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Why nutrition is so important for sports performance

Dr Regina Belski is a senior lecturer and researcher at La Trobe University. As part of the AFL Players’ partnership with La Trobe, students and academics will be sharing expertise and experiences ahead of The Age’s VCE and Career Expo this Saturday.

An athlete’s body needs to be in tip top shape for optimal sports performance, therefore the fuel that goes into their body is critical. One way of looking at it is by comparing the body of an athlete to a formula one race car. Even with the best car and the best driver if not enough fuel is put into the car, or the wrong type of fuel is used, it simply won’t be able to finish the event, let alone win. Similarly, whilst an athlete may have an optimal training routine and a great coach, if they do not eat the right foods at the right times, they are unlikely to achieve optimal performance.

This is where sports dietitians and nutritionists come in. Athletes in different sports have different needs; whether to gain muscle, lose fat, or fuel their body to survive weekly training, games, or a gruelling 14 hour ironman event or ultra-endurance marathon. Knowing what to eat, how much and when is vital. Poor nutritional intake and preparation contributes to poor performance, injury and adverse health outcomes.

‘‘low carb’ diets are quite simply detrimental to most athletes, especially for those in endurance sports.’

Athletes in different sports need to consider what and how they eat. The need to look at their eating before, during and after training and match the foods they consume to the fuel they need for their sport and performance goals.

Whilst protein is the current ‘it’ food in sport, many athletes don’t realise that for many sports carbohydrate intake is equally important, and that without an appropriate amount of carbohydrates performance is adversely affected, and that ‘low carb’ diets are quite simply detrimental to most athletes, especially for those in endurance sports. The reason for this is quite simple. Muscles use glucose (a carbohydrate) for fuel, not protein (protein is a building block, not the key fuel), so putting in extra protein instead of carbohydrates is almost like adding an extra side panel to the formula one car when it is running out of fuel and expecting it to keep going.

This is where working with a sports dietitian or nutritionist can be extremely beneficial for athletes, as they can work together to devise an eating plan that will optimise fuel levels at the same time as meeting their other goals (e.g. fat loss/muscle gain).

If working with athletes to optimise their eating and performance is of interest to you, you may want to consider a career as a sports dietitian or nutritionist. 

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