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What your athletes should be eating

Brian Mackenzie explains how to determine your daily nutritional requirements.

For every physical activity, the body requires energy and the amount depends on the duration and type of activity. Energy is obtained from the body stores or the food we eat. Glycogen is the primary source of fuel used by the muscles to enable you to undertake both aerobic and anaerobic exercises. If you train with low glycogen stores you will feel constantly tired, training performance will be lower, and you will be more prone to injury and illness. Energy is measured in calories, and a calorie (cal) is the amount of heat energy required to raise the temperature of 1g of water at 1°C from 14° to 15°C. A kilocalorie (kcal) is the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of 1000g of water at 1°C.

Nutrient Balance

Carefully planned nutrition must provide an energy and nutrient balance. The nutrients are:

  • Proteins - essential to the growth and repair of muscle and other body tissues
  • Fats - one source of energy and essential to fat-soluble vitamins
  • Carbohydrates - our primary source of energy
  • Minerals - those inorganic elements occurring in the body and which are critical to its normal functions
  • Vitamins - water and fat-soluble vitamins play essential roles in many chemical processes in the body
  • Water - essential to normal body function - as a vehicle for carrying other nutrients and because 60% of the human body is water
  • Roughage - the fibrous indigestible portion of our diet essential to the health of the digestive system

Your daily energy requirements

Personal energy requirement = basic energy requirements + extra energy requirements Basic energy requirements For every Kg of body weight approximately 1.3 Calories is required every hour. (An athlete weighing 50Kg would require 1.3 x 24hrs x 50Kg=1560 Calories/day)

Extra energy requirements

For each hour of training, you require approximately 8.5 Calories for each Kg of body weight. (For a two-hour training session our 50Kg athlete would need 8.5 x 2hrs x 50Kg=850 Calories)

An athlete weighing 50Kg, who trains for two hours, would require an intake of approximate 2410 Calories (1560 + 850)

Energy Fuel

Like fuel for a car, the energy we need has to be blended. The blend that we require is approximate as follows:

  • 57% Carbohydrates (sugar, sweets, bread, cakes)
  • 30% Fats (dairy products, oil)
  • 13% Protein (eggs, milk, meat, poultry, fish)

The energy yield per gram of carbohydrate, fat, and protein is as follows:

  • Carbohydrate - 4 Calories
  • Fat - 9 Calories
  • Protein - 4 Calories

So, what does our 50-kg athlete require in terms of carbohydrates, fats, and protein?

  • Carbohydrates - 57% of 2410=1374 Calories - at 4 Calories/gram=1374 / 4=343 grams
  • Fats - 30% of 2410=723 Calories - at 9 Calories/gram=723 / 9=80 grams
  • Protein - 13% of 2410=313 Calories - at 4 Calories/gram=313 / 4=78 grams

Our 50kg athlete requires: 343 grams of Carbohydrates, 80 grams of fat, and 78 grams of protein

The types of fat

The nature of the fat depends on the type of fatty acids, which make up the triglycerides. All fats contain both saturated and unsaturated fatty acids but are usually described as 'saturated' or 'unsaturated' according to the proportion of fatty acids present. As a rough guide, saturated fat is generally solid at room temperature and tends to be animal fats. Unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature and are usually vegetable fats - there are exceptions, e.g. palm oil, a vegetable oil that contains a high percentage of saturated fatty acids.

  • Unsaturated - Sunflower oil, Olive Oil, Rice Oil, Nuts, Rapeseed Oil, Oily fish - Sardines
  • Saturated - Beef, Bacon, Cheese, Butter, Biscuits, Crisps

The types of carbohydrates

There are two types of carbohydrates - starchy (complex) carbohydrates and simple sugars. The simple sugars are found in confectionery, muesli bars, cakes, biscuits, cereals, puddings, soft drinks and juices, jam, and honey but remember these foodstuffs also contain fat. Starchy carbohydrates are found in potatoes, rice, bread, whole grain cereals, semi-skimmed milk, yoghurt, fruit, vegetables, beans, and pulses. Both types effectively replace muscle glycogen. Starchy carbohydrates are the ones that have all the vitamins and minerals in them as well as protein. They are also low in fat as long as you do not slap on loads of butter and fatty sauces. Starchy foods are much bulkier so there can be a problem in eating that amount of food so supplementing with simple sugar alternatives is necessary.

Your digestive system converts the carbohydrates in food into glucose, a form of sugar carried in the blood and transported to cells for energy. The glucose, in turn, is broken down into carbon dioxide and water. Any glucose not used by the cells is converted into glycogen - another form of carbohydrate that is stored in the muscles and liver. However, the body's glycogen capacity is limited to about 350 grams; once this maximum has been reached, any excess glucose is quickly converted into fat. Base your main meal with the bulk on your plate filled with carbohydrates and small amounts of protein such as meat, poultry, and fish.

Carbohydrates for Performance

Following training & competition, an athlete's glycogen stores are depleted. To replenish them, the athlete needs to consider the speed at which carbohydrate is converted into blood glucose and transported to the muscles. The rapid replenishment of glycogen stores is vital for the track athlete who has several races in a meeting. The rise in blood glucose levels is indicated by a food's Glycaemic Index (GI), and the faster and higher the blood glucose rises, the higher the GI. Studies have shown that consuming high GI carbohydrates (approximately 1grm per kg body) within 2 hours after exercise speeds up the replenishment of glycogen stores and therefore speeds up recovery time. There are times when it is beneficial to consume lower GI carbohydrates, which are absorbed slowly over a longer period (2-4 hours before exercise). Eating 5-6 meals or snacks a day will help maximise glycogen stores and energy levels, minimise fat storage and stabilise blood glucose and insulin levels.

Eating and Competition

What you eat on a day-to-day basis is extremely important for training. Your diet will affect how fast and how well you progress and how soon you reach a competitive standard. Once you are ready to compete, you will have a new concern, your competition diet. Is it important? What should you eat before your competition? When is the best time to eat? How much should you eat? Should you be eating during the event? And what can you eat between heats or matches? A lot of research has been done in this area, and specific dietary approaches can enhance competition performance. A future Successful Coaching Newsletter will address these issues.

The way forward

Calculate your daily basic and extra requirements, monitor your daily intake (especially your carbohydrates), and then adjust your diet to meet your daily requirements. A well-balanced diet should provide you with the required nutrients but does needs to be monitored. The simplest way to monitor the 'energy balance' is to keep a regular check of your weight.

Food Composition Tables

Food composition tables are widely used to assess nutrient and energy intakes, and to plan meals. The composition of a food can vary widely, depending, among other factors, on the variety of plant or animal, on growing and feeding conditions, and, for some foods, on freshness. Tables are based on average values from several samples analysed in the laboratory and therefore, only provide a rough guide.

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • MACKENZIE, B. (2003) What your athletes should be eating. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 2 / June), p. 4-6

Page Reference

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

  • MACKENZIE, B. (2003) What your athletes should be eating [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Brian Mackenzie is a British Athletics level 4 performance coach and a coach tutor/assessor. He has been coaching sprint, middle distance, and combined event athletes for the past 30+ years and has 45+ years of experience as an endurance athlete.