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Fact File - Exercise and Diet

Nutrition plays a vital role in sports by supporting training, performance and recovery. For athletes and highly competitive sports or those where athletes may have to weigh in at a certain weight category, a personalised diet and training regimen maybe required. This fact file looks at the principles of nutrition and exercise.




There are four main food groups required for exercise:

  • Fruit and Vegetables - These are a rich source of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fibre.
  • Starchy Foods - Rich source of energy.
  • Meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds and pulses (beans, chickpeas and lentils) - Rich source of protein which is essential for growth, repair and iron.
  • Milk and dairy foods (yoghurt, cheese and dairy alternatives) - A good source of protein and calcium which is needed for bone health.



It is important that you are eating enough carbohydrate foods, particularly if you are exercising on most days. Carbohydrates are the main source of fuel (energy) for exercise and are primarily sourced from the starchy food group. The more intense the exercise, the more carbohydrate you will need. Carbohydrate is stored in the muscles and liver as glycogen and in addition for muscle fuel, it is needed for the brain. Carbohydrate should be regularly replenished as the stores are small. Low glycogen stores will result in poor performance and delayed recovery. Carbohydrate rich foods include bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, cereals and other grains. However, aim for the whole grain varieties such as whole-wheat pasta, rye, barley, oats and brown rice, which are also richer in fibre, minerals and vitamins.


Protein and Fat

Protein is required to build and repair muscles, particularly after exercising. Most people who have a healthy diet will normally eat adequate amounts of protein for exercise. Strength athletes however, may have higher requirements, but too much protein and too little carbohydrate could result in protein being used as energy instead of carbohydrate and as a consequence, result in lower energy levels. Aim to include moderate amounts of protein rich foods at each meal. Protein rich foods are sourced from the meat, fish, and eggs, pulses, nuts and seeds group and from the milk and dairy food group.

Too much fat can result in making you feel uncomfortable by slowing down the movement of foods from the stomach. Fats are however, a part of healthy eating, but in smaller amounts. Aim to include healthier fats from foods such as oily fish, nuts, seeds and olive oil. Many highly processed foods can contain hidden fats with little other nutrient value, aim to limit or avoid these.


When should I eat?

Aim to have three regular meals and small snacks in between, to ensure your energy stores are replenished. Once you have eaten a meal or snack, allow approximately one to four hours to pass before exercising, the time being dependant on how large the meal (an average meal would be around two to three hours). Within 30 minutes after exercising, consume a carbohydrate and protein rich food or drink, such as a milkshake or yoghurt as this is when the most effective refuelling occurs.


Fruits and Vegetables

Don’t forget to eat at least five portions from the fruit and vegetable food group every day. These are naturally low in fat, high in fibre and contain a variety of vitamins and minerals needed to help energy be utilised. These foods are also rich in antioxidants (variety of colours contain different types), this plays a vital role in repairing muscles.



Maintaining adequate hydration is essential for performance, both mentally and physically, particularly by replenishing fluid lost by sweat. The amount during exercise depends on the amount you sweat, which varies from person to person and on the intensity and length of time exercising, as well as environmental factors. For moderate intensity, water is adequate, however vigorous intensity lasting more than an hour, extra fluid and electrolytes (salts) are required due to greater losses of sweat. A homemade sports drink, such as 800mls of water, with 200mls of squash and a pinch of salt can be used.


Should I take extra supplements when I'm playing sport?

Having a balanced diet will, in most cases, ensure that you receive all the nutrients and energy you need. There are some supplements which maybe beneficial to athletes, but need to be taken with caution and therefore it is best to seek advice from a qualified sports specialist to ensure these are safe and necessary.


This factsheet is intended for adults as a general guide only and not a substitute for professional advice or a diagnosis. If you are on certain medication or suffer from a medical condition, seek individual advice from your health care professional. Date produced September 2015. Date edited April 2016.


For more about healthy eating please click onto one of the boxes below. 

Are you thinking about adding something to your health and wellbeing programme? Call Anna on 07778 218009 to discuss how our Power Up & Motivate With Positive Nutrition Workplace Wellbeing Series may be of use to you. Alternatively email

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