A Guide To Workout Nutrition – Diet For Sports Training

Fitness instructor holding a protein shake

If you are exercising intensively you need to start thinking about nutrition. Whether you are trying to lose fat or build more muscle, or both, then getting your diet right is vital for success. For bodybuilding, training for kickboxing competitions, football, athletics or any other active sport, you need to get your nutrition right.

Here we look at nutrition for fitness in general, then we take a look at how martial artists and runners manage their nutrition. Finally we look at some supplements and share some warnings.

Sports nutrition is undergoing constant change and the best way to stay up to date is to enroll on modern nutrition courses that will provide you with all the tools you need to become a better athlete. To maintain a healthy weight all you really need to do is eat a reasonable well balanced diet and stay within your daily calorie needs to avoid gaining weight. However, if you are looking to lose fat while building muscle, nutrition becomes more complex.

Nutrition for Exercise and Sports

Pre Workout Nutrition

What you eat before your workout affects how much energy you have. If you eat too little then your muscles may become fatigued too soon. If you eat too much you risk gaining weight.

You should consume your pre-workout meal 2 hours before your workout to ensure that it is fully digested and that the energy and nutrients are being passed on to the muscles. If you allow the glycogen reserves in your muscles to deplete, you not only become more sluggish when working out, you also start to burn muscle tissue for energy, which is a bad idea if you are trying to get fit.

It is in the pre-workout meal that you should consume slow release carbohydrates. So this is the ideal time for a large healthy salad with many mixed leaves and vegetables. Low GI carbs are the most important food choices pre-workout. You also need to be consuming a healthy supply of lean proteins from eggs, poultry, lean meats and fish.

If you are still digesting your food when it is time to workout you will suffer an energy loss as your body will be focusing on supplying blood (oxygen) to your digestive system and not your muscles.

You should then eat a snack about 15-20 minutes before your workout that provides a rich source of vitamins and supplements to aid growth and keep your working throughout the exercise. This is a good time to have a strong coffee too as the caffeine boost will give your more mental energy during the workout which will help you train harder.

Carbohydrate Loading For Athletes

If you will be performing a very long and enduring activity, such as a long distance run or cycle, you should take in extra carbohydrate to ensure that your muscles will have all the energy they need. This is known as carbohydrate loading in athletics.

Intra Workout Nutrition

If you are doing a long and intensive workout you need some nutrition during training. If you are weight training then all you really need is some additional fast release carbohydrates to give you an extra boost. Some bodybuilders like to take a branched chain amino acids supplement too. Remember that hydration is also important during longer workouts.

Post Workout Nutrition

Immediately after a workout you need to consume some fast release proteins if you have done a big weight training session and carbohydrates if you have done an intensive cardio session or endurance session.

The timing of the meal after a training session is vital. Research has shown that consuming a high protein snack, such as a protein shake, should be done within 30 minutes of finishing exercising. Later than this, and the benefits of the extra protein become less important. If the exercise was strenuous and lasted longer than 90 minutes, the body’s glycogen stores will also need refueling. Consuming foods and drinks high in carbohydrates right after exercise will help to increase the refueling glycogen stores. Research has found that a high-carbohydrate food or drink should be consumed within two hours after exercise in order to help glycogen re-synthesis.

For protein, whey protein shakes are a popular choice as you can consume them quickly and the body digests and absorbs the proteins into the blood system very fast. For carbohydrate a glucose based rehydration drink is best, although an low GI (quick release) food will work.

Post Workout Fluid Replacement / Hydration Drinks

There are many different fluid replacement drinks on the market. The top selling brands include Lucazade, Gatorade, Isotar and Dexters. However, the jury is out on how effective these really are on speeding up hydration and replacing lost minerals. In fact many long distance runners have nutritionists prepare their own home made sports drinks.

If you wish to make your own sports rehydration drink, then the best advice is to experiment. Try starting with the following recipe and then modify as you see fit:

  • 2 litres of water
  • 150 ml (about half a cup) of your favorite fruit juice
  • 5 table spoons of sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon of salt

Reduce the salt or increase sugar depending on your needs. If you sweat very heavily you may lose a lot more fluid and minerals than your running partner.

Workout Nutrition for Recovery

If your workout was very intensive and long then you will need some additional carbs too afterwards. Ideally you should eat these carbs before the main protein meal. If you are not receiving adequate nutrition after your workout then you are not only slowing down muscle growth but also increasing recovery time.

You should try to eat 3g of carbs for every kg you weigh every two hours after the exercise, ideally until bed time. This is to replenish all glycogen reserves which helps to keep anabolism (growth) maximized.

Be Careful With Post Workout Shakes

We already mentioned these, but they need explained a little more. You have to be careful with any supplements such as shakes. A very common mistake that people make is consuming too many calories when working out, and shakes are one of the easiest ways to exceed your daily calories needs.

