Optimising athletic performance with nutrition

Fuelling the body properly prior to, during and after exercise is imperative for enhancing performance. While there is no one size fits all approach to sports nutrition, there are some general guidelines and nutrition strategies that may help take the guesswork out of what, how much and when to be eating around exercise.

Pre-event nutrition

Everyone has different preferences and can tolerate different foods sitting comfortably in the stomach before training. Generally, a pre-exercise meal or snack should be rich in carbohydrates to fill up fuel stores and are easier to digest than foods high in protein and fat. Low-fibre foods are also preferable, particularly for people who suffer from gut issues or are feeling nervous. In terms of timing, most people can tolerate the last main meal 2-4 hours prior to exercise, and pre-event snacks should be consumed about an hour before.

Some examples of good pre-exercise snacks or meals:

– Cereal with chopped fruit and milk

– Crumpets with sliced banana and honey

– Fruit smoothie

– Small bowl of pasta with vegetable sauce

In addition to the pre-event meal or snack, it is important for athletes to ensure that they are fuelling their bodies with good quality carbohydrates for 1-2 days leading up to the event to build up muscle glycogen stores, as it will impact overall performance.

During exercise

Failing to correctly fuel and hydrate the body during exercise (either too much or not enough) can have an impact on fatigue levels, speed, endurance, concentration and decision making, as well as potentially causing an upset stomach or fluid overload.

If exercise lasts for less than 60 minutes, there is typically no need to eat. For longer and more intense sessions, personal preference is an important factor, but food consumed should be high carbohydrate, low fibre and fat sources for quick energy release. Typical examples include bananas, lollies, carbohydrate gels, or simple sweet sandwiches (e.g. jam, honey).

Recovery nutrition

Optimising nutrition post-exercise plays an important role in facilitating training adaptations, supporting immunity, and maintaining future training. Recovery nutrition is particularly important for athletes who train more than once a day or when sessions or events are close together (e.g. secondary session the next morning).

It is important to consume carbohydrates after exercise to replenish depleted glycogen stores, and failing to replenish fuel stores will cause fatigue and a reduced capacity to perform in subsequent sessions. The quantity of carbohydrates is dependent on the level of glycogen depletion and other individual factors; guidelines suggest consuming 1.0-1.2g per kg of body weight 1-4 hours post event.

Integrating protein-rich foods are important for repair, growth and muscle adaptation following exercise. Guidelines suggest integrating 15-30g of protein into the post-event meal, in addition to including a protein source in meals throughout the following days. The nutritional quality of food is also important post exercise as consuming a wide range of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants will maintain immunity and fight off the free radical damage that accompanies exercise of a high intensity.

Don’t forget about fluid

Fluids needs are highly variable from person to person and depends on body size, fitness level, temperature, exercise intensity and duration. Both dehydration as well as over-hydration will reduce physical and mental performance.

Prior to exercise, fluids should be consumed slowly for several hours leading up to commencing to allow the body to use it effectively and avoid stomach discomfort. During exercise, the type and quantity of fluid consumed greatly depends on individual factors. Sports drinks can be a good option during high intensity activity as they provide a source of fluid, fuel and electrolytes. Electrolyte replacement drinks are useful when refuelling is not a priority but sweat rates are high and rehydration alone is required. Following exercise, replacing lost fluid is important to avoid dehydration. It is recommended that a volume of 125-150% of the fluid lost is consumed over 2-4 hours after finishing. One way to determine how much fluid has been lost during exercise is to weigh yourself before and after. For example, 1kg lost during exercise = 1 litre. Therefore, 1.25-1.5L is required.