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The truth about sports nutrition: you can’t out-train a bad diet

Runners engaging in sports competing in a race

Whether you’re a long-distance runner, team sports enthusiast, cyclist, swimmer, Hyrox or Crossfit competitor or a keen triathlete, nutrition is key to unlocking your performance potential. However, we are all very unique individuals and finding the optimal nutritional strategy to meet our needs can be frustrating. Will supplements help me train harder? Do I need gels on my run this weekend? Is low carb better for losing body fat?  We’re here to help you figure out the best approach for you to get the most out of your training and support your long-term health in the process.

Let’s start by getting one thing straight: you can’t out-train a bad diet.  

When it comes to optimum nutrition for sports, achieving peak performance goes way beyond the concept of calories in versus calories out. And downing a protein shake the minute the last dumbbell is back on the rack is just scratching the surface.

Food is more than just fuel or an amalgam of the different macros; protein, carbohydrate and fat—it's the essential information that feeds every cell in your body. It includes micronutrients like vitamins and minerals, phytochemicals from plants, micronutrients from both animal and plant foods, water and more. However shortcutting to expensive supplements and gels without getting the basics right first is like pouring petrol into a broken engine.   

Cyclist celebrating a win ahead of competitors
Nutrition is the cornerstone of athletic performance, fuelling your body to reach peak potential and surpass your fitness goals. Source: Canva

When you eat the right kind of diet for you, and that includes what’s appropriate for your training regime, fitness level and goals, the benefits are huge! Not only improved performance, stamina and body composition but reduction in injuries and faster recovery from illness and injury. 

At this time of year there can be a renewed focus on positive health changes and committing to new and bigger challenges. This year might be your year to do your 1st (or 20th) Marathon, get on to the county football team or complete your first Sprint Triathlon. This can lead to an “All or Nothing” mentality. For example Dry January alongside sugar-free living and hitting the gym 4 times a week. Unfortunately, all too often, when the enthusiasm wears off you might be left feeling depleted and tired and no closer to achieving your dreams.

However if you take time to establish the basics, make smaller sustainable changes and build on this over time, the chance of long term success is much higher. 

Increasing the nutrient density of meals can result in more stable energy levels and better sleep, which in turn positively influences your performance and your recovery.  Then it starts to get easier to build in more improvements and more intensive training, leading to better sporting results. The cumulative effects of the right nutritional plan will help you to reach your peak potential, enhancing endurance, strength, and overall athletic prowess.

That being said, there is no one size fits all approach when it comes to sports nutrition. Everyone has their own individual goals, specific nutrient and energy demands. Balancing other health goals like weight loss or resolving digestive issues are an important part of the equation. For example, the nutritional needs of a young GAA star in their early 20s vastly differ from those of a 40-year-old mother preparing for her first major race. 

So if you have additional health goals or concerns, it can be really beneficial to work with a nutritional practitioner who will tailor an optimal plan for your individual needs. We will be launching our sports nutrition resource shortly (join the mailing list here), which takes a deeper dive into optimum sports nutrition. However, we’re eager to share our valuable insights applicable to all and provide actionable tips to kickstart your journey toward optimal performance today.

The obstacle course that is modern sports nutrition

Getting your nutrition right is more of a marathon than a sprint and unfortunately there is a lot of confusion and distraction about what is optimal. As we keep saying, there is no one size fits all approach, but there are definitely some big questions we need to address. So let’s begin at the starting line.

Protein targets to meet your gains

Protein, as a nutrient, is certainly having its day at the moment. Every food manufacturer with an eye on the prize has launched a protein version of their regular products. The shelves are awash with protein bars, yoghurts, milks and supplements. 

Clients often tell us how they struggle to meet protein requirements advised by their personal trainers. So they will opt for chugging down expensive protein shakes (before they’ve even unlaced their running shoes).

Protein plays an important role in the growth and repair of connective tissues. However, it's important to note that excessive protein consumption doesn’t automatically lead to leaner bodies or muscle gain. The body utilises protein for muscle repair and growth based on the intensity and type of training. It’s important to align protein intake with your training goals and your body composition.

Graphic showing a number of lean protein foods and meats indicating they're good for building strength
Aligning protein consumption with body composition in sports ensures optimal muscle repair and growth, enhancing athletic performance and recovery. Source: Canva

So how much protein do I need?

Most people only need about 0.8-1g of protein per kg of body weight. This amount can usually be sourced from a healthy day-to-day diet through real foods. These include:

  • fish

  • chicken

  • turkey

  • eggs

  • Greek yoghurt

And vegetable protein sources such as:

  • soya

  • nuts

  • seeds

  • beans

  • legumes. 

If your training is very intense and frequent or you are recovering from injury, you may need a little more, up to about 1.5g per kg of body weight. 

Additionally, athletes with a high BMI resulting from excess body fat, who are aiming to shed fat, might find it more beneficial to calculate their protein intake based on their goal weight rather than their current weight. For instance, if an individual currently weighs 100 kg with a BMI indicating excess body fat, but their goal weight is 80 kg, they may adjust their protein intake accordingly to support their fat loss goals while maintaining muscle mass and promoting overall health.

