Nutrition for Athletes: Optimal Diet For Sport and Exercise

Nutritious foods for athletes

There aren't many certainties in life, but one thing’s for sure—athletes need the proper nutrition to maximise their potential and elevate their performance. It’s a no-brainer in the world of sport and fitness.

But what does this mean exactly?

Sports nutrition is all about using the power of diet and supplements to support every aspect of your athletic journey.

From the right foods and nutrients to the best hydration practices and even supplements, we've got you covered.

One key thing to keep in mind is that some people often require different amounts of nutrients depending on their level of fitness. 

That's why it's important to tailor your nutrition to meet the unique demands of your sport and your body.

When sports nutrition is combined with other aspects of your athletic development, like training, the results can be truly game-changing.

Nutrition and athletic performance are intrinsically linked. Whether your goal is to lose body weight, gain muscle mass, maximise your protein intake—or generally improve your sports performance—creating a tailored athlete nutrition plan is a vital part of the process.

By optimising your nutrition alongside your workouts, you can unlock your full potential and achieve peak performance.

From advice that will serve as a solid foundation for your nutritional journey to information about sports drinks and sports supplements and their potential benefits, we're here to give you a comprehensive guide on all things sports nutrition.

Ready to dive in? Let’s go.

What is sports nutrition?

Sports nutrition is all about studying and implementing a strategic diet plan that specifically supports your performance on the field, court, or wherever your sport takes you.

To achieve your best results, it's crucial to fuel your body with the right types and amounts of nutrients.

That means finding the perfect balance of protein, carbohydrates, fats, fibre, and more. 

These essential elements provide the energy you need to power through your workouts and competitions, while also helping with sports recovery.

But it's not just about the food you eat.

Hydration is key, too. Proper fluid intake ensures you're maximising your energy levels and supporting your body's ability to perform at its peak.

Sports nutrition is particularly popular in endurance and strengthening sports because these activities place high demands on your body, requiring sustained energy, muscle repair, and recovery.

Athlete drinking water
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Why is sports nutrition important?

Just like putting the right fuel in a car, giving your body the proper nutrients is key to unlocking your full potential. 

Nutrition is what gives your body the energy it needs to move and conquer those tough workouts or dominate in your sport. 

It's all about fueling yourself with the right mix of nutrients, including protein, carbohydrates, fats, and more. 

Sports nutrition is all about three fundamental principles that can take your performance to the next level. 

These principles may look different for each person, depending on the specific goals of their sport.

Let's break it down...

Fuelling: Fuelling is all about providing your body with the right foods to boost your stamina, strength, and mental clarity. By nourishing yourself with nutrient-rich foods, you can power through your workouts and competitions with ease.

Hydration: This principle is all about keeping yourself properly hydrated to prevent dehydration, fatigue, and optimise your muscle performance. By replenishing fluids regularly, you'll be able to push yourself further and perform at your peak.

Recovery: After all that hard work, your body needs time to recover and rebuild. Give your body the rest it deserves and provide it with proper nutrition to repair muscles and replenish energy stores. This will help you bounce back stronger and continue to progress in your sport.


Remember, these principles may look different for each individual based on their sport-specific goals.

SmartTip: Recover faster and keep speeding towards your performance goals with our Smart Guide on recovery

Do I need to be an athlete to benefit from an athlete meal plan?

The truth is, anyone who's eager to enhance their fitness journey can benefit from the power of sports nutrition.

Whether you're hitting the gym regularly or training for a marathon, understanding how to fuel your body and stay hydrated is essential.

Let's delve into the key principles and see what sports performance nutrition might look like for both the average gym-goer and an athlete’s diet.

Average-gym goers

For the average gym-goer, a typical healthy diet might involve fueling your body…

  • 50% carbohydrates
  • 30% fat
  • 20% protein

Plus, aim for five or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day, don't forget hydration— try to for at least two litres of fluids per day.

Before your workout, consider having a high-carbohydrate snack such as wholemeal toast. 

After your workout, have a meal containing a mix of carbohydrates and protein to restore energy and repair muscles.

Elite marathon runners

For elite marathon runners, the principles of sports nutrition change slightly…

  • 65% carbohydrates
  • 20% fat
  • 15% protein

Elite marathon runners and endurance athletes require a higher calorie intake due to increased training intensity. Runners also need a higher carbohydrate intake to increase glycogen stores for more available energy.

