The sports pyramid has been developed as a guide for athletes on choosing foods to ensure a good dietary intake of all the necessary nutrients. However, further sports specific and individualised nutrition advice from an appropriately qualified sports dietitian or nutritionist is helpful to address particular training and competition goals. In some cases sports supplements may be required.
For athletes too, the starting point for nutritional advice is a healthy balanced and varied diet based on eating the right amount of foods from each food group, including vegetables, fruit, potatoes, rice, pasta, oil, legumes, nuts, fish, meat, milk and milk products. Eating a wide range of foods from each food group will generally provide the body with the required quantity of energy and essential nutrients. However due to their higher energy expenditure athletes usually need more energy and nutrients which can usually be achieved by increasing their consumption of foods from each of the basic food groups. So by eating and drinking more, athletes automatically take in more energy from protein, carbohydrate, fats and also more vitamins and minerals.
Timing of protein-rich products
For athletes undergoing intensive training to improve sports performance, it is important to pay special attention to the distribution of protein intake over the day. Including a protein rich food in each meal and snack (breakfast, lunch, dinner, before going to sleep, and after exercise) can optimise muscle protein synthesis. In general, this is more likely to be achieved with lunch and dinner, but athletes are advised to pay special attention to the other meals and snacks. For example, research has shown that nutrition intakes of elite athletes at breakfast and at night before going to sleep often contains less protein than recommended. (Gillen et al., 2016)
Apart from eating ‘regular’ foods, it may be convenient for an athlete to make use of sports-specific nutritional products. These sports foods have been specifically developed for use immediately before, during or after training and exercise, and include sports drinks, sports bars, sports gels and protein shakes. Immediately before and after exercise the emphasis is placed on providing fluid and energy (carbohydrates) in a readily available form so as to avoid gastro-intestinal complaints. Protein is also important during the recovery phase after exercise, because of the role it plays in the maintenance and development of muscle mass. The need for these products depends on the type, duration and intensity of the exercise and with longer and more intense the exercise, there tends to be a greater use of supplementary sports-specific nutrition.
Good basic nutrition usually provides an athlete with sufficient nutrients and additional supplements (such as vitamin tablets) are not needed. Still, in some cases a shortage of certain nutrients may occur with an athlete, such as iron or vitamin D. Athletes who have to keep an eye on their weight, and vegetarians or athletes who follow a restrictive diet should pay extra attention to these nutrients. In such cases a supplement can be useful to complement dietary intake. Also performance enhancing supplements, such as creatine, caffeine and ß-alanine, are available. The use of supplements must be carefully considered with respect to safety because they can be contaminated with banned substances. Therefore athletes are advised to make use of supplements that have been Batch Tested in accordance with UK Sport anti-doping guidelines (UKAD).