Eating too much protein can have consequences

The body doesn’t have a mechanism to store excess protein, except for a small store of its constituents (amino acids). So if you consume more than you need, your body will break down the excess to sugar and store it as fat, excreting surplus amino acids in urine. It will also place more stress on your kidneys as they work to remove nitrogen waste products as well as making it more challenging to maintain your desired body composition.  

A nutritional therapist or coach can help you calculate your personal needs and advise on the healthiest way to incorporate this into your diet with the right quantities and at the right time.  

Low carb vs high carb to support training goals

Deciding on your carb requirements can often lead to confusion for athletes, particularly considering the multitude of articles advocating for a low carb or keto approach to nutrition. While these diets have gained popularity for their purported benefits, it's essential for athletes to carefully assess their individual needs and goals before making dietary decisions.

So, is cutting back on carbs the way to go?

Well, it’s a question of metabolic switching.

Muscles primarily rely on glucose, derived from carbohydrates, for energy during exercise. When exercising at a medium to high intensity, the demand for energy increases significantly. While fat stores serve as a valuable energy reserve, they cannot be accessed quickly enough to meet the immediate energy needs of intense exercise. As a result, relying solely on fat for fuel during high-intensity exercise may lead to decreased performance due to the slower rate of energy production compared to carbohydrates. 

A low carb approach may not be the best choice for sports enthusiasts who have not yet trained their bodies to be efficient at switching from carb burning to fat burning as their primary fuel source.

Likewise, not eating sufficient carbohydrate following a workout will result in poor recovery.  Athletes depleting themselves of carbohydrates in the long term are at risk of decreased thyroid function, increased cortisol levels and a weakened immune system.  

Timing is everything

If you want to keep your weight on an even keel and your performance and recovery at their optimum, it’s advised that your carb intake will be periodised to match the intensity and volume of your training. 

Various complex carbohydrate foods inclusing apple, sweet potato, nuts brown rice, seeds, banana
Slow-release carbs provide sustained energy levels, promoting endurance and preventing energy crashes during physical activity. Source: Canva

The quality of your carbs is critical. 

Refined carbohydrates such as white bread, pasta, cakes and biscuits can lead to unstable blood sugar levels, resulting in energy crashes and mood swings (ever experienced that hangry feeling when food can't come soon enough?). Instead opt for a slower energy release of carbs in the form of wholegrains including brown rice, oats and wholewheat bread and starchy vegetables like butternut squash, carrots and sweet potato.

Once you’ve got the foundations in place to support your body’s requirements, you can start to think about appropriate fuelling during training sessions.  

Low fat vs high fat to support performance

The bottom line is; fats are crucial to your health.  They protect your cell membranes, moderate hormone production (including steroid hormones which your bodies use for muscle growth and repair as well as your sex hormones) and help you absorb numerous vitamins including vitamin A, D, E and K. 

Fats also help you feel satiated after a meal and fuller for longer which can really help you keep to your nutrition plan, especially when coupled with protein, helping avoid the high and lows of the blood sugar rollercoaster.

Despite this, there is still quite a focus on low fat eating among the sporting community. Even nutritious fruits like avocados are often wrongly perceived as "fattening" and consequently avoided. 

Ultimately the aim of the game is not about eating less fats but eating smarter.  Start cutting out the refined oils, including seed and vegetable oils. These are often found in cakes and biscuits, processed foods and take-aways. These are very harmful to your health, increasing inflammation due to the processing required in their manufacture. 

Source of goods fats including salmon, avocado, nuts, olive oil and seeds
Good fats help support cell function, hormone production, and nutrient absorption, enhancing overall athletic performance and recovery. Source: Canva

Instead introduce foods containing essential fatty acids (EFAs, essential because your body can’t make them, they must come from your diet). Omega 3 fatty acids EPA & DHA are particularly beneficial as they are anti-inflammatory and counteract the free radicals produced as a result of intense exercise. They can also help increase oxygen delivery to the heart. You will find them in oily fish like salmon, trout, sardines, and mackerel. Adding walnuts, hemp, flaxseed, and chia seeds to your diet can help boost your Omega 3 levels as well as providing fibre and protein, vitamins and minerals. A well planned nutrition strategy will ensure you’re getting enough of the right fats in your diet  to support your overall health and athletic performance while also avoiding harmful processed oils.

A solid foundation

Sports Nutrition might sound complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. The right nutrition comes down to building a solid foundation for your body to thrive, then tailoring macronutrient quantities, nutrient timing, and intake of specific nutrients to the requirements of your chosen sport and level of activity. 

That’s where we come in:) A thorough analysis of your current health and fitness status and discussion around your personal goals will allow us to build a diet and lifestyle plan tailored to you as an individual, while addressing any underlying symptoms or root causes which may be hampering your performance.  

Ready to take your sports nutrition to the next level? Get in touch with us today to explore how our personalised nutrition plans can support your unique needs and unlock your full athletic potential. Click here to book a free call or email

Make sure you’re subscribed to our newsletter to access our exclusive Sports Nutrition eBook out soon!

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