If you are trying to lose weight (lose fat) then ensure that you calculate total calories consumed each day very accurately. A post workout whey protein shake is the best way to get a quick hit of protein after a workout but you must ensure that you are not overeating if you want to lose fat.

Best Post Workout Protein

Whey Protein shakes are the best post-workout supplements as they are the quickest the digest and absorb  into the blood supply, which means that the proteins and amino-acids are distributed to the muscles to aid recovery and growth.

There are many brands on the market, really the most important factor is ensuring that you are getting a 100% whey protein as some of the “muscle building protein” shakes also contain carbohydrates, which although are essential also, can push you over your daily carb / calories limits without you realising.

Best Post Workout Carbohydrates

This is actually one area of exercise nutrition that is under debate still. Should you take extra carbs after working out, or is it counter productive? Some nutritionists believe that loading up on carbs after a workout aids protein synthesis, i.e. it helps the body to create proteins to start rebuilding muscle tissue.

“In conclusion, coingestion of carbohydrate during recovery does not further stimulate post exercise muscle protein synthesis when ample protein is ingested.”

The best scientific research to date is the Dutch study on protein synthesis which concluded that carbs after a workout did not increase protein synthesis at all.

Count Your Calories Before Eating Your Carbs and Proteins

Remember, if your goal is to lose fat then is it absolutely vital that you control calorific intake. Refer to the calorie table to determine your needs and keep calories below your maintenance level. Although getting the balance and timing of proteins and carbohydrates is important, do not forget your ultimate goals. If you goal is to lose fat, get ripped muscles or a 6 pack, then you have to control your eating.

Protein Should Be Added To Drinks For Endurance Athletes

In November 2012 sports science researchers reported in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research that when protein was added to a carbohydrate based sports drink endurance cyclists experienced an increase in performance.

Long distance runners, cyclists and other endurance athletes often refuel mid-race to help maintain carbohydrate levels (glycogen in the muscles). Traditionally drinks are just carbohydrates (glucose, maltodextrin, and fructose) and other some vitamins. However, sports nutritionists have found that adding protein increases performance.

In the studies athletes were made to exercise moderate intensity for 3 hours (VO2 max 45-70%) and then at a higher intensity (VO2 74-85%) until exhausted.

Athletes were given supplements every 20 minutes through the exercise, with a 6% carbohydrate supplement or a 3% carbohydrate/1.2% protein supplement (half the carbs with added proteins).

The study found that the athletes taking the protein could work harder for longer, and so concluded that a moderate amount of protein can improve aerobic endurance at high intensities, even though they contain less carbohydrate and fewer calories.

Sports Nutrition Evolution

We are still learning how specific nutrients affect the growth, development and function of the human body in different ways. Elite athletes need to optimize their fitness routines and nutrition to ensure that they reach their peak performance.

The research and findings from the athletic community and sport scientists can certainly aid the rest of us in developing fit and healthy bodies. However, it is important to remember that what the athletes are doing is aim to reach their maximum potential in any given activity. To be fit and healthy you do not need to go to the lengths that pro athletes go. Just eat healthy, get a good balanced of nutrients and exercise hard, and most of all, enjoy it!

30 Comments on “A Guide To Workout Nutrition – Diet For Sports Training”

  1. Awsome! No wonder soccer and beer go so well together thnx for the info.:)

  2. Ok here’s the deal. I am currently 285 lbs and stand at 6 ft. 1 inch but I look like I am somewhere in the neighborhood of 250. Everyone I meet is amazed that I weigh as much as I do since I don’t look it. I have planned the following work out for myself tonight:

    20 minute jog followed by

    3 sets of 10 count push ups

    3 sets of 10 sit ups

    3 sets of curls

    These will be done in a circuit with 30 sec rest in between.

    My question is what would you suggest I have to eat afterwards? I have planned to have baked chicken with steamed green beans and maybe half of a sweet potatoe.

    Should I eat something else? Should I have a protein shake after the workout. When it comes to nutrition I am lost.

  3. MotleyHealth says:

    If your goal is to lose weight, and I assume it is, then you may be best off not eating afterwards, or just having a very light snack. With those stats your BMI is 37.6, so even if you are very muscular you must still be carry a fair amount of excess fat. You need to reduce calories to lose weight.

    You suggestion sounds good for the main meal of the day. For breakfast you should eat a couple of eggs on 1 slice of wholemeal, and then for lunch have your main meal, then just soup (no bread) in the evening. Only by reducing calories will you start to burn off fat.

  4. I wanted to workout after work before supper. Are you saying that I shouldn’t eat supper after I workout?

  5. MotleyHealth says:

    No, that is fine then if it is you main meal of the day.

