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[5 min read] Eating to win: Sports nutrition for high performance

Nutrition can make the difference between a good athlete and a great athlete. Just as a car engine needs proper fuel for optimal performance, athletes need proper nutrition to support their strength, speed, and endurance to compete at their best.

Other than consuming enough kilojoules and macronutrients, athletes may need to consider meal timing and adequate hydration status depending on their specific sports and training regimes. Whether your patient is a professional athlete or a weekend warrior, here are some basic tips to keep in mind.


Carbohydrates deliver energy during exercise and provide fibre, vitamins, and minerals. It’s a popular misconception that a person only needs carbs if engaging in a long (more than 1-1.5 hour) bout of heavy exercise. In reality, carbs can also enhance shorter term high-intensity training (1). After exercise, carbs will help athletes recover from heavy workouts. Some good sources of carbs include:

  • Fruit
  • Oatmeal
  • Starchy vegetables (e.g. potatoes, sweet potatoes)
  • Whole grains (e.g. quinoa, rice, crackers)


Protein helps with muscle maintenance and growth, which is important for anyone who wants to improve body composition or performance. It can also reduce damage to muscles, which leads to faster recovery and better adaptation to the exercise over the long term (2). A varied diet should provide more than enough protein especially as caloric intake increases, but vegetarian and vegan athletes should work with a medical professional to ensure their protein intake is sufficient.

While the current Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram per day, the Academy for Nutrition and Dietetics and the American College of Sports Medicine recommend that athletes eat between 1.2-2.0 grams per kilogram per day (3). This allows for fluctuating requirements based around specific training sessions, seasons of competition, and individual considerations.


Water is one of the most important nutrients for athletes. Water loss through sweat may vary between individuals and the type of environment the activity is taking place in (4). For example, sweat rates may increase dramatically in hot and humid weather, and competing at high altitudes also increases water needs. Athletes should keep a water bottle nearby and continue to drink during and after their workout, as becoming dehydrated can impair performance and increase the risk of heat illness.

The bottom line

While a balanced diet including a variety of foods is still important, athletes may need to adjust their diet from one day to the next. Physicians in primary care are well-placed to educate athletes on good nutrition strategies that account for individual health factors and training regimes.

Learn more about sports nutrition in the online Professional Diploma Program in Medical Nutrition.


Lynette Law, Provisional Accredited Practising Dietitian (Provisional)

See more recent research.


  1. Kanter M. High-Quality Carbohydrates and Physical Performance: Expert Panel Report. Nutr Today. 2018;53(1):35-9.
  2. Jäger R, Kerksick CM, Campbell BI, Cribb PJ, Wells SD, Skwiat TM, et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017;14:20-.
  3. Thomas DT, Erdman KA, Burke LM. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2016;116(3):501-28.
  4. Belval LN, Hosokawa Y, Casa DJ, Adams WM, Armstrong LE, Baker LB, et al. Practical Hydration Solutions for Sports. Nutrients. 2019;11(7):1550.

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