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The basics of nutrition
Posted by: Editor
Posted on: Friday 6th April 2007

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With the advent of another triathlon season, it is a good time to consider both what makes professional athletes so successful, and how we can strive to emulate them. Dr Garry Palmer starts a new series on the basics of nutrition, the base for human performance.

To help understand the factors that influence performance, consider a Formula 1 racing car. For each race, hours of preparation ensure that the car is in top condition for each race circuit. Once the race is over the car is stripped down and the preparation starts again for the next event. The engine is renewed and tuned, the fuel tank filled, the bodywork adjusted, and the weight reduced. All of which aid performance. In the same manner, regardless of whether you are at an elite standard or just want to improve your fitness - you are that car.

Your engine is your heart, lungs, and muscles. Whilst genetics determine your muscle type (predisposing you to either sprint or endurance events), the frequency and duration of your training will determine the capacity and tuning of your cardiovascular system. This can be improved considerably with correct training and will determine your success in your chosen event.

The weight of the car (or your body) will also influence performance. The marathon runner must be light to reduce the energy requirements of supporting and carrying their weight, whilst a rugby player needs to be large to tackle and block. In addition, the ratio between the power delivered and the body weight will determine the ability to accelerate, and have an impact on agility: critical factors in many team sports. In triathlon there is a critical balance between muscularity for power production, and slenderness for endurance performance.

Your physiological tuning, body weight and the nature of the training also impact on your efficiency, and in turn this effects the rate of fuel utilisation. If your efficiency is poor, you will use your fuel supply faster, leading to fatigue. (This is a critical issue and one which can only be measured using scientific techniques, such as those used at Sportstest.)

Other factors such as durability, susceptibility to injury, technical ability, mental status and ability to react are just a few of the many other factors that play a role in the performance of the racing car, and the triathlete.

Despite the many facets which influence performance, the one factor that ultimately determines the ability of an individual is their nutritional status. As a car cannot move without fuel, you will not be able to perform without an appropriate energy source; this is why endurance athletes fear “hitting the wall”, when the body becomes depleted of carbohydrates. Without an adequate nutritional strategy, not only will you struggle to complete your given event, but the beneficial effects of training will be reduced or even reversed, and recovery slowed, compromising both subsequent training and competition.

For this reason, nutrition should be considered the base for human performance. Care and consideration must be taken to ensure a well-balanced healthy diet is consumed. The key to this is to maintain food variety and enjoyment, by ensuring variety at meals and across meals. Priority should go to nutrient rich foods, with target intakes of 6-11 servings of healthy carbohydrates (bread, cereal, rice and pasta), 2-4 serving of fruit, and 3-5 servings of vegetables per day. Lower intakes (2-3 servings) of both healthy fats from dairy products (milk, yoghurt, and cheeses) and protein rich foods (meat, poultry, fish, beans, eggs and nuts) would also be recommended. Foods that are high in added sugar and/or processed fats (for example; biscuits, cakes, puddings, soft drinks, confectionary and crisps) should be eaten sparingly as they provide lots of calories and yet few essential nutrients. The combination of foods will enhance the nutritional value of the total meal, as well as allowing you to enjoy different colours, flavours and textures.

One final factor that also must be considered is ensuring that you are adequately hydrated. Fluid is lost through sweat during both warm weather and exercise. It is easy to become moderately dehydrated over a number of days. This will not only effect the level of sports performance, but can leave you with a general sense of fatigue, headaches, a loss of appetite, or even feeling light headed and nauseous. It is recommended that approximately a minimum of 2 litres of fluid is needed per day, rising in warm weather and during exercise. Further discussion of fluid needs will be dealt with in another article.

In addition to the basic dietary principles, individuals undertaking more than four hours of training per week should also give careful consideration to the use of sports nutrition products in order to optimise both performance during and recovery from training.

Next time, I will be explaining the need for carbohydrate-based products before, during and following training, and recommending target intakes of nutrients for a number of different sporting activities.

SportstestDr Garry Palmer is a world renowned sports scientist with vast academic and scientific support experience in a wide variety of sports to World Championship and Olympic level. His company, Sportstest Ltd, offers fitness testing, nutrition support, training and coaching, to triathletes of all levels, at the same high level as that afforded to professionals. To take a clearer approach to your training, visit

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