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Fuelling up to achieve fitness goal

Whether you are an athlete or just a keen sports person, nutrition plays a key role in fitness and success.

Actor Tom Cruise is said to be very active and has a daily fitness regime when preparing for a role. When not training he eats food low in carbs and never has junk food. It's discipline like this that has helped him stay in shape at 48.

According to the Sports Nutrition Interest Group (SNIG) of the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute, dieticians with a specific interest in the field of sports nutrition: "A good diet will not turn an average athlete into a superstar, but a poor diet will prevent you from achieving your potential." With this in mind, these tips will help you fulfil your fitness potential.

We all need to use the food pyramid as our guide to what we should eat and how much, and sports people are no different. However, what differs between a normal, balanced diet and that of a sports person is quantity and portions. The fuel or energy our bodies require depends on how much energy we use, and sports people need more energy than the average active person. Carbohydrates, fat and protein all provide energy, but the main sources of fuel for exercising muscles are carbohydrates and fats.


We all need protein to help our bodies grow and repair tissue, but some sports people need more than others. Those who participate in strength and endurance sports need more protein. A balanced diet that includes foods such as lean meat, chicken, turkey, fish, eggs and low-fat dairy products should provide all you need without having to take specialised protein powders, bars or supplements.

Fat is essential for sports people, but in small amounts. A high intake increases the risk of excessive body fat, while also lowering your carbohydrate intake. Eat limited amounts of processed meats, fatty meats, fried food and pastries, and opt for healthier cooking methods such as grilling, boiling and baking over frying.

Sufficient amounts of vitamins and minerals are vital for us all, but particularly for people who need to meet the demands of their chosen sport. You will get these from your five-a-day fruit and vegetable portions, but some athletes — such as women and adolescents — need more iron and calcium. There is no real need to go down the supplement route, unless advised to do so by your doctor or dietician, just eat plenty of iron-rich (lean red meat, fortified breakfast cereals, chicken, eggs and spinach) and calcium-rich (low-fat milk/yoghurt/cheese, tinned fish — with bones — and green leafy vegetables) foods.


So aside from your everyday diet, what should you consume before, during and after exercising? It is important to have a carbohydrate-rich meal two to four hours before exercising so that your glycogen stores are stocked up. Porridge with low-fat milk, honey and fruit, pasta with a tomatobased sauce, a baked potato with tinned spaghetti, or vegetable soup and a bread roll are good pre-exercise options. High-fat and very high-fibre foods are best avoided as these can result in stomach discomfort during exercise.


What you eat after exercising is just as important — it can take up to 20 hours to replace depleted glycogen stores. The body replenishes glycogen quicker when a high carbohydrate snack, containing a small amount of protein, is eaten immediately after exercise. Good snack combinations include a lowfat yoghurt with banana, a ham/turkey/tuna sandwich, spaghetti bolognese or tuna pasta, eaten within two hours of exercise (or within 30 minutes if you plan to exercise again within eight hours). It is essential to meet your daily carbohydrate requirement over the following 24 hours after exercising also.


As most sports people know, it is important to keep well hydrated when exercising, especially in the warmer weather, as dehydration causes fatigue — not good for your performance. On the day you are exercising you should top up your fluids regularly throughout the day to ensure you are sufficiently hydrated for when you start your workout. The SNIG recommends you drink between 150ml and 200ml every 10 to 15 minutes during exercise. Good drinks for before and during exercise are isotonic sports drinks (such as Club Energise Sport, Lucozade Sport and Powerade) and water. For a post-exercise drink, opt for hypertonic sports drinks, (such as BPM or Lucozade), fruit drinks and water.

Once you have provided your body with the correct food and drink, and in the right quantities, you should find it enhances your performance — but with minimum effort.