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Just what do athletes need in the way of nutrition?

There is no magic food which if taken the day or several days before a race will transform the athlete into a world-beater. So choosing a diet that provides the athlete with the correct balance of nutrients is desirable. The food and drink which athletes consume provide the energy for competition and training, aid recovery, and ensure that their metabolic progress functions correctly.

Before we consider athletes eating habits, let us consider each of the different nutrients in our food:

  1. Carbohydrate - the body preferred source of energy
  2. Fats - another source of energy and a carrier of specific vitamins
  3. Protein - essential for growth, repair of tissue, and metabolism
  4. Vitamins - essential for the body's metabolism
  5. Minerals - essential for the body's metabolism
  6. Fibre - essential for the health of the digestive system
  7. Water - as 60% of the body is water this needs to be replaced regularly.

So the athlete is in peak condition training and running well, feeling strong but is also tired because s/he cannot sleep and has muscle cramps, twitches, and trembles. This is probably because of the athlete's running, and eating does not balance each other correctly. Many athletes and coaches are beginning to realise the need to understand more about nutrition. To plan a suitable food intake, it is necessary to understand a little basic nutrition.

So where does the layperson find that knowledge?

A textbook on diet/nutrition might seem a logical place to start. Still, most athletes and coaches (and many other people) could be a little confused by Glucose (C6H2O6) being degraded to Pyruvic acid (2CH3 COCOOH) combining with 5 Oxygen molecules to form 6CO2 + 4H2O and ENERGY. The basic principle for athletes is there - glucose forming energy, but this equation is not going to help anyone to plan a day's food.

Let us consider the 7 nutrients


Usually referred to in terms of 'calories'. Many athletes need to consider their energy intake and make sure that sufficient energy is being consumed to cope with the energy expended in training. It is also important to make sure that the calories are coming from the right kind of foods.


Most of us eat more protein than we need. As well as the traditional sources of protein such as meat, fish, eggs, cheese, do not forget the vegetable proteins such as beans and pulses such as lentils.


We all tend to eat too much fat, especially fat from animals. There is a general need to cut down by eating less fried foods, chips, crisps, pastry, etc., and take the extra calories from starchy foods.


This is the term used for starchy foods. Carbohydrates are a significant source of energy for athletes. Refined starches are those that have been highly processed, such as sweets, cakes, sugar, and white flour products. The more complex starches such as wholemeal bread, pasta, and brown rice are an essential source of energy as well as other nutrients.


Found in wholemeal products, fruit, vegetables, nuts, beans, etc. Necessary for the functioning of the gut and bowel. The foods that contain fibre also contain many minerals and vitamins.


Those people taking sufficient calories and a wide variety of foods should not have problems with vitamin deficiencies. However, some vitamins are important for energy production, and care should be taken to ensure an adequate intake.


Again, deficiencies are unlikely in a healthy diet. Some, especially iron, may need special consideration.

Dietary Rules

Many athletes ignore simple dietary rules. Their needs are higher than the average, not necessarily more but more selective. Five full cups of vegetables, fruits should be taken daily to provide the right amount of vitamin C, B, and A. Three helpings of cereal or bread (four slices of bread is a helping), to provide roughage and carbohydrates. Two meat meals a day to provide iron. Fried food should be kept to a minimum. The athlete needs some fat, but not the saturated kind found in bacon and too fatty meals. In the summer the potassium level is important. The heart is predominantly saturated with potassium.

There is no evidence that dietary supplementation with vitamins, minerals, or other additives is effective in improving performances in any athletic event, except in the rare case of an individual suffering from a specific deficiency. There is a great danger that supplements may supplement the natural nutrients that a competitor needs and hence contribute to some nutritional deficiency.

The same applies to dietary protein intake. Despite the conviction common against athletes engaged in strength events, that high protein intake is necessary for the athlete in serious training, total energy intake is high and together with this large food intake normally comes a more than adequate supply of all essential components.

The only dietary constituent which may be of vital importance to the athlete is carbohydrate. The high-intensity effort performed in training will result in depletion of the muscle glycogen stores. If these stores are not replenished between training sessions, fatigue will ensure. Dietary carbohydrate intake must be adequate for this purpose. If the dietary carbohydrate content is high, it should be possible for the muscle glycogen stores to return to normal within 24 hours. Also, it replenishes to the point of 60% completion after 10 hours and total return after 46 hours.

There is some evidence that consumption of a very high carbohydrate diet 3-4 days before a race, together with a reduction in training intensity may be useful in improving performances by increasing the capacity for energy production by aerobic glycolysis. This carbohydrate loading procedure is used by athletes engaged in endurance events lasting a few hours.


Athletes must remember to replace their fluids, or they will get dehydrated. This goes for winter as well as summer. The water loss, however, may cause problems for the runner. During a marathon, runners typically lose between one and 5% of their body weight even when the temperature is not high, and regular drinks are taken throughout the event. In hot weather, as much as 8% of the bodyweight may be lost. Weight loss is almost entirely due to water loss, and reductions in the plasma volume and cellular water content result. Remember, adequate fluid intake will help to guard against dehydration. Thirst is not a reliable guide to the need to drink. Take fluid before you feel thirsty.

Which of these is best?

This question is not easy to answer. Fluid intake is aimed not only at the replacement of water and electrolyte losses, but also at the provision of fuel, normally glucose, for the working muscles. It is important, therefore, that the athlete starts the race or training well-hydrated. Working out which of the fluids is best is a matter of trial and error. The athlete needs to avoid alcohol and coffee as these are potent diuretics and may leave you dehydrated. Colder solutions empty from the stomach more rapidly than a warm solution. Do not worry about chilling your stomach despite the popular theory. Stomach cramps are more likely to be the result of an over-strong solution sitting in your stomach.


  1. A well-balanced diet will allow you to train and perform at your best
  2. Spread the daily intake of food over three regularly spaced meals
  3. Every day include fresh vegetables and fruit in the diet
  4. Curb the ingestion of fatty foods
  5. Exclude from the diet as much as possible foods that furnish calories only without contributing their share of vitamins, i.e. sweets, chocolate, cakes and pop drinks, coke, etc., and substitute fruit and fresh fruit drinks for snacks
  6. Decrease or curtail the intake of tea, coffee, and alcohol for these drinks take the place of more nutritional foodstuff and may cause undesirable biochemical effects such as a decrease in muscular efficiency. Drink more fruit drinks, water, and even milk (milk is one of the best all-around sources of nutrition)
  7. Alcohol in moderation is not harmful to the athlete but remember its dehydrating effects which may impair performance
  8. Athletes should be aware of their feeding habits and the composition of their food especially concerning days of intensive training and competition

Article Reference

The information on this page is adapted from Gould (1990)[1].


  1. GOULD, C. (1990) Just what do you need in the way of Nutrition? Athletics Coach, 24 (1), p. 17-20

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • MACKENZIE, B. (2009) Just what do athletes need in the way of nutrition? [WWW] Available from: [Accessed