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Nutrition for athletes case study

Dr Louise Burke, Consultant Dietitian at the Australian Institute of Sport

All athletes are encouraged to follow the rules of healthy eating to help their performances both in training and in competition. Some important principles of sports nutrition are:

1. Keep yourself in shape with a body fat level that suits your sport. Eat the right amount of kilojoules for your body size and training program.
2. Keep your muscles fuelled up for training and competition by eating plenty of carbohydrate foods. Make room for these foods by reducing the amount of fat that is in the typical Australian diet. 
3.  Enjoy a variety of nutritious foods to provide you with all the protein, vitamins and minerals that your body needs. Your need for some of these nutrients will increase because of your heavy exercise program.
4. Look after fluid needs. Drink before, during and after exercise sessions to prevent yourself from becoming dehydrated. 

Athletes come in different sizes and shapes, and follow different types of training programs. While they may all follow these nutrition rules, their meals may look quite different. Athletes who train strenuously for many hours each day will need to eat large amounts of carbohydrate and kilojoules. Big, tall athletes will need to eat more than petite athletes such as gymnasts. Many athletes need to organise their meals to fit around their training or competition schedules. A survey of the typical evening meals eaten by some different athletes is presented as an example:

1. Female gymnast

A female gymnast needs to eat small meals. She needs to keep her energy (kilojoulle) intake low to maintain a trim shape and low body fat level. Her energy requirement are low because she is small (48 kg) and because her training program is low in intensity. Even though she trains for many hours each day, most of this work is based on skill, strength and flexibility with only short bursts of high intensity work She chooses her food carefully to achieve maximum nutrients for minimum kilojoules particularly by eating nutritious foods that are low in fat.


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2. Male marathon runner

The male runner eats plenty of carbohydrate foods to support his daily training program, since carbohydrate provides the preferred fuel for his muscles. Although he is light and low in body fat (65 kg) his energy requirements are high because of his heavy energy expenditure in training and competition. He is careful to drink plenty of fluids during his training session, water and/or a sports drink, and to continue to rehydrate at his evening meal.


3. Male swimmer: Training

The male swimmer has a big frame (85kg) and trains strenuously for 4 hours each day Thus he has very high needs for energy and carbohydrate. To help increase his food intake without making him overeat and feel uncomforstable, he may need to eat two evening meals with a gap of a couple of hours in between. He may also make himself action-packed fruit/milk smoothies. Drinks like these are full of nutritious kilojoules but are compact and low in bulk, nutrition that doesn't have to be chewed! He is also careful with his fluid intake, knowing that he sweats heavily while he trains, even if he can't see it in the water.

Meal 1 (7.00 pm)

Meal 2 (9.30 pm)

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4. Female swimmer: Competition

The female swimmer (62 kg) is competing in a final at a session starting at 6.00pm, and therefore needs a pre-competition meal and post-competition recovery meal.

Carbohydrates are important at both meals.

Pre-competition meal (3.00-3.30 pm) tops up carbohydrate and fluid levels. This is eaten around three hours before the race to leave time for digestion. The banana smoothie is a useful way to consume food when pre-race nerves leave you with butterflies in the stomach.

Note that the swimmer ate lunch around 12.00pm in recovery from the morning heats, and she is careful not to eat anything new or unusual before a race.

Pre-competition meal

Post-competition recovery meal

Recovers fluid and carbohydrate levels in preparation for the next day's swimming program. Drinks a sports drink during warm down, and perhaps eats a sandwich or some yoghurt in the stands after the race for immediate supply of recovery nutrients. Then at 9.00 pm eats a high carbohydrate meal but tries not to overeat so that sleep patterns are not disturbed.

Suggested reading

Burke, L. (1992) The complete guide to food for sports performance: a guide to peak nutrition for your sport. North Sydney: Allen and Unwin.

Inge, K. and Roberts, C. (1992) Food for sport cookbook: the ultimate guide for peak performance. Abbotsford, Victoria: Rene Gordon.

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