  6. Ok Thanks a lot. Also, when it comes to nutrition for losing weight, is there anything that I should keep in mind?

  7. MotleyHealth says:

    Yeah, keep the diet balanced, but restrict calories. Read this article – Basics Of A Healthy Diet – What To Eat

    Tips for losing weight here: 10 Scientific Ways To Lose Weight

    The trick is to eat less than you need, while still eating a balanced diet that helps your muscles grow. Essentially reducing sugar/carbs so that when you exercise and deplete glycogen reserves (that are stored in muscles to fuel muscle movement) your body needs to utilise reserves from fat (glycerol and fatty acids stored in fat cells) rather than have supplies in the liver and blood (recently digested from food) to fall back on. i.e. force your body to “burn fat”.

  8. Allen Waters says:

    If Gym owners will stumble on this post, it will surely make them think to setup a bar in their gyms.

  9. MotleyHealth says:

    Yeah, or landlords. If my local put a power rack and some free weights in the corner I would certainly go and drink there more!

  10. thx. Enjoyed this article a whole lot. Just wanted to ask. I’m a Nigerian, a student dietitian 4 tha matter. I weigh 92 kg, and I’m 5 feet and 6 inches. I wanna know how often these exercises must be to show a significant loss of weight and over what period of time. Thank u, your reply would be most appreciated

  11. MotleyHealth says:

    It really is a matter of what you put in determines what you get out. The more you run, the more bodyweight workouts that you do, the healthier and leaner that your diet is, the faster you will change your body. However, do not hope for too much too soon, be realistic in your weight loss goals. 1/2 kg a week, if exercising hard and dieting hard, is a sensible goal. Think long term fitness and health and the weight loss will follow and stay.

  12. Dear Mr Motley,
    I have a serious scotch habit, but also have foolishly signed up for the Bath half in March, which I will be running in the company of my seriously buff male friends. Have you any advice that will stop me turning into roadkill on the day? I don’t want to die of embarrassment, but please don’t ask me to give up the scotch or chips. Thanks.

  13. MotleyHealth says:

    Hi Jen, this is very tricky indeed. When you fry room temperature potatoes in hot oil the surface of the chip is sealed quickly to reduce absorption of oil – this makes them a little healthier! Ignoring the saturated fat issue completely, chips are a great source of carbohydrate and if you eat them in moderation you should be OK. Although, why not make it a weekly treat? As for Scotch, is that single malt? A tipple will help kill germs residing in the throat that build up in these cold weather runs. Again, moderation! I wish you lots of luck Jen. I am running daily and know that it is never easy!

  14. Hi,

    My weight is 70kgs and height is 5.2″. Daily I go for 1 hour jogging in the evening. So, is it enough to lose weight or do I have to add something more to this. Your early reply would be highly appreciated and thanks in advance.

  15. MotleyHealth says:

    Hi Kanchan, you can certainly lose weight with 1h hour of daily jogging so long as your diet is healthy and you are not eating too much.

  16. Pooja Rangaseshan says:

    Hi Team,

    This is Pooja Rangaseshan. i weigh 53kgs and i m 5″3 in height. I gave birth to a baby girl 10 months back. Currently i am the only one to look after the baby and have no option how to make time to excercise. My worry is that i dun wanna lose weight but i want to flatten my tummy portion and thin up my hands. I just need advise on how i an flatten my tummy and thin u my hands. i eat corn flakes in the morning and light lunch. For dinner i have 3 thin chapathi s with raw veggies. Please let me know what ways i could achieve tummy reduction and hads thinning. Moreover since i have a baby it is difficult for me to leave her and excercise. Please advise as soon as possible the diet and excercise i can do. my baby s birthday is on feb 10. So i want to look thin and slim to wear saree. Hence waiting for ur speedy response.

    Pooja Rangaseshan

  17. MotleyHealth says:

    You need to exercise daily and ideally consume a more balanced diet with more protein and less refined carbohydrates.

  18. i hv fat only n stomach and back. i want to reduce fat in my stomach and in my back :( i want easy steps and foods to turn me with a average atheletic body!

  19. MotleyHealth says:

    Hi karthick, you need to start exercising daily if you want to be athletic. Take a look at our fitness section. Do a mixture of cardio and resistance training. For food, just eat healthy.

  20. Bellegaia says:

    Hello! I am a 24 year old female, 5’6” / 135lbs and somewhat new to running and weight training though I wasn’t sedentary before. I’m running 40-50 miles per week right now and am training for a marathon 6 months from now.

    Here’s my nutrition question–my other main fitness goal is to gain a lot of muscle and lose body fat % (I’m at 19% and want to get down to 12%–figure competitor level)… How do you recommend I balance the “runner’s nutrition” with that of a body builder? Are the different emphases on carbs and proteins irreconcilable? I want to fuel up so that my body can (eventually) run 26.2 miles efficiently and can also lift a fair share of weight!

