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The Big Picture in Sports Nutrition

Updated: Nov 20, 2023

So far this month we have explained how different sports nutrition supplements can support exercise performance. In this article, we give some perspective about what’s most important in sports nutrition.


The renowned sports nutrition researcher Ron Maughan has a saying:

If it works, it’s probably banned

If it’s not banned, then it probably doesn’t work

There may be some exceptions


While this is tongue-in-cheek, what he is getting at is the fact that supplements are just that, supplements. They represent small additions to an overall diet that can maybe help performance. This then begs the question: What are the most important considerations for sports nutrition?


Sports Nutrition Pyramid

As you can see in Figure 1 (below), there is a hierarchy of importance when it comes to sports nutrition.


Figure 1. Sports Nutrition Pyramid


Total Energy Intake

As an athlete, you are an engine. What engine works without the proper fuel? None. Therefore, fuelling for the demands of your sport should be the first thing you think of with respect to performance nutrition. To estimate your daily calorie needs, click here and hit “Advanced mode” to input your typical activity level. This calculator will give you a target for daily calorie intake based on your age, height, weight, and activity level. However, these calculators are not 100% accurate. So if you eat this amount and you lose or gain weight quickly, make the necessary adjustments (i.e., increase or decrease calories) and monitor your weight to find a calorie intake that suits you.


Macronutrients

As we have written before, carbohydrates are the body’s preferred fuel for moderate- to high-intensity exercise, and have been shown to improve performance more than any other nutrient. This is why they’re important to prioritise as an athlete. Protein is also important, except its main role lies in recovery, not fuelling. Fat is the macronutrient of least concern for performance, but is still important for health, so should not be limited to less than 20% of total calories per day.



Micronutrients

A balanced diet will provide all the vitamins and minerals your body needs to function. Ensuring you eat enough of them is important because deficiencies can worsen performance. However, as we have written before, supplementing vitamins or minerals probably won’t provide any further health benefits if your usual intake is sufficient, and this is also true of performance. However, it can be difficult to meet all micronutrient needs through diet alone, so supplementing with certain key nutrients or with a multivitamin is no harm.


Nutrient Timing

Ensuring you eat enough carbohydrates around exercise can provide performance and recovery benefits. Eating protein at specific times in the day is less important; the total protein intake is what’s most important.


Supplements

Supplements can certainly offer benefits for performance, but are no replacement for a proper diet. If you want to use supplements, do yourself a favour and nail the other more important things first. Once you have, the most impactful supplements include caffeine and creatine, although others like nitrates and beta-alanine may provide small benefits. Protein powders and sports drinks can also be helpful, but don’t necessarily provide additional benefits to regular protein- and carbohydrate-rich foods.


Summary

If ever you wondered what nutritional factors are most important for sports performance, now you know. Refer back to the sports nutrition pyramid as a reference and you will be set.


Email [email protected] for any enquiries about training or to give feedback about our nutrition content. We want to hear from you.


I hope you enjoyed the sports nutrition supplement articles this month. Stay tuned for what’s to come in March! Take care.


Patrick Elliott, BSc, MPH

Health and Nutrition Science Communication Officer at Training121

Founder of Just Health — Instagram: @just.health.info


Health Disclaimer: this article is for informational and educational purposes only, and is not a substitute for professional advice. For health advice, speak to a physician or other qualified health-care professional, and for nutrition advice, speak to a qualified nutrition professional (e.g., registered dietitian). The use of information on this site is solely at your own risk.

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