a tomato based sauce Fruit Vegetables sticks with houmous
Muesli (no added sugar) or wholegrain cereal, with low fat milk and fresh or dried fruit Eggs (boiled, poached, scrambled, omelette) on wholemeal toast with vegetables Chilli con carne – lean mince, kidney beans, chopped tomatoes and brown rice Low fat fruit yogurt Malt loaf Reduced salt/sugar baked beans on wholemeal toast
Wholegrain or granary toast with peanut or other nut butter and 100% fruit juice (150ml) Chicken and salad sandwich, using wholemeal bread or wrap Salmon with boiled new potatoes (skins on) and vegetables Guacamole, ½ wholemeal pitta Rye crispbread with low fat cheese and grapes
2 thick slices of wholemeal toast with scrambled egg, a grilled tomato Lentil and vegetable soup with whole wheat roll Stir fry – whole wheat noodles, lean meat (chicken, turkey or beef), tofu or prawns and vegetables. Unsalted nuts or seeds Low fat milk
Low fat greek or plain yogurt with banana, berries, seeds and cereal (e.g. oats) Couscous or quinoa salad with chicken, roasted vegetables and kale Fish pie (potato topping) with green vegetables Fruit smoothie (made with low fat milk and banana) Oatcakes with peanut butter


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What Are The Best Food Sources And Nutrients For Sports?


The main role of carbohydrates is to provide energy.

When they are digested, carbohydrates are broken down into glucose to provide readily available energy for the body to use quickly and effectively. Carbohydrates are the most important form of fuel for exercise and sports activities. The body can store carbohydrates in the muscles and liver as glycogen, and use these stores as a source of fuel for the brain and muscles during physical activity. These glycogen stores are limited, so it is important to be fully fuelled at the start of any exercise. 

By not having adequate carbohydrate in your diet for exercise, you may feel tired and lacking in energy and not be able to perform at your best. So, regular intake of carbohydrate-rich foods is important to keep stores topped up. The correct food choices can help ensure the body has enough energy for activity, as well as help aid recovery. Starchy foods are an important source of carbohydrates in our diet. Wholegrain varieties also provide fibre, which is important for digestive health, and a range of vitamins and minerals including B vitamins, iron, calcium and folate. Examples include bread, breakfast cereals, porridge oats, pasta, noodles, rice, couscous, potatoes with skins and other starchy vegetables such as sweetcorn; beans and pulses etc. 

Carbohydrate Foods

Good Food SourcesServing SizeCarbohydrate Content (g) per serving size
Pasta (Boiled) Medium (230g) 76
Couscous Average (150g) 56
Rice, Wholegrain (Boiled) Medium (180g) 53
Jacket Potato With Skin (Baked) Large (220g) 50
Wholemeal Bread 2 Thick Slices (88g) 37
Sweet Potato (Boiled) 2 Medium (130g) 27
Banana 1 Large (120g) 24
Porridge With Low Fat Milk Medium (160g) 19
Crumpet (Toasted) 1 Crumpet (40g) 18
Oatcakes 2 Oatcakes (26g) 16
Sweetcorn Average (80g) 11


Carbohydrate Estimated Needs For Duration Of Exercise

Duration of sport or exercise sessionsRecommended Intake (per kg body weight per day)
1-2 hours per day 6-8g
2+ hours per day 8-10g
3-5 hours per week 4-5g
5-7 hours per week 5-6g


Protein is also important for health and physical activity. The main role of protein in the body is for growth, repair and maintenance of body cells and tissues, such as muscle. Different foods contain different amounts and different combinations of amino acids (the building blocks of proteins). Essential amino acids are those that the body cannot make itself and so are needed from the diet.  This includes animal sources such as meat, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, yoghurt and plant sources such as soya, tofu, quinoa, quorn etc. 


