Why Sports Nutrition Matters

Page updated: 04/08/2016

After a recent conversation regarding McDonald's and the Rio 2016 Olympic athletes, I realised that few people appreciate how and why sports nutrition matters outside of just feeding people enough food… energy to move, vitamins and minerals for "health", and fibre for a good poop.

Few people regard sports nutrition as a real science, and I don't blame them. Everywhere you look nutrition is portrayed as the sort of subject where everyone's opinion is equally valid, and that it is more of a philosophical choice rather than robust science.

People understand that eating provides all the necessary "things" for health (and bowel movements), but health is a dubious thing to measure (subjectively), and anyone who has ever been 20-something knows you can spend nearly 10 years consuming pizza, booze and drugs and still do pretty well.

Even if you don't pay much attention to what you eat you do OK, well apart from becoming overweight, but even that is viewed (incorrectly) as the natural course of ageing. Also losing weight is also rarely viewed as a science, but rather a mysterious unreachable that requires an exotic blend of herbs and spices to happen (and of course those "10 secrets").

Team sports often involve copious beer and curry post-training, and of course we all know Usain Bolt ate loads of chicken McNuggets during the 2008 Beijing Olympic games.

So if all this is apparently true, that people seem to do pretty well without even thinking about nutrition, one may ask what really is the point of sports nutrition? Is it not just telling athletes to eat more vegetables and drink less cola?

I'm not being facetious; I think a lot of people really do wonder.

Surely the number one reason people focus on nutrition has to be to lose weight. In the climbing community I have personally never heard anyone mention anything about improving performance over just being lighter first. Hell, some top climbers are known to basically eat pick-and-mix candy as their staple diets, what gives!? Conversations on nutrition only seem to get serious when it's matters of personal identity and worldview (i.e. veganism).

So again, what really is the point if people do so well with so little rigour?

What does crossing and dotting the nutritional "t"s and "i"s really bring to the table?

Why Sports Nutrition Matters

No doubt just eating well brings you most of the way. By "well" I mean eating enough (macro-nutrition), and supplying your body with enough (micro-nutrition) to keep doing its job and not breaking down.

But, and this is the important bit, sports nutrition is taking someone past "most of the way", and it's past "most of the way" that means winning competitions.

Nutritional science is actually phenomenally complicated, we are talking about studying and manipulating things on a molecular or even atomic level. The resulting application may look like asking someone to squeeze a sugary gel down their throats at a specific time during the race, but what went on behind that decision is understanding the science of monosaccharide transport protein expression in the intestinal lumen (and other shizzle).

Glucose uses a transporter called sodium-dependent transporter or SGLT1 for absorption. The transport capacity of this transporter is limited as the transporter becomes saturated at a carbohydrate intake around 1g/min (or 60g/h). This is the main reason that ingesting more carbohydrate than about 60-70 grams per hour will not result in more oxidation of that carbohydrate. The excess carbohydrate is simply not absorbed and will accumulate in the intestine. Jeukendrup, A. Carb mixes and benefits. 2015.

What many people don't understand is that sports nutrition is not just feeding athletes enough to do their job, or giving them more to help them keep going. Sports nutrition is providing context specific nutritional support to enable them to continue training, recovering and performing at a world-class level. At a world-class level is very hard.

The average gym goer, cross-fitter, or weekend cricketer (think baseball with a tea break) doesn't really need that much detail in their diets. But if you are a professional athlete training six hours a day, six days a week, and say perhaps swimming over 400km a month… well diet is more than just eating enough.

Sports nutrition is not the reason individuals win gold medals at the Olympics, it just isn't. They, their training, attitude and mindset are the reasons.

But sports nutrition is the foundation and means by which these athletes can put the hours, months, and years of work into their bodies (and minds) without breaking them.

Sports nutrition is the application of years of rocket-science in the building of bodies, recovery of bodies, and the supporting and optimising of athletic performance.

Sports nutrition is understanding that the molecular composition and timing of consumption matters, in a context, in a lot.

Sports nutrition is the applied mathematics of optimising the biochemical soup of an athlete's body maximising their power, speed, strength, and endurance capacity.

Sports nutrition is taking the most complicated scientific research and packaging it up into an easily understandable message and practice for an athlete to turn into a daily habit.

Sports nutrition does not make someone win gold medals.

Sports nutrition does support the making of someone.

Feedback / Comments

Since posting this, I received the following comment on Facebook, so I asked for permission to quote it verbatim, and added my reply below.

For top level athlete it's hard to train 6 days per week, 6 hours a day, for me it's hard to do it ..let's say 3 days a week and 2 hours per day - how/why he needs special treatment and i do not? We feel the same level of exhaustion, we both recover relatively similarly at the end, maybe his recovery is still even better (age 27 vs age 47 for example). Why/how he needs special nutrition in general and i do not? We both have to perform at our "world class" levels..Athletes' job is to win gold medals, our job is to perform/survive at everyday life/our trainings/jobs. No doubt he needs "special" nutrition, the question is - if we both giving our maximums why we both don't deserve "sports nutrition". :) — Marko Poola. [fb]

Marco, you are quite right.

