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Important Nutrients For Athletes And Where To Find Them

Life is busy and finding time to eat a nutritionally balanced diet can be a struggle. We live in a culture of convenience foods which may not always be packed with the essential nutrients that your body requires; especially if you are active regularly. Couple that with conflicting and confusing sports nutrition available and it can be an absolute mission trying to figure out what to eat and when. If you train a lot or partake in competitive sports, then having a basic understanding of eating to fuel your activity is essential.

Today our head dietitian, Michelle, wants to highlight some key nutrients that are worth prioritising in your diet if you take part in regular activity and where to find them.


Just like a car needs the right fuel, oil, water and maintenance, your body will require essential nutrients from food so that it can perform at its best. Failing to meet your nutritional requirements might leave you feeling lethargic, fatigued and failing to recover as quickly after training sessions and events.

With all of that in mind, let’s look 5 essential nutrients required by athletes and where to find them.

Carbohydrates – fuel for your sport

Why you need carbohydrates:

Carbohydrates get a bad rep with many people associating a high carbohydrate diet with weight gain. This is a myth and it is not the case if you choose your carbohydrates wisely. Think of carbohydrates as your source of energy or like putting petrol in a car. The more active you are, the more you will need to up your carbohydrate intake (exactly like how a car driven regularly needs to be refuelled regularly). An active person who limits their carbohydrate intake may find that they don’t have energy to perform at their best and may not recover quickly between sessions.

Where to find them:

There are 2 main types of carbohydrates: fast and slow release. Both are useful in a diet to fuel sports, but timing is key.

  • Aim to consume slow release carbohydrates throughout the day and fast release carbohydrates 1-2 hours before training and throughout training if you are taking part in >1-hour activity.

  • During the day, aim to comprise a 1/3 of your main meals slow releasing carbohydrate - e.g. oats, Weetabix, brown pasta, brown rice, wholegrain bread or wraps, sweet potato or potato, couscous or quinoa.

  • White versions will still give you the energy you need, but wholegrain versions tend to offer more health benefits.

  • 1-2 hours before training, you might find it helpful to top up your energy stores by eating a light snack based on a carbohydrate e.g. toast and banana, fruit & granola and honey, dried fruit and nuts.

  • After training, you can replace your stored energy (glycogen) by having a light snack or a meal containing carbohydrate. This means you will be ready to go for your next training session.

Protein – promoting muscle recovery and growth

Why you need protein:

Although the supplement industry may lead you to believe that we are all lacking in protein, this is actually rare in Western countries. Protein is found naturally in many of the everyday foods that we eat, and if you are following a well-balanced diet, there should be no need to supplement. Protein is essential for repair and recovery of muscles and cells, so this is essential to prioritise in your diet if you are active.

Where to find protein:

  • Aim to make 1/3 of your meals based around protein e.g. eggs, chicken, turkey, red meat, fish, tofu, legumes (beans, chickpeas, peas and lentils), cottage cheese, yoghurt, etc.

  • 1-2 hours before your training, you might find it helpful add protein to your snack, e.g. cottage cheese, nuts, yoghurt, eggs.

  • After training, you can promote recovery by having a light snack or meal containing protein.

  • Don’t panic if you can’t eat straight after your workout. It is more important what you do overall in a day than what you do in the hour after working out.

Vitamins and minerals – keeping your health at its optimum

Why you need vitamins and minerals:

Just like a car needs oil in order to function, your body requires vitamins and minerals to function at its best too. As your body can’t make them, a well-balanced diet is essential to give your body what it needs. A deficiency can lead to feeling tired and run down. Nutrients of concern for athletes include iron, calcium, B vitamins and vitamin D. A quick blood test by your GP can signal if you are deficient in any of these key nutrients.

In general, if you are eating for appetite and not restricting your food intake whilst eating a wide variety of foods you should be meeting your requirements.

How to consume enough vitamins and minerals:

  • Try to make 1/3 of your meals fruit or vegetables to ensure that your body is getting the nutrients that it requires. Soups, salads, roasted vegetables, smoothies, raw fruit and veg are all ways to reach your recommended intake. Aim to eat the rainbow and eat as many different types of fruits and veg as possible.

  • Aim to consume milk, yoghurts or cheese 3-5 times a day depending on your age (children, teenagers and young adults need more while they are actively growing bones). These are excellent sources of calcium.

  • Good sources of iron include red meat, chicken, turkey, eggs and legumes so if you are adding a good quality protein source to main meals you should be meeting your quota.

Fats – increase the healthy fats and decrease the unhealthy fats

Why you need healthy fats:

Healthy fats are so important to provide the body with fat soluble vitamins, energy and essential fatty acids. They are really important for mental health, as well as physical health.

How to consume enough healthy fats:

  • Although it can be tempting when you are active to “eat what you want”, try to limit processed foods like pizzas, doughnuts, cakes and biscuits which are not beneficial for sports or health.

  • Healthy fats from oily fish (salmon, mackerel, herring) as well as nuts, seeds and avocados are beneficial in the diet in small amounts. Try snacking on a small handful of nuts with fruit or yoghurt, add seeds to your daily porridge or smoothie or top off a salad with half an avocado.

  • Fats are energy rich though and can lead to weight gain if eaten in large quantities, so portion control is key here.

Water – stay hydrated

Water is often overlooked when it comes to nutrients of concern for athletes. Hydration is extremely important to stay healthy when you are active.

Getting enough water:

  • A good way to know if you are drinking enough water is to monitor your urine colour. A yellow to dark yellow colour is a signal that you need to drink more water.

  • You might feel tired or have a headache. In general aim for a pale straw colour urine and that is a great way to know that you are meeting your body’s water requirements.

  • Remember that it is helpful to drink before, during and after training.

 Putting it all together

It is best to eat regularly throughout the day with a light snack 1-2 hours pre-training and post-training. This is to help prepare your body for action and recovery. Don’t stress out though if you miss a meal. The most important thing is that 80% of the time you are aiming to make healthy choices which will help to boost your performance.

Some meal ideas:

  • Porridge with yoghurt, nuts and mixed berries

  • Weetabix with milk and banana

  • Chicken sandwich with avocado and salad

  • Sweet potato with salmon and roasted vegetables

  • Chicken curry with rice and vegetables

  • Spaghetti bolognaise with pasta and vegetables

 Some snack ideas:

  • Pitta bread with cottage cheese and honey

  • Bagel with sliced fruit and natural nut butter

  • Chocolate milk and nuts

  • Smoothie made with milk and frozen fruit

We are all different so don’t be afraid to experiment a little to find the approach that suits you best.