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NUTRITION FOR ATHLETES All athletes want to improve their performance and many serious athletes spend hours each week in coaching and training sessions, yet the extra benefits to be gained from a good diet are often overlooked.
Our bodies are rather like machines,if they are not well maintained their performance will be less efficient.
To improve performance the body must be in peak condition,and of the many factors which ensure this "peak condition",good nutrition is one of the most important.
Good nutrition provides all those nutrients necessary for growth and repair (or maintenance) of the body and also meets all the bodys energy demands
Eating for sport is not new,a lot of athletes are conscious about their eating and drinking habits.They know it will have an impact on their training and performance;sometimes though, the balance isn quite right,part of the message is taken on board but at the cost of other aspects of nutrition.
It would be tempting to eat only those foods we liked,and if this was the case,many people would stick to a diet of buns,biscuits,sweets and so on
However, with such a diet,there would be plenty of energy with little or no nutrients for growth and repair.It becomes essential then that we can identify in the food that we eat which foods contain the nutrients and energy we need;so lets look at what can happen if an athlete gets it wrong and what makes for a good balanced diet for athletes.

Running is a chemical as well as a mechanical process,deny a running athlete all iron containing foods for a week and they will become extremely breathless
Deprive them of all carbohydrates for 3 days and still make them train hard and they will have a job walking let alone running;stop the intake of all fats for a month and their metabolism will become disturbed,showing signs of poisoning as the vitamin A in their bodies builds up to dangerous levels.
Feed on only meat for a month and the hormonal balance will become depleted and even more important their oxygen transport system will become inefficient in the absence of citric acid found in most fruits.
So,already we can see that for athletes to exist let alone perform at their very best they require adequate iron,a good daily intake of carbohydrates,some unsaturated fats,plenty of fruit and vegetables and of course water
"Balance"is the keyword in nutrition.We need a balance in the intake of energy as opposed to the output.
We need a balance in the intake of the various classes of nutrient-carbohydrates,fats,proteins, minerals,vitamins and water
Lets take a closer look at these "balances"


We are all familiar with standard units of measure in common use.
For example,we purchase petrol by the litre or gallon and we know that the energy produced by the petrol will be consumed by the car engine as it propels the car.
We are also familiar with the concept that each gallon will provide us with so much distance.
Thus for example,we have cars which "do 30miles to the gallon".
Equipped with this information we can calculate how many gallons of petrol we will require to travel a certain distance: eg a jouney of 360miles @30miles per gallon would equate to 12 gallons.
However if we meet a great deal of traffic or drive faster than normal in the length of the journey the consumption of fuel will be greater.

The situation is much the same in nutrition,we can compare to our own bodys requirements of fuel depending on the intensity and duration of our work.
Each task we undertake requires a certain amount of energy.
Sleeping requires less than walking,which requires less than jogging which requires less than hard labouring and so on.
To make things simple the world of nutrition measures the energy content of foods and the energy requirement of activity with reference to the same standard unit-the Calorie.
Physics tells us that 1 calorie is the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of 1 gramme of water 1degrees centigrade.The Calorie is 1000calories or 1 Kilocalorie.

The food we eat generates heat and of course physical activity generates heat so it is reasonable then to measure food and activity in Calories.
This understood "balance" is a matter of simple arithmetic in nutrition.If your activity each day costs 2000calories then you must eat that amount of food which will provide you with those Calories.
When calculating how many calories you require each day you should understand that,for an athlete the amount equals:
Basic Energy requirement
extra athletic energy
Basic energy requirement is approximately 1.5cal.per kg.body weight per hour so we can construct the following simple table:

Body Weight in Kg. 50     55      60     65      70     75      80     85      90     95    100
Basic Energy requirement
in Cal/day              1600 1760 1920 2050 2240 2400 2560 2720 2880 3040 3200

The energy requirement for a given activity is specific to that activity and tables for such can be calculated However,to give some idea of energy expenditure in physical activity it has been suggested that the average energy consumption in fairly regular training is 8.5cal/kg body wt./hour,so for a 2hr workout we might have:

Body Weight in Kg    50     55    60      65     70     75      80      85     90      95    100
Basic energy requirement
in Cals for 2 hrs       850  935 1020 1105 1190 1275 1360 1445 1530 1615 1700

The total energy requirements therefore for a 50kg athlete=2450

Well now we know about energy output ,where does the input come from to effect a balance?

