Food for Activity

The athlete’s schedule generally follows a 3-phase cycle: training, competition and recovery. Each of these phases can be maximised by following the right diet.

Diet during training

During training, your energy needs depend on your body weight and composition, level of fitness, as well as the intensity, duration and frequency of your exercise. The harder, longer and more often you exercise, the more energy you require for your muscles.

A diet with plenty of carbohydrates is the basis of a winning training diet. The more you train, the greater your daily carbohydrate needs are. Your protein requirements only increase slightly due to training and this will most likely be met by your increased energy intake.

As minerals and vitamins are provided in sufficient quantities by food, it is unlikely you will need supplements if following a balanced and nutritious diet. Adequate fluid intake is crucial before, during and after training.

"Survival for the Fittest" is the The Australian Institute of Sport official cookbook for busy athletes and "Survival from the Fittest" is the companion cookbook from athletes of the AIS. These books include nutritious and delicious recipes that are ideal for athletes in training as well as the whole family. Simply click on the above links to find out more.

Diet during competition

Competition nutrition strategies will vary according to the needs of your sport and the practical considerations, such as timetables and rules. In endurance sports, such as marathon running, energy and fluid intake is vital. Your pre-event meal will provide you with a final opportunity to top up food and fluid levels before competing. Choose foods that are high in carbohydrate, moderate in protein, low in fat and fibre. Practice using your pre-event meal during training. Liquid supplements provide fluid and energy and are often better tolerated than a solid meal, particularly if you are feeling nervous.

If your sport allows, aim to drink 150-350mL every 15 to 20 minutes during exercise. Do not wait to feel thirsty before drinking – thirst is a sign that you may already be dehydrated. In events lasting longer than 1 hour, carbohydrate needs to be consumed regularly. Sports drinks are a convenient way of supplying both carbohydrate and fluid. During events lasting more than 2.5 hours, you might choose to eat solid foods in addition to drinking. Choose high carbohydrate foods which are easy to digest such as energy-performance bars, carbohydrate gels, bananas and confectionery. It is important to develop your own routine, based on your individual needs and likes which you will have fine tuned through experience.

Recovery diet

Your recovery diet is an active part of training and competition, and will help your body to recuperate from intense physical exercise.

Eating during the recovery period is intended to rebuild carbohydrate and protein reserves and rehydrate the body. Ideally, you should start to drink as soon as your activity is over, even before you take a shower. If you are involved in repeated bouts of activity, you might not have a lot of time for recovery.

Make sure that you have access to ready-to-eat foods which will restore your carbohydrate and fluid supplies. Sports drinks will help with a speedy recovery and you may have some of your favourite carbohydrate-rich recovery snacks.

The first 2 hours after exercise is the most crucial time for recovery, when the time between exercise sessions is short (less than 8 hours). If recovery time until the next session is longer (12 hours or more), timing of your recovery snack is not as critical. However, it is still important to eat plenty of carbohydrate. If your muscle fuel stores (i.e. glycogen) are low, it could take up to 2 days to completely replenish these. Take advantage of your body’s desire to replace carbohydrate stores immediately after exercise. The body replaces energy stores at the fastest rate when quick–release carbohydrate foods (i.e. high glycaemic index (GI) foods) and drinks are eaten soon after exercise. If you don’t feel like eating immediately after exercise, try a sports drink, as these supply carbohydrate, electrolytes and fluid. A larger meal or several high carbohydrate snacks can be eaten later when you have cooled down and feel more comfortable. Including some protein in this meal may help with muscle repair.

Immediate recovery foods*

  • 800mL sports drink or cordial (average)
  • 50g jelly beans
  • 3 slices fruit (watermelon, rockmelon and pineapple)
  • 2 carbohydrate gels
  • 1 honey sandwich on thick bread
  • 1 banana sandwich

* High GI carbohydrate foods

Continued recovery foods**

  • 1 cup milkshake or fruit smoothie
  • 1 meat, chicken or cheese sandwich and fruit juice
  • 1 tub fruit yogurt and banana
  • 1 bowl of breakfast cereal and milk
  • 250g of baked beans on 2 slices toast
  • 1½ cups cooked pasta with tomato-based sauce
  • 1 large pita bread with cheese and salad

** Contain carbohydrate and protein