Sports. Some pick it up as a hobby while others pursue it as their life goal, constantly challenging themselves to beat the records set by themselves or others. When sports performance is dependent on speed, power, accuracy and endurance, paying attention to what you eat can give you that extra advantage.

Food Athletes Should Eat

Different sports require different skills. Therefore, your nutrition needs will vary based on the sport you do and your training plan. While the nutrition recommendations and nutrition plan for each sport need to be fine-tuned with your coach or sports nutritionist, here are some simple tips which may help you to power up your sports performance.

1. Water Helps You Stay Hydrated

Staying hydrated is important for any type of physical activity

A well-hydrated body performs at peak efficiency. Dehydration and over-hydration will have a negative impact on your sports performance and health. A good way to ensure that you have consumed enough fluid is to drink according to your sweat rate. Here’s how to work out your sweat rate:

Weigh yourself before and one hour after training. The difference in weight reflects the water lost during the session. In your next training session, drink sufficient water to replace the amount you will lose as sweat. Divide this quantity equally to be consumed every half-hour during your training/workout session. If the colour of your urine is pale yellow or colourless, you are well-hydrated.

Water is the best rehydration fluid and works well for workout sessions of less than 60 minutes. For endurance athletes engaging in endurance sports lasting more than an hour, and perhaps high-intensity activities, you might do better with a sports drink.

Besides hydrating your body, these specially formulated sports drinks also provide the carbohydrates needed to fuel the mind and working muscles. In addition, they provide small amounts of sodium (salt) to enhance water absorption and retention.

Related: The Drop of Life – 6 Reasons to Drink Water

2. Carbs are Energy Foods for Sports

Simple and complex carbohydrates are energy food for sports

Carbohydrates or carbs are the body’s primary energy source and the main fuel for working muscles. Carbohydrates get broken down into glucose during digestion, which can be used immediately for energy. The rest is stored as glycogen in the muscle and liver, or converted to fat when excess calories are consumed. Glycogen is the body’s storage form of carbohydrate. The more muscle glycogen stored means the more fuel you have to power your activity on game day.

Both complex carbs (starch) and simple carbs (sugars) supply energy and replenish muscle glycogen. Examples of simple carbs include table sugar, honey and the natural sugars found in milk, fruits and fruit juice. Examples of starches are grains and grain products (e.g. rice, noodles, bread, oats, chapati and biscuits), starchy vegetables (e.g. potato and yam), beans and lentils.

Carbs Foundation

The bulk of your carbs should come from complex starches and a variety of fruits and vegetables. Besides carbs, fruits and vegetables also provide vitamins, minerals, fibre and beneficial plant substances known as phytochemicals.

Occasional Carbs

Food and beverages high in added sugars (e.g. candies and sweetened drinks) should generally be minimised in the diet as they tend to contain little nutritional value. Nonetheless, sugars can be useful in sports nutrition, especially to fuel endurance activities such as marathons. After a long bout of training, sugary drinks, fruit juice and food can also help athletes reload their muscles with glycogen in preparation for the next session.

Carbohydrate Loading

Training muscles to store glycogen is useful for endurance athletes as muscle glycogen helps fuel activities of long duration effectively. To load muscles with glycogen, you have to eat a carbohydrate-rich diet throughout your training session.

A few days before an endurance event, you should taper down your exercise to allow the muscles to rest and stock up on glycogen. A competitive athlete should work with an accredited sports dietitian or nutritionist to develop a carbohydrate-loading plan for their sporting programme.

Related: A Guide to Carbs

3. Protein Supports Muscle Development and Repair

Lean meats and other sources of protein are crucial for muscle repair.

The protein requirement of professional athletes is higher than that of a person who exercises occasionally for fitness. Normal healthy individuals need about 0.8g of protein per kg of body weight. Competitive athletes may need between 1.0 to 1.6g of protein per kg body weight to support muscle development and repair.

Remember that consuming extra protein in itself does not build more muscles. You need to train regularly to build muscle strength and size.

Sources of protein include fish, lean meats, skinless poultry, eggs, milk, yoghurt, cheese, beans, bean products (e.g. tofu) and lentils. Protein-rich food supply other nutrients too, such as iron and zinc.

Related: Important Nutrients: What Should You Eat More Of?

Execute your Sports Nutrition Plan

The food you eat affects your sports performance

What you choose to eat or drink before, during and after a competition or training session can have a direct impact on your performance.

Before Physical Activity

Pre-exercise food can give you the edge, fuelling your endurance. Eating preferences and abilities vary with individuals, so you have to discover a nutrition plan that works for you before deciding what to consume, when to consume and how much to consume.

In general, choose a pre-event meal or snack that is high in carbs, and finish eating one to four hours before your training session or competition. Make sure to also drink enough fluids to fully hydrate your body.

During Physical Activity

If your activity lasts longer than an hour, you need to refuel mid-way. Endurance athletes need to pay attention to staying hydrated and getting a constant source of energy. Useful products include sports drinks and energy bars. Serious athletes need to plan and prepare for food or fuel stops to ensure that they can perform effectively.

After Physical Activity

Replacing fluid loss is crucial after strenuous physical activity. You should also refuel your muscles with carbs and protein. For muscle glycogen recovery, the sooner you eat, the better. Recovering physically and mentally from your activity will help to build your endurance for the next event.

Related: Plan Your Meals with My Healthy Plate

Practice, Practice, Practice

Practice your sports nutrition plan

With sports nutrition, one fundamental rule is that you should not change your diet or the food you eat just before the competition. Any dietary manipulation you want to try such as changing the quantity of fluid to drink and carbs to eat must be done during the training period.

Sudden dietary changes may affect your sports performance and waste your weeks and months of careful preparation. When you get into the competition, make sure you are implementing tried and successful eating strategies to power your winning performance.

Related: Diet vs Exercise: What Matters Most for Weight Loss?

A Note About Supplements

Check with your doctor before taking supplements to boost your sports performance.

As the difference between winning and losing in high-level sporting competitions is usually just a fraction of a second or a few millimetres, many athletes are tempted to try dietary or hormonal supplements for that additional sports performance boost.

If you are thinking of consuming a particular supplement, it is best to check with your sports doctor or dietitian to ensure that your supplement of choice is legal and effective. It is important to remember that supplements are no substitute for proper training, a nourishing diet and sports nutrition plan.

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