SmartTip: Make sure to take in ample fluids to avoid muscle fatigue and injury risk.

To aid in recovery, marathon runners would benefit from having a carbohydrate and protein-rich snack within 30 minutes of finishing a training session, like a banana with a protein shake.

Bodybuilding lifters

When it comes to those athletes looking to pack on muscle and lean mass, protein takes a more prominent role…

  • 55–60% carbohydrates
  • 30–35% protein
  • 15–20% fat

But it's important not to get too caught up in obsessing over protein. While it's important for muscle growth—it's just one piece of the puzzle.

It's also essential to eat enough carbohydrates to provide the energy needed for workouts, keep dietary fat in check, and pay attention to overall calorie intake.

Building muscle takes time and patience, but with the right nutrition approach, you'll be well on your way to achieving your goals and creating a stronger, leaner physique.

SmartTip: Level up your nutrition with our essential guide on the muscle-building foods you need to succeed.
Tired man in the gym
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How can I tell if my diet is lacking?

Signs that you’re missing essential nutrients from your diet include fatigue, irregularities in your bodily functions, and poor sports performance. 

Let's talk about some signs that your diet might not be cutting it in the fuel department. 

If you notice any of these signs, it's time to take action.

All-day fatigue

Now, a little fatigue after practice or games is normal. But if you find yourself feeling tired all day long, and it's affecting both your athletic performance and your ability to focus (like in school or other activities)—it's possible that your diet might be to blame.

So, making sure you're getting the right nutrients can help you kick fatigue to the curb.

Irregular menstrual cycle

Ladies, this one's for you. If your menstrual cycle suddenly becomes irregular, with light periods, missed periods, or even skipped months, it could be a sign that your calorie intake is too low.

This hormonal imbalance puts you at a higher risk for stress fractures, and we definitely don't want that.

Remember, fueling your body properly is essential for maintaining a healthy cycle.

Persistent weight loss

While exercise performance can help shed several kg of body weight, it's important to make sure you're meeting your body's demands by fueling it with the right nutrients.

If you persistently lose weight without intending to, it might be time to reassess your sports diet and make sure you're getting enough fuel to stabilise your weight.

Sports performance plateau

You're giving it your all in training, but you notice that your progress is stalling. Don't worry, it happens to the best of us.

But here's the exciting part—improving the quality of the nutrients you eat can often break through that plateau and reignite your performance.

What is the best nutrition for sports performance?

Macronutrients: Protein, carbs, and fat—these epic sources of fuel will elevate your performance.

These components are the building blocks of food that provide your body with the energy and nutrients it needs to thrive.

But here's the thing…when it comes to supporting high-performance training, finding the right balance of macronutrients is key.

When you fuel your body with the right balance of protein, carbs, and fat, you optimise your performance, enhance recovery, and promote muscle growth.

Protein

Protein serves as the building blocks of your amazing body. You know how they say Rome wasn't built in a day? Well, building muscle, skin, bones, and teeth takes some serious work, and protein helps get the job done.

While proteins are typically found in animal sources, there's good news for our plant-based friends—some veggies and grains also provide protein—so you've got options.

When it comes to choosing proteins, aim for lean meats most of the time, such as…

  • Chicken breast
  • Lean ground turkey
  • Fish
  • Tofu
  • Lean cuts of beef or pork
  • Grains such as quinoa
  • Low-fat cheese and cottage cheese
  • Legumes
  • Eggs and egg whites

Protein plays a vital role in muscle recovery and growth by promoting muscle protein synthesis—the process of building new muscle. So, if you're looking to build muscle mass, protein is your new BFF.

So, how much protein should you aim for?

SmartTip: The general recommendation for protein intake to support lean body mass and sports performance is about 0.7-1.0 grams per pound of body weight per day. (1)

That's your goal, but don't stress—let's work together to find the right balance for you.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are the fuel that powers your daily functions, from high-intensity exercise to even the simplest act of breathing, thinking, and, yes, even eating.

When it comes to carbs, it's all about finding the right balance. You should aim to get at least half of your daily carbs from fibre-rich sources…

  • Brown rice
  • Whole grain bread
  • Legumes
  • Quinoa
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Low sugar cereal
  • Rice cakes
  • Fruit
  • Non-starchy vegetables like broccoli and carrots

But, naturally, we're all about indulging every now and then too.