The main producers are :

Carbohydrates eg bread,sugar:1gm carbohydrate=4 cals(4kcal or 17kj) 
Proteins eg egg milk :1gm protein = 4cals(4kcal or 17kj)
Fats eg olive oil : 1gm fat = 9cals(9kcal or 37kj)

It is essential not only to get enough energy,but to get it from the right sources.This means understanding how different sources of energy are used by the body

Aerobic Metabolism

Energy is provided mainly by carbohydrate and fat.During low intensity exercise the body uses oxygen to burn up both carbohydrate and fat to provide energy for the muscles to work.This method of energy production is known as aerobic metabolism.At this stage fat accounts for more than half of energy production

Anaerobic Metabolism

As exercise becomes more intense,the body utilises mainly carbohydrate and relies less on aerobic metabolism.This is known as anaerobic metabolism.There is a small store of creatine phosphate which can be broken down but most of the anaerobic energy comes from converting carbohydrate to lactic acid

Maximum Oxygen Uptake Level

As exercise intensity increase further,the point comes where the body cannot take up any more oxygen;this is known as the maximum oxygen uptake level.Beyond this point,for example,during rapid sprints,energy must be produced anaerobically and only carbohydrate can be utilised


As can be seen from above these should form the greater part of our daily food (50-60%) and are our main energy producers.
They are compounds of hydrogen,carbon and oxygen and are broken down to form our primary fuel-glucose .Glucose is then stored,some in the liver until it is needed to raise the blood glucose level and to supply the brain;the majority is stored in the muscles themselves.
Heavy exercise makes great demands on the bodys carbohydrate stores and glycogen depletion leads to fatigue.
Consuming foods which contain carbohydrates restores the bodys glycogen:the body cannot convert fat to carbohydrate.

* Good sources of carbohydrate are sugars,fruit,rice,bread,pasta,potatoes,breakfast cereals,confectionery,cakes and soft drinks.

Many foods which contain carbohydrates are relatively "bulky" in comparison with foods which are high in fat.
Therefore,eating a high carbohydrate diet helps athletes not only meet their energy needs but also avoid unwanted weight gain.
Carbohydrate is especially important in endurance events.
When the race distance is shorter,muscle glycogen stores are less critical,but performance is impaired if the muscle glycogen level is low.
A high carbohydrate diet is therefore advised for these events too.
High muscle glycogen levels are important for sprint training,when many sprints are carried out with short recovery times.
In preparation for an increase in training load,or endurance competitions,carbohydrate intake should be increased to about 60-70% of daily energy intake for a few days

Carbohydrate loading can be achieved simply by gradually decreasing the amount of training during the week before competition and increasing the carbohydrate content of the diet to about 70% of daily energy intake during the 3 days before competition.

Consuming even 60% or 70% of energy as carbohydrates might still be insufficient where athletes have very restricted energy intakes, for this reason it is also helpful to set targets in absolute terms per unit of body weight(ie grams of carbohydrate/kg body weight)

* Most athletes need a carbohydrate intake of betwen 4.5 and 6g/kg body weight per day.
* If carbohydrate intake of 70% energy is required a 70kg man consuming a total of 2800kcal per day would need 7g/kg carbohydrate(70% of 2,800/70)/4
* When training is particulary intense a carbohydrate intake of 9 to 10g/kg body weight per day is needed

Recovery From Exercise

The most immediate nutritional priority,after prolonged heavy exercise,is rehydration,closely followed by restoration of the bodys carbohydrate stores.The most rapid rate of muscle and liver glycogen resynthesis occurs immediately after prolonged heavy exercise when carbohydrate stores are low.