Though my focus was specifically on world class level sports nutrition, this does not mean that everyone else cannot or should not have access to it. Indeed, if more people took advantage of the latest evidence based practices in sports nutrition, they would find they get far better results in whatever their sport, at whatever their level.

There is though a matter of priority, importance and effect.

With Olympic level athletes, being able to shave off a millisecond could be the difference between gold and silver. Great sports nutrition can do this. But for the average active individual, do they really need the same rigour in their nutritional considerations?

For example, should you be concerned about whether your low-carbohydrate high-fat dinners potentially impair post-exercise muscle remodelling, and thereby could be detrimental to your training adaptation over time?1

Probably not.

But that is of course for you to decide. I would argue though that it would be somewhat tricky to measure an effect positive or negative, if you know what I mean?

The same can be said, (and is said all the time) about supplements. Would for instance using beta-alanine, or serial loading sodium bicarbonate give you more of an edge?2 Possibly, but finding that edge at an amateur level would be also tricky.

Does this mean you couldn't try either of the above? No, by all means do. Science is gifting you the data and opportunity.

I suppose my point is of context and scope. Sports nutrition is not just good foundational nutrition, it is good foundational nutrition with a great deal of specific context and scope.

Rianne Costello (@rcostello3018)

This is useful, because as we approach what we believe are the biological limits of athletic performance, we have to continue to science it, and science it real hard.

I work with both professional and amateur clients. My nutrition practice and recommendations do not differ that much between the two groups. But there comes a point where I push a little more on compliance with my professionals because it matters more. If I get it wrong, or they get it wrong it actually matters.

This is where I am drawing the line, and saying sports nutrition matters because it is used in and with specific context and scope.

As an amateur sportsperson, more than ever before, you have free access to the collected brilliance of some of the smartest researchers and practitioners out there. By all means read and apply the information as you choose.

Who knows, you or someone else may start implementing professional sports nutrition practices in their amateur sports, and find themselves competing at a world-class level one day.

Sports Nutrition Training and Resources

When I have time I will publish a recommended resources page with textbooks, journals, websites, podcasts, videos, etc. But for the sake of the reader now, here's some to get you started.

  • 2016: ACSM/DC/AND Position Stand on Nutrition and Athletic Performance. This paper outlines the current energy, nutrient, and fluid recommendations for active adults and competitive athletes.
  • 2010: ISSN Exercise & Sport Nutrition Review: Research & Recommendations. This paper is a five year update of the sports nutrition review article published as the lead paper to launch the JISSN in 2004 and presents a well-referenced overview of the current state of the science related to how to optimise training and athletic performance through nutrition.
  • ISSN Position Stands. Every position paper published by the International Society of Sports Nutrition.
  • Gatorade Sports Science Exchange. Gatorade Sports Science Institute (GSSI) is committed to helping athletes optimize their health and performance through research and education in hydration and nutrition science. Though GSSI is corporately funded, do not be put off, it is a fantastic resource. Gatorade advances sports nutrition more than any other company, but as with any reasearch of interest be skeptical and look for bias.
  • Examine.com. An independent encyclopedia on supplementation and nutrition. They are not affiliated in any way with any supplement company and they have a team of health professionals analysing the full body of research.
  • Alan Aragon’s Research Review (AARR). A unique monthly publication from Alan Aragon, nutrition researcher and educator who critically analyses the most current nutrition, training, and supplementation research.
  • The Guru Performance ‘We Do Science’ Podcast. Hosted by Guru Performance's founder and director Laurent Bannock, and features a wide variety of leading experts, practitioners and researchers in sport and exercise science – with a special focus on Performance Nutrition.
  • ISSN Graduate Diploma Podcast. A podcast that keeps our students and alumni at the ISSN Graduate Diploma at the cusps of recent happenings in the field of Sports Performance Nutrition.
  • Sigma Nutrition Podcast. Hosted by Sigma Nutrition's founder Danny Lennon, and aimed at providing the highest-quality evidence-based information on nutrition, performance & exercise science.
  • Mysportscience. Director Asker Jeukendrup, PhD, provides objective and evidence based advice across a wide range of sports science topics including endurance sports and sports nutrition.
  • ISSN Diploma in Applied Sports & Exercise Nutrition. Internationally recognised and fully accredited by the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), the American College of Sports Medicine (CEC), the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA CEU), and Middlesex University, London, UK (for APEL onto the MSc 'Top Up' Option).
  • IOC Diploma in Sports Nutrition. The goal of the IOC Diploma in Sports Nutrition is to make available an academic program to help the development of professionals who can support athletes by providing sound information about nutrition.
  • International Society of Sports Nutrition Facebook Group. The ISSN Facebook group. Come say hello.


  1. Fuel for the work required: a practical approach to amalgamating train-low paradigms for endurance athletes. Impey SG, Hammond KM, Shepherd SO, Sharples AP, Stewart C, Limb M, Smith K, Philp A, Jeromson S, Hamilton DL, Close GL, Morton JP. Physiol Rep. 2016 May; 4(10). Open Access 

  2. Nutritional Strategies to Modulate Intracellular and Extracellular Buffering Capacity During High-Intensity Exercise. Lancha Junior AH, Painelli Vde S, Saunders B, Artioli GG. Sports Med. 2015 Nov; 45 Suppl 1:S71-81. Open Access