SmartTip: The other half of your carb intake can come from simpler starches like white rice, white potatoes, pasta, and those beloved occasional sweets and desserts.

When it's time to top off your energy stores, simple carbs around training sessions are your secret weapon.

They help replenish glycogen stores, which are your body's stored form of carbs.

The grams of carbs you should consume daily can vary depending on your sport and which part of the season you're in. An ultramarathon runner will have different carb needs compared to an Olympic weightlifter. It's all about finding what works best for you.

SmartFact: As a general rule, carbs should make up 45-65% of your total calories. So, if you consume 2,500 calories per day, that would mean around 280-405 grams of carbs.

You can adjust your carb intake based on your energy demands for different sports and training sessions.

Fat

While most people rely on carbohydrates as their primary energy source, fats step in as the supporting players.

But, in special cases like keto-adapted athletes, fats take the spotlight and provide a larger portion of daily energy needs.

Fats are unique because they pack a punch, giving you nine calories per gram, while protein and carbs offer four calories per gram. 

SmartFact: Fats do more than just provide energy. They lend a hand in hormone production (2), play a role in cell membrane structure, and help with metabolic processes.

When it comes to sports and exercise, fats are your secret weapon, providing valuable calorie fuel, supporting those sport-related hormones, and aiding in post-workout recovery. 

Mighty omega-3 fatty acids—with their anti-inflammatory properties—have been shown to help athletes bounce back from intense training sessions (3). So, make friends with foods rich in omega-3s like…

  • Fatty fish
  • Seeds such as sunflower, chia, hemp, flax
  • Whole eggs
  • Olive oil
  • Avocado
  • Nuts and nut butter

When it comes to the grand scheme of things, after you've fueled up on protein and carbs, fats will make up the remainder of your calorie intake.

SmartTip: Generally, aim for 20 to 35% of your overall calories to come from fats.

What is the best hydration for sports performance?

When you exercise, your body starts sweating to cool itself down, leading to a loss of fluids and electrolytes.

That's why staying hydrated is crucial, especially during sustained high-intensity workouts. 

SmartTip: Before any intense training session or competition, make it a habit to drink at least 16 ounces (that's roughly half a litre) of fluids within 2 hours beforehand.

During an intense training session, aim to consume six to eight ounces of fluid every 15 minutes. It's all about maintaining a good fluid balance to keep your performance strong and steady.

Consume plenty of water

Water is more than just a thirst-quencher; it makes up the majority of your body weight and plays a critical role in keeping everything running smoothly. 

You lose water throughout the day (4), not just by visiting the bathroom, but also through sweat, faeces, your skin, and even the air you exhale. 

To make sure you stay at the top of your game, it's recommended to drink fluids regularly throughout the day.

SmartFact: For adult women, the recommended daily fluid intake is around 91 ounces, which is roughly 2.7 litres. And for adult men, it's suggested to aim for about 125 ounces, which is approximately 3.7 litres (5).

Utilise sports drinks and energy drinks

In today's fast-paced world, energy drinks have become the go-to choice for athletes and fitness enthusiasts like you, seeking a quick and effective way to recharge during intense workouts. 

A sports drink is specially formulated to address two crucial aspects of athletic performance: carbohydrate replenishment and electrolyte balance (6).

Carbs are your mighty fuel source during exercise, providing you with the energy your muscles need to perform at their peak.

Meanwhile, electrolytes like sodium, potassium, and magnesium play a vital role in keeping you hydrated, supporting your muscle function, and maintaining overall fluid balance (7).

Packed with fast-acting carbohydrates like glucose or maltodextrin, these drinks give you an instant boost. You'll feel the surge of stamina and endurance as you power through those high-intensity activities.

Energy drinks are designed to keep you properly hydrated during those long and intense workouts.

By providing a perfect balance of carbohydrates and electrolytes, they keep your fluid levels in check, preventing dehydration and ensuring you don't experience that dreaded drop in performance. 

What are the best nutritional supplements for sports performance?

A range of legal sports supplements can give you that extra boost in your workouts and help you reach your peak performance.

These amazing products are specially formulated to support your body before, during, or after those intense sweat sessions. They've got your back in a few powerful ways…

Meeting your nutritional needs 

One of the key roles of sports supplements is to provide your body with the nutrients it needs to thrive, such as protein. 

