“Our choices affect how we perform; how we live, love, work, rest and play”

All coaches recognise the benefits of a good diet to achieve athletic performance – but what does that mean:

Earlier in the last century we used to creatively cook from seasonal fresh food.   However, over the last 70 years or so the food industry has evolved and our eating habits have changed to consume much more in the way of ready meals and take-away food.

Research shows that a high intake of “bad food” and over consumption of sugar has led to unforeseen levels of obesity and the many illnesses and diseases associated with it.   This type of diet can also impact negatively on mental and physical performance.

Supermarket ready meals can contain processed sugar in many guises, and some contain as much sugar (13 teaspoons) as a can of Coke!

Whilst not getting hung up on ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ food, it is probably best to remember that even so-called bad foods have some nutritional benefit.   Balance, moderation, variety and portion size are key words and concepts that you should include when considering your diet.

So, it is important to athletes and coaches to consider their diets and make the right choices based on the main food groups.

This article aims to give athletes, parents and coaches the information to make good choices when considering their nutritional requirements.   Examples of foods to eat before, during and after exercise are included in the last section and the use of and risk of supplements are set out in the Appendix.

Starchy Carbohydrates – e.g. Potatoes, Bread, Rice and Pasta

These should make up over a third of the food we eat and are an important part of a healthy diet.  Whilst considered by some to be fattening starchy carbs contain less calories than fat – just watch what you add in terms of butter and sauces.

For the best nutritional affect choose high fibre, wholegrain varieties as they contain more fibre than white or refined starchy food.   They are also digested more slowly so help to keep us feeling fuller for longer.

Wholegrain foods include: Wholemeal and wholegrain bread, pitta, chapatti, wholewheat pasta, brown rice, wholegrain breakfast cereals and whole oats.

Fruit and Vegetables

These should make up just over a third of the food we eat each day and are a great source of vitamins and minerals.   Evidence points to a reduced risk of heart disease stroke and some cancers in people who eat their Five a Day.

Five a day is easily achievable – one portion is – a piece of fruit, a slice of pineapple or melon, three heaped tablespoons of vegetables, a side salad, 80g of fresh, canned or frozen fruit, 30g of dried fruit or a fruit or vegetable juice or smoothie.   However, beware that crushing fruit and vegetables releases the sugars they contain which can damage teeth so limit yourself to a smoothie or juice once a day.

Proteins – e.g. Beans, Pulses, Fish, Eggs and Meat

It is vital to a balanced diet to eat foods from this group as they are sources of protein, vitamins and minerals.

The most common source of protein is meat which tend to be high in fat, particularly saturated fat.  However, your choices when buying and cooking meat can make a big difference.   Choose lean cuts of meat and mince and cut off the meat fat and the skin of the chicken before cooking and try to grill instead of frying.  Limit your intake of processed meat (sausages, bacon, cured and reformed meat) to no more than 70g per day.

You should aim for at least 2 portions (2x140g) of fish per week which should include a portion of oily fish.

Eggs are also a great source of protein but aim to have them poached or boiled rather than a good Old English Fry-Up.

A good option is to replace meat with beans, peas and lentils (pulses) as they are lower in far and high in fibre, protein, vitamins and minerals.   Other vegetable-based sources of protein include tofu and bean curd.

Fat – Is not that Bad

Excess body fat is a disadvantage in most sports, conversely very low body fat does not guarantee improved performance either.   For normal health the recommended ranges of body fat are 13-17% in men (minimum 5%) and 18-25% in women (minimum 10%).  Very low body fat levels are associated with hormonal imbalance, infertility, reduced bone density and increased risk of osteoporosis in women.

A fat intake of 15-30% of energy is recommended for athletes made up with a majority of Unsaturated and Omedga-3 fatty acids:

Good Unsaturated Fats (Monounsaturated and Polyunsaturated Fats) – Fatty fish like Mackerel and Salmon contain Omega 3 fatty acids, effective in preventing heart disease.   Rapeseed oil, olive oil, avocado’s, whole eggs, almonds, olives, sunflower and coconut are all examples of food that contain healthy fats.

Bad Fats – Trans fat is the worst of the bad fats, they have no health benefits and can contribute to heart disease, stroke, diabetes and high cholesterol.   Contained in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils they appear in everything from commercial biscuits and pastries to fast-food and French fries.

Saturated Fats – contained in red meat, whole milk and whole milk dairy foods, cheese and many commercially prepared baked and fried foods.  Too much saturated fat in the diet can cause high cholesterol.  Saturated fats can be replaced by using olive oil or replacing with high-fibre carbs.  However, replacing saturated fat with highly processed carbs will have a negative effect.

