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Discussing Sports Medicine: Understanding the specifics of Sports Nutrition is essential to its success​

Key factors in sports nutrition lie in understanding the specific requirements of a particular sport and matching those with dietary intakes appropriate to identified needs...

Having subject knowledge of the calorific demands and estimated energy expenditure of a particular sport is essential when planning a nutritional strategy for training or competition.  
Basic principles underpinning the topic as a whole, however, emphasise that the correct application involves both dietary and training considerations; particularly in order to combat the onset and effects of fatigue.  (Reilly et al, 2008).

Injury problems associated with fatigue have prompted coaches and competitors alike to seek solutions other than physical; and to ally nutritional interventions to traditional training methods.   Attention to diet and exercise as opposed to just exercise alone has been shown to make a difference as opposed to focusing on one without the other. 

Working on the basis that everything consumed is regarded as fuel and measured by how much energy is derived from whatever food or drink is ingested, the emphasis is very much placed on planning for an athlete’s individual needs. 

Whether these needs are actually being met or not depends on whether the correct balance is being achieved between the energy intake and energy expenditure required for the specific sports of individual competitors. 

Achieving sufficient energy is essential to maintain lean mass, maximise the benefits of training sessions, and to ensure an adequate intake of all nutrients (Manore and Thompson, 2006). 

Numerous studies have been published which acknowledge that different sports place varying demands on the body.   Correct nutrition therefore needs to cater for this and be applied to meet those specific demands.  Having an awareness of the specific calorific requirements of a particular sport therefore becomes essential when planning for training or competition. 

With advances in sports science leading to a greater understanding of sports nutrition as a discipline, dieticians and nutritional specialists are now regarded as essential members of an athlete’s support team. 

A football match lasts ninety minutes depending on whether or not extra-time is involved; while an average competitor in triathlon is required to function at his or her maximum for several hours.  Therein lies the difference; but the underlying principles are the same. 

Maximal effort requires optimal input.  Manipulating nutrition and exercise in the hours and days prior to a particular event allows an athlete to commence the session with glycogen stores that are commensurate with the estimated fuel costs of that event (Burke et al, 2011). 

Sports where an athlete competes on a one-to-one basis as opposed to being a member of a team requires exactly the same planning; it’s only the environment that differs. 

Jeukendrup (2011) states that for endurance exercises lasting 30 minutes or more, the most likely contributors to fatigue are dehydration and carbohydrate depletion; whereas gastrointestinal problems, hyperthermia, and hyponatraemia (an abnormally low concentration of sodium in the blood) can all reduce exercise performance and are potentially health threatening, particularly in the longer events exceeding 4 hours.  

We already know dehydration adversely affects skill and stamina.  The importance of taking in the correct amount of fluids in order to maintain core temperature is vital, therefore an individualised hydration strategy is recommended (Maughan and Shirreffs, 2007). 

It’s also essential to make sure the balance is right between adequate hydration and the amount of food ingested.  Additionally, as with all areas of an athlete’s diet, quality and quantity are equally important (Samedi, 2007).  

In practical terms, the success or failure of any nutritional programme delivery depends purely on getting the balance right; or to put it simply, if the amount of calories taken in doesn’t correlate with those going out then the programme will fail. 

However, this entails more than just keeping a simple weekly calorie count.  In recent times the primary focus within sports nutrition has shifted towards the concept of nutrition for competition and nutrition for training; with each requiring a different approach.  

Close et al (2016) referred to ‘targeted nutritional periodisation’ when discussing dietary adaptations in the training period to maximise performance in the competition phase as opposed to following the traditional concept of simple carbohydrate loading. 

In a recent review of nutritional strategies designed to improve sports performance they emphasised that performance in competition and adaptations through training are quite different and are at times not always compatible.

In citing that current thinking leans towards an elevated protein intake together with reducing carbohydrates in the training phase, therefore potentially enhancing training adaptations with the objective of carrying these over into the competition phase, Close et al (2016) demonstrate the new approach to sports nutrition. 