    Thanks for your help!

  21. MotleyHealth says:

    Hi Bellegaia, it will be hard to achieve both of your goals. Long distance running really does not combine well with bodybuilding. The running should be enough to burn off your excess fat, but you will need plenty of carbohydrates to replenish your glycogen stores (sugars stored in muscle that is needed for movement). For bodybuilding you will need to eat a lot of protein while lifting a lot. Maybe a better approach would be to first focus on the fitness and use running to get your fat levels reduced and then after your marathon increase the weight training. You should still do some weight training while running though.

  22. Bellegaia says:

    Thank you for your advice! I figured the trade-off would make obtaining both goals at once too difficult.

    For now I’ll just focus on my endurance/slimming while making sure to at least build some good core strength. I’ll also make sure to to not let my limbs go soft. I can at least get stronger-than-average while I run, right?

    Then I’ll try to bulk in the winter (post race). Once I have my first marathon under my belt, I’ll have a better idea if I have a preference for running over reaching for the larger build!

  23. hello,i am an 18 year old male who weights 56kg and 5’6″ tall,i am extremely lazy so i was thinking of starting jogging in the morning ,but i am confused whether jogging will help me get fit or simply make me more thinner,please guide me!!

  24. MotleyHealth says:

    Hi Lil Mosh, jogging will get you fitter. If you do not eat enough then you will lose more body mass too, but if you eat a healthy and balanced diet then you will not shed loads of weight. Get those fresh vegetables, proteins from eggs, pulses, meats etc and eat plenty of fruit and cereals too and you will be fine.

  25. Hi,

    I am an athletic person, have been all my life. I had a back injury that left me with atrophy in my right quad and although much of my strength there has returned over the 10 years since it happend muscle mass has barely changed. My back is also a bit weak due to compression in my L3-L4 therefore I am constantly trying to strengthen abs and back. My main question is about nutrition and your guide to eating proteins and good carbs. Eggs and bacon are big on your list however I am always trying to watch my cholesterol, not that I have a problem as such but my mum had heart attacks at 74 due to cholesterol. As I understand eggs are high in cholesterol, so can you recommend other proteins? I eat tons of fish ” Salmon, Tuna, Sardines etc” and also Tofu. Anyhow any insight you could offer me would be much appreciated, cheers!

  26. MotleyHealth says:

    Hi Wayne, dietary cholesterol does not raise blood cholesterol. It is saturated fat that raises cholesterol levels, so eggs are healthy. Bacon on the other hand, is not. Pulses (peas, beans), nuts and seeds all contain a lot of protein. You could look to supplements like whey, casein and soy too. Hemp is a popular vegetarian protein supplement that is also very high in fiber. Fish is an excellent source of protein too – if you eat tons of fish then you must be getting a lot already, so maybe time to supplement.

  27. Hi, I am a twenty year old female 5’11 and weighing 155lbs. I work out at the gym about 5-6 times a week and have a semi strict diet plan. Usually I eat Special K cereal with a Slim Fast shake (for extra calories) after an hour I would go to the gym then usually have a Special K meal bar( I usually do not have much time to eat because I work after). I’ll usually have a snack throughout the day something simple like fruit and then dinner I can have a home cooked meal normal proportions. My question for you is am I getting too less calories? I’m worried if I eat too much I’ll gain weight. It seems as of lately I’m between gaining and losing 5-6 lbs. Should I get on a different eating schedule? Oh and I only drink water. I try to drink 2-3 liters per day. If you could help me out that would be great because I’m completely lost! I don’t want all my efforts to fail because I’m not eating properly.

  28. MotleyHealth says:

    Hi Brandy, what is most important is consistency. If you are losing 5-6 lbs then gaining it again, then this is a sign that you are going through periods of possibly eating too little, then eating too much. You are not overweight, and with 5-6 trips to the gym you must also be pretty fit. Your diet and fitness regime should simply be geared to reach your goals. If you wish to lose more fat, then calorie reduction is the way. If you wish to build some lean, athletic muscle, then your body needs extra nutrition, which means more calories. Your diet sounds OK – breakfast, dinner, several snacks including fruit etc. All healthy. If your dinner is always a well balanced meal with some protein and vegetables then it all sounds good.

  29. Nobukhosi says:

    Thanks for the article, I really enjoyed it. My question is, I prefer to jog early in the morning around 5am. Do i have to eat before jogging?

  30. MotleyHealth says:

    Hi Nobukhosi, no, you do not need to eat beforehand. Unless you will be jogging for a long time, over an hour, then you may want a small snack, like 1 banana.

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