Exercise and a Balanced Diet

Exercise promotes muscle protein breakdown, (although this depends on the level and intensity of the workout) so eating an adequate amount of protein after a workout ensures that the body can repair itself and rebuild.

Glycogen stores within the body are used during exercise as fuel and eating Carbs after exercise helps replenish them.   Again, this depends on the level and intensity of the workout – Endurance exercise would require more Carbs than a weights session in the gym.  Harvard Health Publishing in 2015 recommended that you consume Protein and Carbs in a ration of 3:1 Carbs to Protein.

The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons recommends athletes consumer 60-70% of their calorie intake from carbs, 12-15% from protein and 20-30% from fat (carbs and protein each provide 4 calories per gram, and fat contains 9 calories per gram).

Many athletes and coaches take or recommend supplementing protein intake with powders or shakes.   Here you need to be careful as there are many risks associated with supplements from both a health and Anti-doping perspective (see appendix to this article for more information).   Although shakes do contain nutrients and may provide some limited benefit, they can’t replicate real foods, which are natural sources of minerals and vitamins.


It is essential to replace fluid and electrolytes (body salts) lost through sweat.  An article is Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise recommended that athletes consume 125-!50% of estimated fluid loss within a 4-6-hour window after exercise.   This equates to 600ml per hour for every 2kg of fluid loss.  Water, Milk, Sports drinks, flavoured milk and home made sports drinks are good sources.

Food to Eat Before you Exercise

Good nutrition will aid athletics performance, both in training and competition.   Aim to eat a complete meal containing Carbs, protein and fat 2-3 hours before exercise.   If this is not possible then eat 45-60 mins prior to exercise but opt for foods that are easy to digest and are mainly comprised of Carbs and some protein to prevent stomach upsets.

Exercise starts within 2-3 hours

  • Sandwich on whole-grain bread, lean protein and a side salad
  • Egg omelette/scrambled egg and whole-grain toast
  • Lean meat, brown rice and roasted vegetables
  • Jacket potato (eat the skin) with beans, cheese, tuna, coleslaw or chicken
  • Pasta with tomato-based sauce
  • Vegetable, prawn or tofu stir fry with noodles or rice
  • Mixed bean hot pot with potatoes
  • Chicken and vegetable casserole with potatoes
  • Porridge made with milk
  • Wholegrain cereal with milk or yoghurt
  • Fish and Potato Pie

Exercise starts within 2 hours

  • Banana with mixed berries
  • Whole-grain cereal and milk
  • Natural almond butter and fruit jam sandwich on whole-grain bread
  • Fruit loaf or raisin bread

Exercise starts within 1 hour

  • Greek yoghurt and fruit
  • Protein bar
  • A piece of fruit – banana, apple or orange
  • Dried apricots, dates or raisins

Foods to East during Exercise

For activities lasting less than an hour, you don’t need to drink anything other than water.   But for vigorous exercise for more than an hour the consumption of carbs can help delay fatigue and enable you to perform at a higher intensity.   It is important to begin consuming carbs before fatigue sets in as it takes at least 30 minutes for it to be absorbed into the bloodstream.

Foods should be easily digested and absorbed as you need it to raise your blood sugar level so a sports drink or gel are the most convenient forms of nutrition at this point.   However cereal bars, bananas, raisins or fruit bars are all suitable provided they are taken with water (consume around 1 litre of fluid per hour during medium to high intensity workouts)

Foods to Eat After you Exercise

In order to supply your body with the right nutrients for recovery and to maximise the benefits of training then the following food groups should be included.  A top tip in order to get the best benefit is to consume carbs immediately after exercise and top up with a more substantial snack or meal – ideally 2 hours.


  • Sweet potatoes
  • Quinoa
  • Fruits
  • Rice Cakes
  • Brown Rice
  • Oatmeal
  • Potatoes
  • Pasta
  • Dark leafy vegetables like broccoli, spinach or kale


  • Eggs
  • Greek Yogurt
  • Cottage Cheese
  • Salmon
  • Chicken
  • Protein bar
  • Tuna


  • Avocado
  • Nuts
  • Nut butters
  • Dried fruits and nuts

Nutrition and Competition

The Day Before – Eat meals high in carbs throughout the day and drink plenty of fluids.  Don’t skip your evening meal even if you have pre-competition nerves.   A top tip is to stick to familiar and simple foods, avoid fatty or oily foods and avoid alcohol as it is a diuretic.

On the Day – Plan in advance and have your main pre-competition meal 2-4 hours before the event and top up with a small drink 15-30 minutes before the start.   Even for early morning events it is not sensible to compete on an empty stomach so get up earlier to eat your pre-competition breakfast.

