Why is Nutrition Important for Enhancing Athlete Performance?

I often say that nutrition is just 1% of an athlete’s performance yet it has a significant impact on the other 99% including training adaptation, sleep, immune function, sleep and so much more. An athlete’s food choices provide the fuel for their training as well as competition, but also plays a key role in a number of other areas. 

Nutrition plays an important role for youth athletes in so many ways:

Maintain good health

Any athlete is a person first, an athlete second and a well-balanced diet can help to ensure this. When it comes to food choice, there is no ‘good’ and ‘bad food, a combination of all the food groups including carbohydrates, proteins, fats as well as fruit and vegetables will help athletes maintain overall health and wellbeing.

Well-balanced diet

For example, ensuring that an athlete is consuming a mixture of different fruit and vegetables each day will provide the vitamins and minerals required to maintain a strong immune system.

Optimise performance

Most athletes compete to win. Their ability to do this is based on having enough fuel available to perform at their best during both competition and training. This is where ensuring athletes are consuming sufficient amounts of carbohydrates in the build-up to the event will help them perform at their best.

A majority of athletes think that fueling for a competition is all about the meal before but actually starts the day or days before an event.

A runner completing a marathon should start to fuel for their event around 3 days before aiming to consume 10g carbohydrate per kg body mass each day. For a 70kg runner, this would be 700g a day, this is roughly the equivalent to eating 12 large jacket potatoes a day.

For a team sport player (rugby player, footballer, netball athlete) their fueling really starts the day before a competition aiming for at least 6 grams of carbohydrate per kg body mass. For a 100kg rugby player, this is the equivalent to eating around 2kg pasta. 

Sport Science Insider - Optimise Performance

Enhance training adaptation

Choosing suitable foods and drinks after a training session or competition can significantly enhance the training adaptation from their training. Nutrition can also significantly improve an athlete’s ability to recover more effectively ready for the next competition or training session.

Recent research has shown that by following the 4 R’s of recovery can significantly enhance recovery (Kreider et al, 2020). The 4 R’s of recovery include:

The 4 R’s of Recovery

Rehydrate: Athletes should aim to rehydrate by consuming at least 150% of weight lost during the event. For every 1 kg weight lost, consume 1.5 litres.

Refuel: Athletes should consume carbohydrate to help replace fuel lost during exercise. 

Repair: Athletes should consume protein to support muscle growth and repair after exercise

Rest: Athletes should focus on getting between 7- 9 hours of quality sleep per night to support both physical and psychological recovery.

The 4 R's of Recovery for athletes - rehydrate, refuel, repair and rest

Maximise growth and development

For youth athletes, the demands of training, school, life outside of sport plus the growth and development that youth athletes go through, significantly increase energy requirements to cope with the demands placed on the body. The food that athletes put into their body will have a significant impact in supporting all of this. 

Reduce the risk of injury and illness

Training demands combined with life outside of sport significantly increase stress placed on the body leading to an increased risk of injury and illness. While there is no food or drink that can ‘boost’ immunity, athletes should ensure that they are eating a well-balanced diet can help to maintain a strong immune system. Furthermore, nutrition can also help with managing injuries too.

Take home messages

So how can athletes use nutrition to support their performance, training and health goals?

  1. Food first but not food only: Athletes often resort to supplements as a ‘quick fix’. There are certain situations where supplements may support performance and training goals but they will provide athletes with ‘minimal gains’ compared to ensuring they are eating a well-balanced diet. 
  2. Focus on your nutrition strategy: There is lots of evidence around how to fuel for competition performance effectively but what that looks like in terms of food choice will be different for every athlete. Focus on your nutrition strategy rather than those around you.
  3. Don’t try anything new on competition day!!!: One of the most common detrimental actions that a lot of athletes do is to try something new on race day. Consuming foods or drinks that you have not trained with can significantly increase the risk of an athlete suffering ‘athletes gut’ where they feel sick or have to stop to go to the toilet resulting in poor performance or the athlete not finishing an event. 
  4. Don’t forget about the recovery: An effective nutrition strategy is one of the most effective ways to enhance training adaptation and improve recovery. This allows the athlete to reduce soreness and fatigue and potentially improve performance at their next event or competition.

About James

James is a Sport and Exercise Nutritionist. He has an MSc in Sport Nutrition from Loughborough University and a BSc in Sport Science from Brunel University. He is listed on the Sport and Exercise Nutrition register (SENr) too.

James works with a range of athletes across a range of ages including rugby, football, golf as well as lots of runners too. You can find out more about James and what he does via his website www.jflemingnutrition.co.uk and you can follow him on Instagram and Facebook: @JamesFlemingNutrition or get in touch: [email protected] .

James Fleming Performance Nutrition

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James Fleming, MSc, SENr
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