* An immediate post -exercise carbohydrate intake of between 0.7 and 1.5g/kg body weight in the first half hour is generally recommended.
* To achieve the best recovery within 24 hrs,a total carbohydrate intake of about 9-10g/kg/body weight is necessary

Eating high or moderate glycaemic index carbohydrates during recovery is more effective in replacing muscle glycogen stores than eating the same quantity of low glycaemic index foods
There are many available listings of the glycaemic index for carbohydrate foods,which we recommend you read.


Like carbohydrates,the fats are compounds of hydrogen,carbon and oxygen.These have a very high energy yield,but requires 10% more oxygen to release energy from fat than from carbohydrates
Athletes tend to have diets which are too high in fat making it difficult for them to consume the recommended amounts of carbohydrate ;if on race days our food prior has been too fatty, potential performance is reduced because it stays in the stomach too long and too high a fat content in the blood postpones the use of carbohydrates as a source of energy.

However reductions in fat intake to very low levels are not recommended,not only because of the important role that fat metabolism plays in energy production but also because its presence in the body is essential to the absorption of the fat soluble vitamins contributing to the general health of athletes

* Sources of fats are oils,butter,margarine and other spreads,meat fat,whole milk and cream,fatty/oily fish and nuts

Essential fatty acids,found in fish oils and in some vegetable oils must be a part of any diet, whereas saturated fat,found mainly in animal fats, should be restricted to no more than 10% of daily intake
Fat is stored mainly in the adipose tissues and some is stored in muscle cells.Endurance training increases the capacity for fat metabolism in the muscles,so that fat metabolism will cover a greater proportion of the energy production of athletes during exercise than is the case for untrained people
High fat diets may also increase fat metabolism in some situations but such diets are not recommended


In addition to the 3 elements contained in the compounds which constitute carbohydrates and fats,proteins contain Nitrogen giving them a unique value amongst the nutrients.Whilst fats can be an alternative energy source if carbohydrate is not avaiilable there are noalternatives for proteins.Whilst as a last resort they can be converted in the body to meet energy requirements,proteins are mainly used in growth and repair.The digestive system breaks down protein foods to Amino-Acids.There are at least 25 known amino-acids and of these,8, are called "essential" because these cannot be manufactured by the body from other substances,in other words,protein foods must contain a sufficient supply of these 8 to meet our bodys needs.It is a fact however that not all protein foods contain the quality and quantity of amino-acids we need

* Good sources of protein are meat,milk,cheese,yoghurt,poultry,fish,eggs,nuts and legumes (pulses)

High protein diets have long been associated with training for fitness due to the mistaken belief that this leads to greater strength because muscle itself is protein.
Available evidence suggests that the daily protein requirements of athletes are indeed greater than the daily 0.8g/kg/body weight/day, recommended as the norm by the governing body

* The amount of protein required for strength and speed athletes is 1.2-1.7g/kg/body weight/day
* For endurance athletes recommended protein intakes are 1.2-1.4g/kg/body weight/day;this can easily be achieved by consuming a normal healthy diet
* Strength athletes involved in very heavy training may need up to 2g/kg/body weight of protein a day

These greater intakes can usually be achieved by increasing overall energy intake.It is not necessary to eat large amounts of high protein foods every day
It is commonly believed that supplementing athletes diets with amino acids,such as arginine and ornithine will stimulate an increased release of growth hormone;however since brief periods of high intensity exercise will produce a significant increase in the concentration of circulating growth hormone,the use of such supplements is unnecessary.

Meeting Micronutrient Needs

Vitamins and minerals play an important role in energy metabolism;deficiency of one or several micronutrients can impair exercise capacity,eg vitamin B is a key agent in the enzyme activity in converting carbohydrate to glucose
Vitamins are divided into 2 broad groups:
Water Soluble-B vitamin group;C
Fat Soluble-A,D,E,K
The water soluble vitamins play an important role in the energy economy of muscles as does vitamin E from the fat soluble group,the other fat soluble vitamins generally having other functions.The requirement for the "energy involved" (water soluble+ E ) is clearly increased amongst athletes
The function and chief sources of the more important vitamins are as follows:

VITAMIN                               MAIN FUNCTION                          MAIN SOURCES

A                                            Growth & Repair                            butter,milk,liver
                                                                                                         egg yolk,carrots.