If you are competing in the evening, eat your meals at 3 hourly intervals during the day.

If you are competing in several heats or events during the day it is important to refuel and rehydrate as fast as possible after each event by consuming foods like – bananas, breakfast cereal, energy bars, sandwiches or rolls, Jaffa Cakes or fig rolls, dried fruit, rice cakes or low fat crackers with jam, scotch pancakes, yoghurt drinks.  It is also important to drink at least 500ml fluid to accompany food.

The key is to practice at competitions and find a nutrition plan that works for you and stick with it.

Sample Meals and Snacks

Examples of quick and easy meals are:

  • Grilled chicken with roasted vegetables
  • Scrambled egg on toast
  • Salmon with sweet potato
  • Tuna salad sandwich on whole grain bread
  • Porridge and banana
  • Cottage cheese and fruits
  • Pita and hummus
  • Rice crackers and peanut butter
  • Cereal and skimmed milk – choose cereals that are not highly sweetened or processed like Shredded Wheat or Weetabix
  • Greek yogurt, berries and granola
  • Quinoa bowl with berries and pecans
  • Beans on 2 slices of toasted whole grain bread
  • 2 slices of toast with jam or honey and banana
  • Chocolate milk shake
  • DIY Sports drinks (1rd fruit juice (e.g. orange) with two thirds water and a pinch of salt

Kit Bag Essentials

  • Fresh, dried or tinned fruit
  • Cereal bars, rice cakes or breadsticks
  • Fruit juice or smoothie
  • Low fat popcorn
  • Jaffa Cakes or Fig Rolls
  • Fruit cake or gingerbread
  • Muffins or bagels
  • Fruit gums or jellybeans
  • Water, or commercial or homemade sports drink

Appendix – Supplements

Supplements, including protein shakes and bars, can be a useful addition to your nutrition plan.  However, there are risks you should be aware of.  Unlike medication, supplement manufacture is not regulated and labels cannot be taken at face value.   Supplements can contain ingredients that aren’t shown on the label or are listed by a different name and in some cases can contain prohibited substances or been cross contaminated during the manufacturing process.

Before taking a supplement consider what you take and why (energy, recovery, hydration).   Consider using a Food First approach by following good basic nutritional advice.  Although shakes and protein bars do contain nutrients, they can’t replicate real foods, many of which are natural sources of protective substances like antioxidants.

If after reflection you consider supplements will aid your performance then you MUST check if the supplement has been batch tested by researching www.informed-sport.com and keeping a record of your search results.   There are still no guarantees that any supplement product is free from banned substances – so is it worth the risk.   You can find more information on www.uka.org.uk/cleanathletics/supplements-and-nutrition/

Appendix – Eating Out

You can still enjoy eating out if you make the right choices – see some examples below:

Restaurant Choose Avoid
Pizza Tomato, vegetable, ham, chicken or seafood toppings Salami, mince, beef, pepperoni, extra cheese
Italian Pasta with tomato or vegetable based sauces, Pasta filled with ricotta/spinach, ciabatta Pasta with creamy, buttery or meat based sauce
Burger Bar Plain, grilled hamburger, grilled chicken Large burgers, fries, additional cheese or sauces
English/French Restaurant or Steakhouse Grilled steak, grilled chicken, grilled or poached fist, salads, jacket potatoes, fruit Fried/battered fish, garlic mushrooms, garlic bread, scampi, creamy sauces, puddings
Indian Chicken tikka, tandoori chicken, dahl, rice, naan bread, chappati, dry vegetable curries Meat curries, meat dansak/korma/madras. Samosa, bhajis, puri, paratha
Chinese Chicken, vegetable or prawn chop suey, stir fried vegetables, seafood or chicken, rice, noodles Duck dishes, sweet and sour, fried noodles
Mediterranean Greek salad, tzatziki, hummus, pitta bread, paella, tortillas, souvlakia, Greek yoghurt Taramasalata, moussaka, lamb dishes, spicy sausages, buttery/oily sauces, baklava
Japanese/Thai Sushi, teriyaki chicken, sukiyaki, steam fish, rice and vegetable dishes Tempura dishes, prawn crackers, fried noodles or rice
Mexican Bean burrito, tortillas or tostadas, vegetable chilli, fajitas with chicken or vegetables, guacamole Tortilla chips, potato skins, beef chilli, tortillas/burritos with beef


Recommended Reading and References

The complete guide to Sports Nutrition – How to Eat for maximum performance by Anita Bean

Athletics Weekly – publish regular articles from scientific studies and nutritionists with the latest advice and evidence from around the world

Public Health England – Eatwell Guide www.gove.uk/government/publications