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Editor’s note: The author of this article, Ben Price, is a registered Sport and Exercise Nutrition Consultant specialising in endurance sports. He has over ten years of experience in sports nutrition and an MSc in Sports Nutrition from the International Olympic Committee and the University Of Stirling. He is the head coach at Fuel The Ride Academy, an online nutrition coaching program for cyclists and works with cyclists of all abilities through his coaching business. Visit or check out @benpricenutrition on Instagram for more details.


As an athlete, wouldn’t it be amazing if there was something that could give you more time to train, allow you to get more out of the training that you do and give you that extra edge when it comes to competition? Well, we do; it’s the food we eat.

Every nutrient you absorb from the food you eat changes the biochemistry within your body and these changes can either be to the detriment or benefit of your goals. Nutrition is a powerful and often underused tool that athletes have at their disposal, and this will help you make the most of it. 

On a normal training day, you might eat 5 times per day. That’s 35 times per week, equating to a staggering 1820 meals per year. This provides vast opportunities in which to optimise your diet in favour of your goals. With even relatively small or modest adjustments to your diet accumulated over time can potentially lead to profound changes in your health, training, and performance. 

There are 4 key areas where diet can influence an athlete’s performance, Health, Training Adaption, Performance and Body Re-Composition.


Staying healthy and free of injury and illness is paramount to most people and athletes alike. Injury and illness can lead to a significant loss of training time and subsequent performance setbacks. Your chance of success over the course of a competitive season can be heavily influenced by your ability to avoid picking up an injury or an illness.

A 5-year study (1) of elite track and field athletes showed that the likelihood of achieving a performance goal increased by a staggering 7 times in athletes who successfully avoided illness/injury and completed >80% of their planned training weeks.

Over the course of a season, you as an athlete are faced with an array of stressors, everything from exhaustive training, work/family life stresses, sleep disturbances and travel to psychological and environmental stress. These stressors can leave you more at risk of picking up illness, injury and infections.

As consistently illustrated within scientific research (2), nutrition plays a key role in ensuring the body’s immune system can function optimally and ward off illness and infection. For example, simply ensuring you consume sufficient calories to meet the energy requirements of your training (often a significant challenge during intensified training) can help prevent a whole host of negative health and performance (3). Preventing nutritional deficiencies in vitamins and minerals and optimal intakes of fuel during and after prolonged endurance training sessions are just a few examples of how nutrition can play a key role in maintaining optimal health (4).

When the worst does occur, and you pick up an injury or illness, your nutrition can also play a key role in limiting the loss of training time and providing the nutrients required to facilitate repair and recovery, allowing you to get back to health and full fitness as quickly as possible (5)

Training Adaptation

As an athlete, you spend far more time training than competing. However, many athletes focus much of their attention on nutrition around their competition strategies, missing out on a significant time frame where diet can have a profound effect and lead to greater performance improvements.

Training triggers adaptions within the body as it responds to the stress of training, and it’s these responses that allow us to change our physiology to make us faster and stronger and, ultimately, better athletes. Our nutritional intake around training provides the nutrients that facilitate these adaptations but can also enhance or dampen these adaptive responses.

For example, the overzealous use of anti-oxidant supplements around training can dampen the muscle’s adaptive response, reducing the training sessions’ benefit (6). In contrast, the strategic restriction of carbohydrate feeding around carefully selected endurance training sessions can enhance the metabolic stress of a session and lead to enhanced adaptation (7). Similarly, it is well established that training leads to an increase in protein synthesis. Combining training with an optimal intake of protein, both in terms of the timing and type of protein, can further enhance the training response by providing the building blocks for the repair and rebuilding of tissue (8). A select few dietary supplements have also help with training adaptions (9).  

Even elite athletes have a finite amount of time in which to train. By manipulating the food you eat around a session to increase the adaptive response to training, nutrition can help you get the most out of the effort you put into your training. 


In the words of one of the pioneers of the sports nutrition discipline, Professor Ron Maughan, “a good diet will not make a mediocre athlete into a champion, but poor food choices can turn a potential champion into a mediocre athlete”.

You’ve spent months working towards a key event with the goal of achieving your full athletic potential when it counts on race day, so why leave your nutrition to chance? Focused nutrition strategies around competition can go a long way to helping you achieve your full potential and perform when it counts.

Simply ensuring optimal carbohydrate intake (10) and hydration (11) during competition can help limit fatigue and enhance performance. Similarly, the strategic use of carefully selected supplements that have proven efficacy within the demands of your sport can help unlock that extra edge that may give you an advantage over the competition (12).

Putting a well-rehearsed nutrition plan in place during training ready for competition can help reduce the stress of competition and allow you to perform at your best when needed.

