The impact of nutrition on training and exercise

For anyone who enjoys regular exercise, sports nutrition can play a big part in helping you meet your fitness goals.  

A healthy balanced diet can have a positive impact on your training and performance, not to mention your overall health and wellbeing (1,4). Whether you’re at the top of your game or just beginning your fitness journey, here we’re going to look at the essentials of sports nutrition, what other factors can have an impact, and some top tips for creating a plan that works for you. 

The essentials of sports nutrition

Whatever your level of physical activity, a healthy balanced diet combined with regular exercise will support your sustained fitness goals and overall health and wellbeing. If you like to go the gym, or you’re competing at a high level in your preferred sport, optimising your nutrition can help to (1,2,3):  

  • Improve your endurance and athletic performance 

  • Minimise your risk of injury 

  • Recover more effectively after exercise

When you take part in physical activity your body uses lots more energy, so it’s important that this is replenished through the diet.

Macronutrients - why do they matter for sports nutrition?

Also known as ‘macros’, macronutrients are nutrients which your body needs in larger amounts to provide an important source of energy (4). This is a particularly important consideration when you’re working out or playing sports, as physical activity places larger energy demands on the body.

There are three types of macronutrients, namely protein, carbohydrates and fat. These nutrients are essential for the body to carry out vital functions (4)

To maximise the impact of your training and exercise, getting the right balance of these macronutrients (along with adequate hydration) is key. The UK Eat Well guide gives guidance on the proportions of each food group that should make up your diet (5). This includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, fibre-rich starchy carbohydrates, a range of protein sources and unsaturated fats and oils. 

Bear in mind that these are purely guidelines, and a healthy diet may look different person to person depending on several factors - including the type and level of training and exercise you’re doing. 

If you have questions about your individual sports nutrition and dietary requirements, it’s always a good idea to speak to a qualified healthcare professional.

sport couple

Top tips to support your training

While a healthy and balanced diet is certainly very important when you’re looking to reach your peak potential, there are other factors you’ll also need to consider. These include: 

  • Hydration

  • Meal timing 

  • Consistency

  • Rest and sleep

Hydration

Water is the largest constituent in the body and is essential for good health (7), so ensuring that you stay hydrated is crucial! 

During training and exercise, our body temperature rises, and we lose fluids through our skin by sweating. How much you’ll need to drink depends on the level and intensity of the exercise you’re doing, and how much you sweat. As a general rule of thumb, the more you sweat, the more fluids you’ll need to drink in order to stay hydrated (1).

It’s important to get enough fluid pre workout, as well as during and after exercise. If you don’t get enough, it can lead to dehydration which can negatively impact your performance and lead to you feeling more tired, more quickly, during a training session (3).

Some people like to use sports drinks or energy gels during exercise because they contain sodium and other electrolytes. Whilst not essential, they help to rehydrate and replace the salt you lost through our sweat, particularly important if you’re exercising for prolonged periods longer than one hour (3,6).  

Consistency

When you’re exercising, it’s important to trust the process and set small, realistic goals. As the saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and there’s no such thing as ‘overnight results’ when it comes to your fitness goals. Consistency can make or break your fitness and sports nutrition journey, but there are some positive habits you can build into your routine to help you along the way. 

Writing a shopping list, planning your workouts, finding an exercise partner - all of these things add up to help build sustainable habits for a healthier lifestyle.

Rest and sleep

Never underestimate the importance of sleep and rest. They’re an essential part of your recovery and will help you to function at your best (8). For healthy adults, the recommendation is to get between seven and nine hours of sleep a night (9)

If you’re having trouble sleeping, think about how you can create a good bedtime routine. Putting devices away well before going to bed, having a hot bath and low lighting can all be a good foundation for a solid night’s sleep. 

sport couple

How to choose the most effective sports nutrition

When it comes to sports nutrition, your dietary needs may vary depending on what goals you’d like to achieve. Let’s have a look at some examples: 

Muscle growth

If you’re looking to build muscle, protein is an important nutrient to consider due to its role in muscle growth and recovery after exercise (10). Foods like lean meat and poultry, fish as well as legumes, pulses, eggs and dairy products, are all good sources of protein that you can incorporate into your daily diet.

You can find out more about protein and muscle growth here.

Endurance

Carbohydrates are the main source of fuel used by the body. If you train for long periods of time or regularly do endurance exercises (such as running or swimming), carbohydrates are particularly important to provide you with energy and support both performance and recovery (3). To ensure you have enough energy to train or perform at your best, it’s a good idea to consume a source of carbohydrates 2-3 hours before exercise (6).

How to create a sports nutrition plan

If you’re starting from scratch, think about your individual fitness goals and taking small realistic steps, as this is key to building long-term habits. 