B1(thiamine)              Carbohydrate break-down                    brown bread,meat

B2(riboflavine)            Carbohydrate,Fat and Protein             milk,milk products
                                                  break-down                                 brown bread,meat,

B6(pyridoxine)                 Protein metabolism                          bread,milk,

B12(cyanocobalamine) Red blood cell formation                 meat,liver and
                                                 Nervous System                          other animal foods

Niacin(part of A,B2,B                                                                    brown bread,meat,fish.
Folic Acid(part Red blood                                                           liver,raw green vegetables
cell formation of B complex)                                                       pulses

C(ascorbic acid)            Protein metabolism
                                          Iron metabolism                                  fruit,vegetables
                                          Energy metabolism
                                          Defence against infection

D(cholecalciferol)           Bone Formation                                 sunshine,margarine,butter
                                                                                                         egg yolk,fish oils

E(tocoferol)                      Muscular Action                                  wheat germ,vegetable 

K                                       Clotting of blood                                  green vegetables

Normal daily diet will find and provide sufficient quantities of these vitamins;exceeding the normal requirements of the fat soluble vitamins,particularly vitamin A can be dangerous


These are the various inorganic elements which occur in the body in various quantities and which are critical to normal physical function.Again under normal circumstances,minerals are well catered for in the diet,only occasionally is this not so.For example,iron deficiciency manifesting itself in some form of anaemia is not uncommon.Iron cannot be absorbed in the absence of vitamin C.A good intake of vitamin C will help offset the normal attrition of iron reserves brought about by heavy training
The function and chief sources of the more important minerals are :

MINERALS                              MAIN FUNCTION                              MAIN SOURCES

Iron                                           Oxygen Transport                            brown bread,meat

Calcium                                   Bone Formation and                       milk,milk products
                                                   muscular activity                              cheese,vegetables

Sodium                                    Fluid Regulation                               most foods,especially 
                                                  salt-water balance                            kitchen salt

Potassium                              General Constitution                        vegetables,fruit,

Magnesium                             Stimulus Transfer in                        nuts,fruit,pulses
                                                   muscles                                             green vegetables

 Bone Formation                               milk products,milk,


The process of oxidation in the human body damages cell membranes and other structures.When oxygen is metabolised it creates "free radicals" which steal electrons from other molecules causing damage. Studies show that exercise increases the formation of free radicals and although there is an increase in our antioxidant defence system it is not known whether this is sufficient to keep up with the increase in free radicals..Antioxidants scavenge the free radicals from the body cells and are found in certain foods.These include the nutrient antioxidants,vitamins A,C and E and the minerals copper,zinc and selenium,so eating correctly is further highlighted
Early studies suggested that large doses of antioxidant vitamins and minerals could help sports performance and protect the body,the message was that more was better.However later studies cast doubt on those initial findings,indeed some studies appeared to indicate that high dose single antioxidant supplementation could be detrimental to an athletes health.
More recently,the pendulum of evidence has swung very much in favour of enhancing antioxidant nutrition in athletes but the thinking is now far more subtle and complex.The right amounts of the right antioxidants appear to enhance recovery,reduce post exercise soreness and protect the body at cellular level.
As with so many areas of sports nutrition research, experts themselves differ in their opinions,some studies suggesting that antioxidants are less effective when isolated from food and presented in tablet form.At this present time extra supplementation of antioxidants is far from clearcut.However, do not overlook the contribution of diet.Some of the most powerful dietary antioxidants out there come in the form of the brightly coloured vegetables and fruits that we eat.As a rule of thumb the more colourful the fruit or vegetable the higher its antioxidant content-one more reason to eat up those greens.


Adequate calcium intake is needed to prevent bone mineral loss and reduce the risk of osteoporosis later in life.Inadequate calcium intake can result from restricted energy intake,dietary extremism and fad diets,vegan eating patterns, and where athletes are intolerant to dairy products
Dairy products are the best source of calcium and provide 60-70% of the calcium intake in typical Western diets. Calcium in vegetables and high fibre foods may not be as easily absorbed as that in milk
Supplementation of calcium well above the RDA is not recommended because high levels can inhibit the absorption of iron,zinc and other essential minerals.Individuals predisposed to kidney stones should also avoid high calcium intakes.