Protein is like the building blocks for your muscles, helping them recover, repair, and grow stronger. So, if you need an extra protein punch, these supplements are here to help you out.

Deficiency no more 

Nutrient deficiencies can hold you back from reaching your full potential. Sports supplements can help you bridge the gap when it comes to essential nutrients your body may be lacking. 

Unleash your athletic prowess 

Want to take your athletic performance to new heights? Sports supplements can help you do just that. They are designed to enhance your performance, giving you that edge you need to crush your goals. 

Personal fitness goals, unlocked

Whether you're aiming to build muscle, shed some extra pounds, or improve overall fitness, these supplements can assist you in reaching your personal fitness peak.

SmartTip: Sports supplements are not a replacement for a healthy diet. They're a powerful addition to it. Think of them as your fitness booster, empowering your body with the extra nutrients it needs to thrive.

But what are the best and most effective science-backed supplements to plug any potential gaps?

Protein powder

Protein powders and protein supplements are a great source of protein in a convenient and easy-to-use form.

They come in different varieties such as whey, egg white, pea, brown rice, and soy, each with its own unique benefits, and can provide you with a variety of protein sources to choose from.

SmartFact: Protein powders contain around 10 to 25 grams of protein per scoop, making it easier to meet your daily protein needs.

Whether you're a fitness enthusiast or just starting on your wellness journey, protein powders make it easier to consume a solid dose of protein.

SmartFact: Research (8) suggests that consuming a protein supplement before or after your workout can help promote recovery and increase lean body mass.

Fish oils

Adding omega-3 fats, such as fish oil, to your diet may have benefits for sports performance (9) and recovery (10) from intense exercise.

While you can obtain omega-3s from foods like fatty fish, flax and chia seeds, nuts, and soybeans—supplementing with fish oil can be a helpful option if you don't regularly consume these foods.

For people following a vegetarian or vegan diet, plant-based omega-3 supplements are also available.

These supplements offer a suitable alternative to ensure an adequate intake of omega-3 fatty acids.

Athlete drinking supplement
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​​Creatine

Creatine is a compound produced by your body from amino acids, and you can also find traces of it in lean meat and fish. It helps in energy production during short, high-intensity activities.

SmartFact: Studies (11) have identified that supplementing with 5g of creatine monohydrate per day—the most common form—can improve power and strength output during resistance training, and this benefit may transfer to sports performance.

Unlike other compounds, creatine has modest effects, and most sporting federations do not classify it as a banned substance.

Due to their wide availability and low cost, as well as supporting evidence, creatine supplements may be beneficial for some athletes.

Vitamins and minerals

Many athletes opt to add high-quality multivitamins to their routine to ensure they are meeting their nutritional needs. This can help bridge any potential gaps in their diet.

For most individuals, taking a multivitamin is a sensible choice as the potential benefits outweigh the risks.

Vitamin D supplementation is commonly seen among athletes, especially in regions with limited sun exposure during winter months.

Low levels of vitamin D have been associated (12) with possible impacts on sports performance, making supplementation a common recommendation.

Get Smart with your Supplements

In addition to getting into good nutritional and lifestyle habits, taking the right supplements will elevate and improve performance.

Not only will working with the right supplements fill in any nutritional gaps and give you energy but there are certain products or formulas that can improve your focus.

Our Raise Performance Kit contains three supplements designed to power up your training sessions, keep you topped up with body-boosting electrolytes as well as essential branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs)—and sharpen your mental focus when it counts most.

Check out our Raise Performance Kit today and level up your performance in ways you never thought possible.

We hope you found this Smart guide helpful, and if you’d like tailored recommendations on the supplements that will suit your specific goals, try our quickfire Smart Quiz.

Sources

Smart Protein is committed to sourcing only the best and scientifically-based research in our articles.

1. BMC/BioMed Central

​​https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12970-017-0177-8

2. Ncbi

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6628852/

3. Ncbi

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7760705/

4. PubMed

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11380828/

5. National Academies

https://www.nationalacademies.org/our-work/summary-report-of-the-dietary-reference-intakes

6. MedLine

https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002350.htm

7. PubMed

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9571704?dopt=Abstract

8. PubMed

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5537849/

9. Ncbi

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7760705/

10. Ncbi

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7490155/

11. Jissn

https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12970-017-0173-z

12. Ncbi

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7071499/

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