Here are some of our top tips:

  • Pack your diet with a variety of fruits and vegetables. The more colourful, the better! Different fruits and vegetables provide different vitamins and minerals as well as fibre and form a key part of a healthy balanced diet (12, 14).
  • Back to the macros – no matter what your sport, carbohydrates are the main source of fuel used by the body during exercise. Try to include a variety of starchy carbohydrates in your diet. Wholegrain carbohydrates such as wholemeal bread, oats and potatoes with skin provide fibre as well as other vitamins and minerals(14) – making them a great option to start your day!
  • Get enough protein. Dairy products and soya alternatives to dairy, eggs, fish and lean meats are all great sources of protein. Think about timing too - spreading your protein intake throughout the day has been shown to optimise muscle growth when combined with resistance training(10).
  • Fats still make up an important part of your macros. Current UK guidelines advise us to choose unsaturated sources of fat where possible, so things like avocados, nuts, seeds and some oily fish are a welcome addition to your diet (13).
  • Make sure you drink plenty of fluids throughout the day. If you regularly exercise, it’s important to start exercise well hydrated to prevent dehydration (3)
  • If you’re considering taking a sports nutrition supplement, ensure you always follow the recommend dosage and speak to a healthcare professional or sports nutritionist first who can help to assess whether this is right for you. 

Finally, remember that variety is the spice of life. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different foods and ingredients so you stay excited about your fitness journey. And remember, if you’re just starting out and plan on making drastic changes to your diet, it’s always advisable to speak to your healthcare professional first. 

We hope this has given you everything you need to get started on your sports nutrition journey. Happy training!

Read more

  1. British Nutrition Foundation. Nutrition for sports and exercise [online] 2020. Available at https://www.nutrition.org.uk/putting-it-into-practice/keeping-active/nutrition-for-sports-and-exercise/. [Accessed November 2023]
  2. Turnagöl HH, Koşar ŞN, Güzel Y, Aktitiz S, Atakan MM. Nutritional Considerations for Injury Prevention and Recovery in Combat Sports. Nutrients. 2021;14(1):53. Published 2021 Dec 23. doi:10.3390/nu14010053
  3. Chad M. Kerksick, Colin D. Wilborn, Michael D. Roberts, Abbie Smith-Ryan, Susan M. Kleiner, Ralf Jäger, Rick Collins, Mathew Cooke, Jaci N. Davis, Elfego Galvan, Mike Greenwood, Lonnie M. Lowery, Robert Wildman, Jose Antonio & Richard B. Kreider (2018) ISSN exercise & sports nutrition review update: research & recommendations, Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 15:1, DOI: 10.1186/s12970-018-0242-y
  4. World Health Organization. Macronutrients [online] 2023. Available at https://www.emro.who.int/health-topics/macronutrients/introduction.html#:~:text=There%20are%20three%20broad%20classes,be%20divided%20into%20three%20groups. [Accessed November 2023]
  5. The UK Eat Well Guide 2016. Available at: The Eatwell Guide - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)
  6. BDA. Sport and exercise: Food Fact Sheet. Published 2021. Available at https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/sport-exercise-nutrition.html]
  7. British Nutrition Foundation. Hydration [online].2021.Available at https://www.nutrition.org.uk/healthy-sustainable-diets/hydration/[Accessed November 2023].
  8. Watson AM. Sleep and Athletic Performance. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2017 Nov/Dec;16(6):413-418. doi: 10.1249/JSR.0000000000000418. PMID: 29135639
  9. NHS.Insomnia [online] 2021. Available at https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/insomnia/. [Accessed November 2023]
  10. Jäger R, Kerksick CM, Campbell BI, et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017;14:20. Published 2017 Jun 20. doi:10.1186/s12970-017-0177-8
  11. Antonio J, Candow DG, Forbes SC, Gualano B, Jagim AR, Kreider RB, Rawson ES, Smith-Ryan AE, VanDusseldorp TA, Willoughby DS, Ziegenfuss TN. Common questions and misconceptions about creatine supplementation: what does the scientific evidence really show? J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2021 Feb 8;18(1):13. doi: 10.1186/s12970-021-00412-w. PMID: 33557850; PMCID: PMC7871530
  12. NHS. Why 5 a day? [online] 2022. Available at https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/5-a-day/why-5-a-day/. [Accessed November 2023]
  13. NHS. Fat: the facts [online] 2023. Available at https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/food-types/different-fats-nutrition/. [Accessed November 2023]
  14. British Nutrition Foundation. A Healthy Balanced Diet. 2020. Available at: A healthy, balanced diet - British Nutrition Foundation [Accessed November 2023]
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