Inadequate intake can result from a restricted energy intake,dietary extremism and fad diets,vegetarian diets(especially poorly chosen ones) and unvaried very high carbohydrate eating.Studies have shown that some distance runners,especially females, may be iron depleted but no more than that found in the general population,where iron deficiency among women is also very high.Athletes who fall into high risk categories should have their iron status regularly monitored
Iron deficiency in most athletes can be prevented by eating more liver,lean red meat or dark chicken meat and by replacing coffee and tea drunk at meat- free meals with a vitamin C drink to enhance iron absorption.Eating a source of animal protein with vegetables also increase iron absorption
Iron supplements should be recommended only when dietary intervention fails.Supplements should not be recommended indiscriminately since excessive iron can inhibit the absorption of zinc.Only take iron supplements on the advice of a sports dietician or doctor.
Laboratory studies have shown that moderate iron depletion is not associated with reduced exercise performance,and iron supplementation does not improve performance in individuals with non-anaemic deficiency.In contrast,there is much anecdotal and clinical evidence that iron deficiency does have a negative impact on training and recovery

Other Micronutrients

There is no clear evidence that athletes are deficient in chromium,zinc,phosphate or magnesium.Further studies are needed on intake and on loss during exercise
Likewise, no clear performance benefits have been shown for mineral supplements.Any mineral loss during exercise can be made up by eating a diet containing mineral-rich foods.

Ergogenic Aids

Athletes have tried almost every nutrient possible,ranging from Amino Acids to Zinc as well as numerous alleged ergogenic aids,such as ginseng and royal jelly in attempt to enhance physical performance.Caffeine,creatine and sodium bicarbonate are examples of permitted substances which may have beneficial effects but there are potentially negative effects as well


It has many effects on the body,s metabolism involving stimulating the central nervous system.This can make you feel more alert and give you a boost of energy;energy derived from fat thus theoretically sparing glucose and glycogen stores and delaying the onset of fatigue.
Well controlled laboratory studies involving running after taking 3-13mg caffeine/kg body weight 1 hour before exercise have shown that caffeine improves performance.This may benefit the endurance athlete,but the diuretic effect of caffeine may be harmful especially in the heat
Caffeine is also a stimulant and may help power events,while the diuretic property will lead to a loss of weight which could be beneficial in certain events,for example high jumping,long jumping and pole vaulting.
Caffeine ,however in high doses is not permitted and anyone exceeding the permitted dose is liable to disqualification .The I O C (international olympic committee) has banned caffeine above a urine level of 12 micrograms/ml,the result of drinking 4 large cups of coffee, for even small doses(the equivalent of one small cup of coffee) can enhance performance.Caffeine is available from food and beverage sources and can also be found in pill form or even in chewing gum.Check dosage information on the label to avoid taking too much,if you should think of supplementaion.Beverage sources are common in soft drinks such as cola.Soft drinks typically contain about 10-50 milligrams of caffeine per serving.By contrast drinks such as Red Bull can start at 80 milligrams of caffeine per serving


Creatine is naturally synthesised in the human body from amino acids,primarily in the kidneys and liver and transported in the blood for use by muscles.Approximately 95% of the bodys total creatine is located in skeletal muscle.In your skeletal muscles where you generate the energy for movement,creatine participates in the complex muscle contraction process to maximise muscle energy.Adenosine triphosphate(A T P) is the key fuel for muscle contraction(see article on simplification of energy systems under the feature of coaching).The more A T P you make available to your muscles the more energy created to boost performance.Normal levels of A T P allow you only a few seconds of high intensity energy
Studies have reported that creatine levels in skeletal muscle can be increased,and performance of high intensity sports,such as sprints are enhanced following a period of creatine supplementation.However,neither endurance exercise performance nor maximal oxygen uptake appear to be enhanced
Creatine, fuels A T P development, which means:
* Sustained high intensity and power workouts
* More energy for muscle contraction
*Vastly improved power
* Workouts can be longer and stronger
* Increasing time before fatiguing
* Secure an edge in anaerobic athletic competitions
Although creatine is normally present in the diet,the amounts (about 1 gram per day) are much less than than the 20g/day which has been shown to enhance performance when taken for 5-6 days
Young athletes have no need for creatine supplementaion as the only time when benefit is gained is during maximal resistance training.Young athletes have no need for this kind of training and therefore no need for a supplement.Older athletes too would only benefit from supplementation if the training was extremely hard,you have to train hard before performance boosts..Generally it is probably best to eat more meat,particularly game and fish like tuna and herring in your diet,those foods particularly are more natural in creatine source

