Eat well for sport and exercise

Taking part in sport or just getting physically active will help you burn off excess calories and maintain a healthy body weight. It will also help reduce your risk of many diseases, such as heart disease. But remember to check with your GP before starting a new exercise programme.

What to eat

Eating a healthy balanced diet will provide you with all the nutrients you need to take part in your favourite sport or activity. This means eating a wide variety of foods.

If you take part in a sport regularly, then the best way to get the most out of your sport is to:

  • be the right weight for your height
  • drink plenty of fluids
  • eat enough carbohydrate to keep you going during exercise
  • eat plenty of wholegrain breads and cereals, fruit and vegetables and moderate amounts of milk, yoghurt and cheese, lean meat, fish, poultry, eggs, nuts and pulses
  • eat enough food for your level of activity - if you eat too little then you won't be able to keep up your exercise levels

Timing of meals around workouts is just as important as what you eat if you want to keep your energy levels up. For the first two hours after exercise, muscles can refuel their glycogen stores twice as fast as normal so it's important to eat carbohydrate-containing foods as soon as possible after a workout or exercise session.

Good sources of energy

Carbohydrate is the most important fuel for energy, so you should eat lots of foods that are rich in starchy carbohydrates.

Many different foods contain carbohydrate.

The richest sources are:

  • bread
  • rice
  • pasta
  • cereals
  • potatoes

Other foods also contain useful amounts, such as fruit, vegetables, beans, pulses, yoghurt and milk.

The more you exercise, the more carbohydrate you need. The actual amount you need depends upon the type of exercise you're doing, the intensity, length of time you're exercising for, the frequency of the exercise, and your fitness level.

Protein and sport

We need protein for our muscles to grow and repair themselves. Protein is also a source of energy.

You should be able to get all the protein you need by eating a variety of foods as part of a balanced diet.

Drinking for sport

If you get dehydrated it can stop you getting the most out of your activity, so it's important to make sure you drink enough.

To make sure you stay hydrated:

  • don't wait until you feel thirsty
  • drink lots before you start exercising
  • keep some drink to hand so you can reach for it whenever you need it while you're exercising
  • drink plenty when you've finished

Remember that the fluid you have when you're exercising should be on top of the usual 1.2 litres (six to eight glasses) you need every day in climates such as Northern Ireland’s to stop you getting dehydrated.

If you're exercising for longer than 1.5 hours, try to eat a high-energy snack such as a banana or some dried fruit before you start or during exercise (if this is practical). If you can't manage this, you might find it useful to have some diluted fruit juice or squash to help give you energy.

Sport and supplements

You should be able to get all the nutrients you need from a healthy balanced diet - and remember that taking supplements won't make up for not eating well.

If you decide to take protein supplements, be careful that you're not increasing your energy intake so much that you aren't able to burn it off. If you do this, you'll put weight on - and it might not be put on as muscle but could actually be stored as fat.

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