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Health, Sports & Psychology
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Diet and hydration

Updated Friday, 11th July 2008

Eating your way to the top in sport is not just possible – it's vital. But you need to get your intake balanced and correct. Our Olympic hopefuls and OU experts explain how.

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In comparison to non-athletes, the key differences that sports people need to consider in their diet, first is the amount they consume because athletes, particularly elite athletes, are spending lots of time training and we’ve heard that people are spending hours and hours of their time training, they have higher energy requirements. They need to eat much more energy, much more calories than the average person.

My diet is probably largely carbohydrate-based, so I eat a lot of pasta, you know, I tend to eat a lot of pasta because I like it and I digest it very well as opposed to when I was younger I ate a lot of mashed potato and now I can barely stand the smell.

The other area that’s really important in sports diet that we’ve heard come up time and time again is the role of carbohydrate. So carbohydrate is a really important energy source for exercise, so when we consume carbohydrate we store that in our bodies, in our muscles, as what’s called glycogen, and it’s glycogen that give our muscles energy for movement and allow us to perform sports activities. So if we don’t have enough glycogen then we can’t perform our best.

A lot of pasta, carbohydrates. When I’ve finished training I always take good proteins to try and repair the muscles afterwards.

I normally eat more, it’s more carbohydrates than protein, especially when I’m training. So it’ll be pastas and chicken, and I try to eat as soon after training to replace anything that I’ve lost. Obviously everyone’s naughty every now and again so on a weekend I do have the odd takeaway, but I think everything in moderation is fine.

But then also during the winter season when we’re doing a lot of weights you’ve got to have a lot of proteins and then you’ve got to have all your antioxidants, you know, your vegetables and your vitamins and that sort of thing. So you really need to have a very balanced diet, but largely it’s very carbohydrate-based.

We’ll have two yoghurts, we’ll have a piece of fruit, like any fruit. We can have, like we have a melon sometimes or we have an orange, an apple or a pear, and then sometimes we do take like pots of yoghurts, but we’d just take like the normal straw ones now.

My cooking skills weren’t up to much and living on my own so it was more takeaways. So not only has my eating habits changed, I’ve had to learn how to cook for myself. So now it’s, I buy a lot of, because I live on my own singularly, I buy a lot of meals that come, they are microwave meals still but they’re the healthy option rather than a pizza.

Five years ago I’d probably have a lot more ready meals and frozen foods, but now I’m one of these sad people that you see looking at the list of ingredients and how much fat’s in there, how much sugar and salt and all that, so.

Things I eat, the night before, like I say, I’ll stock up on carbohydrates so it’d be a pasta-based meal on the evening. If it’s a big game I’ll actually, I feel quite nervous so I find it difficult to take on board. I know that I have to eat but I find it sort of, I find that my stomach’s doing butterflies so it’s normally something light, whether that be cereal.

I try to stay away from bread because I find that lays heavy on my stomach but normally a cereal or something like that, and then again I’ll eat that straight after play.

On the morning of racing you generally can’t eat very much because you’re dealing with a lot of nerves but it’s very important to get a little bit in you in the morning and then throughout the day little and often leading up to the race, and then you kind of generally don’t eat anything within two hours of the race. Maybe you have like a small energy bar or gel and a high carbohydrate drink.

I don’t eat before a competition because I make my weight, plus I don’t want to put on no weight as well. I don’t want to gain weight because the morning when I have to weigh in I’m probably going to have to try and lose it again.

It can be sometimes quite difficult to get the right amount of food in in relation to competition. Some of the athletes spoke about how they found it difficult to eat on the morning of the competition because they feel nervous.

There might be other factors in terms of scheduling, so in an Olympic Games if we see a competition where we’re watching it at 9 o’clock in the morning, that means those athletes have had to have been at that competition venue several hours before that so would have had to get up very early, so when do they eat in that schedule?

In the middle of a competition, like when the next round is on when we’ve finished, we’ll just, we’ll get some sandwiches or something and a drink if we haven’t got any. Then when we come back from home we’ll just have like a normal dinner, like salad, rice, curry, pasta, spaghetti bolognaise, something like that.

So the key goal after an event is to make sure that we restock the carbohydrate, the glycogen, that’s been used so that if we progress into future rounds, in Olympic Games there’s likely to be rounds in a competition that could be quite close together, it’s important to restock, refuel that muscle so that we can go on and perform our best in the next round.

And what’s really optimal is carbohydrate needs to be consumed as soon as possible after the exercise has finished, so you might see athletes drinking carbohydrate drinks or eating carbohydrate foods very soon after they’ve competed. There’s kind of a window of opportunity where immediately after exercise our uptake of glycogen is much faster.

But then after the race it’s important, you know, within half an hour of the race to get in a good amount of carbohydrate as well as protein to start aiding the recovery, and the quicker you can get it in, the quicker the recovery process starts.

And then afterwards, you know, it’s about replacing all the energy that you’ve used up in that race, you know, that 5½ minutes, so a lot of carbohydrate again. It depends how many races you’ve got and how close together they are.

Hydration is a really important part of sports nutrition, particularly for those preparing for the Beijing Olympic Games this year, because temperatures are going to be quite hot hydration and dehydration are going to be very important.

So an athlete would, in the same way we spoke about carbohydrate, an athlete would need to make sure that they’re adequately hydrated and they're not going to lose excessive amounts of water.

If we’re talking about endurance events we’ll actually see people consuming water during the event, but in shorter events it would be what they do in the build up to that.

I know some people, when it comes to drinking, they drink and drink and drink. Now I can sort of gauge it on how thirsty I’m feeling, and what I normally do is it’s small sips, rather than gulping lots when I’m thirsty I take small sips throughout the whole game and before.

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