Sodium Bicarbonate

Sodium bicarbonate is an alkaline salt found naturally in the body.Sodium bicarbonate in the blood is referred to as the alkaline reserve.The alkaline reserve is responsible for buffering lactic acid which builds up in the muscles during intense exercise and is a key factor in fatigue.Numerous studies have shown that sodium bicarbonate supplements can delay the onset of fatigue,it makes your blood less acidic

* A dosage of 0.2g per kilo of bodyweight taken about 90mins before exercise appears to be both effective and medically safe

However sodium bicarbonate can cause nausea and diarrhoea in some people
A further point to note is that a 70kg athlete ingesting 0.2g of bicarbonate of soda per kilo of bodyweight would be ingesting 14grams of bicarbonate which provides around 3.8g of dietary sodium.This amount of sodium is the same as would be provided by 9.5g of salt,which is significantly over the current recommended daily limit of 6.0g of salt per day for health.
Is this amount of sodium harmful to health?.Although the average sedentary Briton currently consumes around 9grams of salt per day(considered too high),athletes who train hard and perspire heavily lose significant amounts of sodium and are therefore unlikely to be adversely affected by occasional daily intakes of 9grams.However,it certainly makes sense for anyone considering regularly using bicarbonate of soda to try and minimise additional dietary salt(from high-salt foods) wherever possible

Avoiding Dehydration

At the end of the day we will fall over faster and harder from lack of fluid than from lack of food.Remembering to take sufficient fluid on board is a major problem for athletes.It is hard to carry during long runs,it is hard to drink when running ,it is easy to forget until we feel thirsty and by then of course it is too late.Thirst is an indicator of dehydration.Devising strategies for the provision of fluid needs to be a part of training.Track or gym sessions are relatively easy-take the drinks with you.For our long distance runners on the road it is harder,there are belts,rucksack style containers,hand held containers;it certainly needs more thought particularly on long sessions and on hot days when greater fluid intake becomes vital..With the long distance runners it is also a good idea for an individual to know how much fluid they need.They can calculate this by weighing themselves before and after a training session without clothes and shoes;every kilogram lost is a litre of fluid lost(or a pint for a pound).For every kilo lost you need to replace one litre of fluid.It s no good arriving at a training session or race totally stocked up with all those carbs only to fall very short through dehydration.Full hydration is so important for good performance,even an event as short as 10km, losses of more than 2% of bodyweight are possible.Even in competitive middle distance runners,the effects of losing 2% of bodyweight through dehydration can show an average reduction in performance of about 3-7%.At 1500m this is worth more than 6 seconds at world class level.
Including specific sports drinks to your training regimes are a useful way of increasing fuel supplies and helping to fully hydrate your body for exercise(see article onWhat Drink in our coaching feature)
In spite of the clear evidence for the negative effects of dehydration most athletes still do not drink enough.Athletes must make a conscious effort to increase fluid intake before,during and after exercise.

In conclusion even with best natural ability and most determined mental attitude,maximum potential cannot be achieved without sufficient energy.The more energy an athlete has to use in training the more they can achieve;a high level of energy will allow more work to be done at an equally high level of intensity.
Moreover maximum immunity from illnesses can often mean the difference between success and failure during the season and although it is not priority for most athletes it should be
Understandably,then,in order for hard training sessions to be effective,quality conditioning and careful monitoring of the intake of energy building foods as well as proper hydration will be vital in boosting athletic performance.