The Importance of Good Nutrition in Sport and Fitness

By Helen Taranowski

Exercise is a crucial element in keeping ourselves healthy. However, during exercise, extra demands and stresses are placed upon the body compared to when it is at rest. The amount of nutrients and fuel required are far in excess of what is required at rest and they are used up much more quickly.

Someone eating a poor diet can manage to get through their day if it requires little or no activity, although they will probably be feeling below par. If that person decides to start exercising, eating that same diet, they will not be able to perform anywhere near their best, their body will be under stress as it struggles to meet the nutritional demands of the activity and their body will find it hard to recover from the exercise. A good diet is vital for everyone and nutritional needs are increased for those who exercise. For those involved in heavy training and competitive sports, nutrition can have a big impact on performance.

As a starting point, athletes and exercisers need to have healthy diets, full of good quality carbohydrates, proteins, essential fats, vitamins and minerals to ensure their bodies are generally in a good state of health. Building on from that, nutrition needs to be tailored to the particular type of activity being undertaken. For example, a bodybuilder and an endurance athlete have different nutritional requirements; neither would perform at their best by following a diet designed for the other.

Calorie requirements are increased for athletes. A healthy daily diet containing 2000 calories would be fine for a sedentary woman, but a female athlete, using over 1000 calories a day in training would soon be lacking in energy and feeling ill on so few calories. It is important that the diet contains enough calories to support the training load.

The proportion of carbohydrates and protein in the diet is increased for athletes and this will vary with the type of activity undertaken. Exercise increases oxidation and free radical damage within the body, so athletes may require a higher level of antioxidant vitamins and minerals to ensure good health.

The timing of food is also very important. Eating large amounts of food just before exercise is not good, so about three hours between the last meal and the start of exercise/training is a good idea. However, it is probably a good idea to eat a high carbohydrate snack or drink just before exercise to provide a ready supply of glucose. Eating after training is vitally important in order to restock the body’s glycogen stores. Failure to do so can lead to reduced performance in the next training session.

For endurance athletes, eating a high carbohydrate diet in the few days preceding competition or long training sessions means that the body’s glycogen stores are fully stocked ready to provide the energy for prolonged activity.

Sport and exercise places increased stress on the body’s structural system. Bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments are being subjected to damage, being repaired, rebuilt and strengthened. Without good nutrition to carry out these processes, athletes are in danger of suffering injury and a longer recovery time form any injury sustained.

The importance of good nutrition in sport cannot be overlooked. It is not only the quality of the diet that is important but also the quantity, the content and the timing must be considered if the athlete is to maximise performance and stay healthy.

Helen writes on all aspects of running, fitness and nutrition. Visit to learn more

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July 16, 2008