Protein Foods

Good Food SourcesServing SizeCarbohydrate Content (g) per serving size
Grilled Chicken Breast Medium (130g) 42
Grilled Salmon Fillet Large (170g) 42
Grilled Rump Steak 115g (5oz) 36
Tuna Canned In Brine Small Can (100g) 25
Baked Beans 1 Can (415g) 22
Almonds 100g 21
Grilled Haddock Medium (85g) 20
Eggs 2 Average Sized Eggs (100g) 13
Lentil Soup 1 Can (400g) 12
Half Fat Cheddar Cheese 4tbsp Grated (40g) 11
Low Fat Milk 300ml 10
Greek Style Plain Yoghurt Small Pot (120g) 7
Low Fat Fruit Yoghurt Small Pot (120g) 7


Fat is an essential nutrient for the body, but it is also a rich source of energy. Consuming too much fat can lead to excess energy intake which can lead to weight gain over time. It is important to follow current healthy eating guidelines, ensuring fat intakes are no more than 35% of total energy intake from food, with saturated fat intakes not exceeding 11% of total energy intake from food. Fats in foods typically contain a mixture of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids, but choosing foods which contain higher amounts of unsaturated fat, and less saturated fat, is preferable. Most of us eat too much saturated fat so to cut back on intakes, limit foods such as pastries, cakes, puddings, chocolate, biscuits, hard cheeses including cheddar, processed meat such as sausages, burgers and fatty cuts of meat, fried foods etc. 


Cut Down On Fat Foods

Cut Down On Fats Make Better Dietary ChoicesSwap For...
Butter, Lard, Ghee, Palm Oil and Coconut Oil Smaller amounts of oil containing unsaturated fats including RapeSeed, Sunflower, olive, and healthy spreads. When using oils try to measure out in a teaspoon or use a spray version to control your use
Processed and Fatty Cuts Of Meat Lean Meats. Cut any visible fat off, choose skinless chicken or turkey or remove the skin.
Whole Milk, Condensed Milk or Full Fat Milk Semi Skimmed Milk, Skimmed or 1% Fat Milk. Low Fat Creams.
Cheeses High In Fat Such As Cheddar Cottage Cheese, Ricotta, Extra Light Soft Cheese. Try to have smaller portions of cheese. Grate cheese to use in salads, sandwiches and fillings, so that it is less used.
Salad Dressings Making your own from scratch try mixing lemon juice/vinegar, herbs and spices, with a small amount of olive oil, or even low fat natural yoghurt.
Cooking, Frying, Deep Frying, Roasting Try boiling, poaching, steaming, baking or grilling and add a minimal amount of fat.
Shopping Take time when food shopping and read food labels carefully to help you choose foods that are lower in saturates.

Stay Hydrated

In most cases, for exercise and activities up to one hour, water is sufficient for hydration. For exercise that is longer and more intense, other types of drinks may be considered.

Sports drinks: Isotonic sports drinks contain carbohydrates in the form of glucose, as well as electrolytes such as sodium. The electrolyte sodium will replace any lost from sweating and enhance rehydration, and glucose will replenish carbohydrate stores. Sports drinks have been shown to help endurance performance for active individuals performing endurance exercise (e.g. participating in a marathon). However, remember that sports drinks are similar to other soft drinks that contain sugars. This means that they can be high in calories and contribute to tooth decay, so they are only suitable if taking part in high-level endurance sports or if sweat loss is high.

Sports drinks can be expensive compared to other drinks; however it is easy to make them yourself! To make your own isotonic sports drink, mix: 200ml fruit squash, 800ml water and a pinch of salt. Smoothies are also good to drink natural fruits healthy for your wellbeing and excellent for sports activities. 

Milk: Skimmed or semi-skimmed milk has been shown as an excellent post-exercise recovery drink. It naturally contains vitamins and minerals that can replace those lost via sweating and enhance rehydration (sodium), as well as assisting in muscle function and bone health (potassium and calcium). It also naturally contains high quality protein and some carbohydrates, and is relatively cheap to buy.

Energy drinks: Many people think sports drinks and energy drinks are the same, but it is important to note that they are very different. Energy drinks typically contain high levels of caffeine and sugars. They are not designed to replace the electrolytes lost in sweat and may contain other ingredients with stimulant properties. If consumed in excess, energy drinks can lead to severe health problems such as heart problems (cardiac rhythmic disturbances) and caffeine intoxication. As some are high in sugars, they can increase the risk of tooth decay especially in those with poor dental hygiene and could encourage high calorie intakes, which may cause weight gain. Energy drinks should not be consumed in place of sports drinks during exercise.