Body Re-Composition

 Many athletes, as well as the general population, aspire to gain muscle mass, lose fat mass or a combination of the two, often for aesthetic or performance goals. For athletes, this can be to increase power-to-weight ratio, an often key determinant of performance in many sports (e.g. cycling), or to meet a weight category for competition (e.g. boxing). Trying to lose weight while still training and performing can leave athletes with a tight rope between health and performance. You don’t have to look far to see examples of where this can go pretty catastrophically wrong.

For those looking to lose weight, creating a diet that fundamentally produces a sustainable calorie deficit is of vital importance to ensure weight loss occurs (13). Similarly, factoring in adequate energy intake to ensure sufficient energy availability is also important to help the negative health outcomes of acute weight loss.

Although typically the focus is on the number on the scales when it comes to weight loss, most are more interested in fat loss. Calorie-restricted diets typically lead to significant muscle loss, which is rarely a desirable outcome. Ensuring optimal intake and timing of protein intake during a period of calorie restriction can help ensure lean mass (muscle in particular) is maintained (14). Producing a calorie deficit whilst ensuring sufficient energy availability to maintain health, being sustainable, limiting the negative impacts of calorie restriction on training, and leading to a loss of fat mass rather than muscle mass are all paramount. Calorie restriction can often lead to a detriment in performance, as vital glycogen stores become depleted and high-intensity exercise performance suffers. Strategic timing of meals and nutrients, the use of ergogenic aids such as caffeine, and the use of supplements such as carbohydrate mouth rinses are all strategies that can be adopted to try to maintain performance (15).

There is no denying that many athletes get a long way into their athletic careers, often with significant success, without ever paying close attention to their diet. However, from what I’ve outlined above, I’ve hopefully illustrated to you the profound impact that the food you eat can have on you as an athlete.

There are an abundance of ways in which nutrition can help you achieve your goals. In the same way, many athletes invest heavily in their equipment to help gain a performance edge. Why not invest in the greatest piece of equipment that any athlete has (it’s you) by optimising your nutrition? 


  1. Raysmith BP, Drew MK. Performance success or failure is influenced by weeks lost to injury and illness in elite Australian track and field athletes: A 5-year prospective study. J Sci Med Sport. 2016;19(10):778-783. doi:10.1016/j.jsams.2015.12.515
  2. Walsh NP. Nutrition and Athlete Immune Health: New Perspectives on an Old Paradigm. Sports Med. 2019;49(Suppl 2):153-168. doi:10.1007/s40279-019-01160-3
  3. Mountjoy M, Sundgot-Borgen J, Burke L, et al. International Olympic Committee (IOC) Consensus Statement on Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S): 2018 Update. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2018;28(4):316-331. doi:10.1123/ijsnem.2018-0136
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  7. Impey SG, Hammond KM, Shepherd SO, et al. Fuel for the work required: a practical approach to amalgamating train-low paradigms for endurance athletes. Physiol Rep. 2016;4(10):e12803. doi:10.14814/phy2.12803
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  9. Rothschild JA, Bishop DJ. Effects of Dietary Supplements on Adaptations to Endurance Training. Sports Med. 2020;50(1):25-53. doi:10.1007/s40279-019-01185-8
  10. Stellingwerff T, Cox GR. Systematic review: Carbohydrate supplementation on exercise performance or capacity of varying durations. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2014;39(9):998-1011. doi:10.1139/apnm-2014-0027
  11. James LJ, Funnell MP, James RM, Mears SA. Does Hypohydration Really Impair Endurance Performance? Methodological Considerations for Interpreting Hydration Research. Sports Med. 2019;49(Suppl 2):103-114. doi:10.1007/s40279-019-01188-5
  12. Maughan RJ, Burke LM, Dvorak J, et al. IOC consensus statement: dietary supplements and the high-performance athlete. Br J Sports Med. 2018;52(7):439-455. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2018-099027
  13. Hall KD, Chen KY, Guo J, et al. Energy expenditure and body composition changes after an isocaloric ketogenic diet in overweight and obese men. Am J Clin Nutr. 2016;104(2):324-333. doi:10.3945/ajcn.116.133561
  14. Mettler S, Mitchell N, Tipton KD. Increased protein intake reduces lean body mass loss during weight loss in athletes. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2010;42(2):326-337. doi:10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181b2ef8e
  15. Kasper AM, Cocking S, Cockayne M, et al. Carbohydrate mouth rinse and caffeine improves high-intensity interval running capacity when carbohydrate restricted. Eur J Sport Sci. 2016;16(5):560-568. doi:10.1080/17461391.2015.1041063

A special mention also goes to the article below former head of nutrition at the English Institute Of Sport, Dr Kevin Currell. This paper inspirited much of the content in this article… Currell, K. (2014). Diet of an Olympian: Food with a purpose. Nutrition bulletin, 39(2), 213-217.