Perhaps more importantly, the emphasis is placed fairly and squarely on the importance of accuracy in its delivery.

Athletes in general are now paying far more attention to their diet than ever before; food diaries have become the normal and sports nutrition has become a lucrative market.   Yet getting the message across that correct sports nutrition can affect performance means that education subsequently becomes one of the most important considerations. 

We like to think that in today’s world, our knowledge of sports nutrition is formed on a background of solid scientific research.  Yet several authors would disagree.  García-Rovés et al (2014), found that the nutritional intake of soccer players has attracted surprisingly little research attention. 

Based on their own research Ono et al (2012) claimed that many footballers fail to consume an adequate diet essential for optimal performance.  

Coach education is a vital aspect of sports nutrition as a component of training plan.  Once again recent research highlighted differences across several sports and demonstrated that coaches’ individual knowledge of nutritional aspects varied in depth; with examples at both ends of the scale readily found on commonly-used search engines (Alaunyte et al, 2015; Ozdoğan and Ozcelik, 2011; Trakman et al, 2016).

It becomes essential, therefore, for sports medicine professionals to ensure that athletes have sufficient knowledge to meet their nutritional requirements.  

Applied correctly, matching the nutritional demands of different sports to the needs of individual competitors is thought to have the dual effect of fulfilling essential requirements together with enhancing performance.   ​It almost goes without saying, therefore, that understanding the specifics of sports nutrition is fundamental to its success.


Alaunyte I, Perry J, Aubrey T (2015).  Nutritional knowledge and eating habits of professional rugby league players: does knowledge translate into practice?  Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.  Vol. 12 (18); DOI: 10.1186/s12970-015-0082-y

Burke LM, Hawley JA, Wong SHS, Jeukendrup AE (2011).  Carbohydrates for training and competition.  Journal of Sports Sciences.  Vol. 29; Supplement 1:  S17 – S27.

Close GL, Hamilton DL, Philip A, Burke LM, Morton JP (2016).  New strategies in sports nutrition to increase exercise performance.  Free Radical Biology and Medicine.  Vol. 98; 144 – 158.

García-Rovés PM, García-Zapico P, Patterson ÁM, Iglesias-Gutiérrez E (2014).  Nutrient Intake and Food Habits of Soccer Players: Analysing the Correlates of Eating Practice.  Nutrients.  Vol. 6 (7); 2697 – 2717.

Jeukendrup AE (2011).  Nutrition for endurance sports: marathon, triathlon, and road cycling.  Journal of Sports Sciences.  Vol. 29; Supplement 1:  S91 – S99.

Manore MM, Thompson JL (2006).  Energy requirements of the athlete:  Assessment and evidence of energy deficiency.  In:  Burke L, Deakin V., editors.  Clinical Sports Nutrition.  McGraw-Hill Book Company Australia; Roseville, CA, USA. pp 113 – 134.

Maughan R, Shirreffs S (2007).  Nutrition and Hydration concerns of the female football player.  British Journal of Sports Medicine.  Vol. 41; 160 -163.

Ono M, Kennedy E, Reeves S, Cronin L (2012).  Nutrition and culture in professional football.  A mixed method approach.  Appetite.  Vol. 58 (1); 98 – 104.

Ozdoğan y, Ozcelik AE (2011).  Evaluation of the nutrition knowledge of sports department students of universities.  Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.  Vol. 8 (11); DOI: 10.1186/1550-2783-8-11   

Reilly T, Drust B, Clark N (2008).  Muscle fatigue during football match play.  Sports Medicine.  Vol. 38 (5); 357- 367.

Samedi M (2007).   Soccer and Nutrition.  Journal of Sports Science and Medicine.   Supplement 10.

Trakman GL, Forsyth A, Devlin BL, Belski R (2016).  A Systematic Review of Athletes’ & Coaches’ Nutrition Knowledge & Reflections on the Quality of Current Knowledge Measures.  Nutrients. Vol 9. PiE570​.

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