Blog Post

How to Fuel Yourself as an Athlete

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As an athlete, it is not only about eating a healthy balanced diet. Don’t get me wrong of course that is important, but it is equally if not more important that you consider one main thing – performance! What does that mean? It means optimising intake to ensure your intake to ensure you are well fuelled and recovered for your training and performance requirements.

An athlete’s requirements could be considered abnormal when you compare them to the general population. After all, an athlete can train as much as 4 to 8 hours per day, compared to the average person who may struggle to exercise that much in a week! For this reason, it is important to consider your individual needs and what your training and performance requirements are.

Having good overall health and a strong immune system is key to being a good athlete, but performance nutrition is about having many more tools in the toolbox compared to just meeting nutritional requirements set out by the standard guidelines.

Below are my five priority areas to help fuel yourself as an athlete.

1. Periodise Nutritional Intake

One of the most important elements of an athletes training program is periodisation. This means some sessions or even whole training blocks are much harder than others. It will also include scheduled rest days and ‘down’ weeks. These intermittent intensities, durations and types of training are important to maximise performance and ensure optimal adaptation.

For this reason, it is imperative that your are adjusting your intake to match your output. Different training sessions, mean variations in nutritional requirements.

For the harder, more intense sessions your body will use more glucose and glycogen to fuel the session. This means, you should be taking on more nutrition prior to, and immediately after, those key sessions to maximise training output, and also optimise recovery.

Some nutrients and foods should be adjusted more than others. For example, carbohydrate intake should be adjusted based on the type of training. This is different from protein intake which should remain relatively constant day-to-day.

2. Maximise Protein Intake– Timing, Distribution, Type

Protein is the key nutrient involved in muscle growth. It is not only about the amount of protein you eat, but it is also about the type of protein you consume, when you eat it and the frequency.

Providing the body with 4-6x doses of good quality, high biological value protein across the day will switch on the muscle protein synthesis pathway more frequently than just having 2-3x meals with large amounts of protein. This means you should ensure you are splitting some of your protein from lunch and dinner for breakfast and snacks.

Research has also shown that the ability to gain lean muscle mass is elevated for 24-48 hours after a training session. This is why it is important for an athlete who is training most days to keep a relatively constant protein intake as their body is always in a state of recovery.

3. Adjust Carbohydrate Intake

Adjusting carbohydrate intake around training is one of the most important ways to help get the most out of training. It is also helpful for optimising body composition.

While protein intake should remain relatively consistent on all days, carbohydrate intake should not. Different training sessions require varying amounts of carbohydrate and adjustments to intake both prior to training and also during training should be made accordingly. Training sessions which work at higher intensities require more fuel than sessions which work at lower intensities. Please see the table below for some best practice guidelines around carbohydrate requirements during activity.

Brief exerciseLess than 45 minutesNothing requiredF45, run, spin class
Sustained high-intensity exercise45 – 75 minutesPreference
Small amounts – mouth rinse
Extended high intensity class
During endurance sports
Including team sports
1 hr to 2.5 hrs30 – 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour
Can be all glucose or mix of glucose/fructose
Sport like AFL, Netball, NRL, Half marathon
During ultra-endurance exerciseMore than 2.5 / 3 hrsUp to 90grams per hour**Marathon, triathlon, ironman

Reference – Louise M. Burke, John A. Hawley, Stephen H. S. Wong & Asker E. Jeukendrup (2011): Carbohydrates for training and competition, Journal of Sports Sciences, 29:sup1, S17-S27

4. Meet and Exceed the Recommended Fruit & Vegetable Intake

Fruit and vegetables are imperative for the human body to function at its best. Meeting micronutrient requirements are essential for supporting every metabolic function the body performs. Inadequate intake can jeopardise metabolic function which will reduce performance and limit results.

A diet rich in fruits and vegetables also helps ensure good health and immunity. Consistency with training is key to improving performance, and nothing disrupts training like injuries and illness.

This is an area you should be referring to the guidelines, to ensure you are not only meeting but exceeding their 2x serves of fruit and 5x serves of vegetables.

5. Hydration


Human beings function better when they are hydrated. This includes cognitive function, physical performance and metabolic efficiency. Hydration needs are highly individual due to variations in sweat rates between people, or even for the same person exercising in different conditions.

There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach when it comes to replacing fluid losses from sweat. You should be aware of your own hydration requirements before, during and after exercise. A few useful tips include

• Aim for pale yellow urine over the day
• Start your training hydrated and avoid losing more than 2% body weight
• Replace more than what you have lost in a session – the general rule is 120 – 150%

Focus on the areas that are easiest to change, or will give you the biggest bang for your buck – meaning the biggest performance impact. Invest time into the process and ensure you understand the individual requirements needed for your sport and training.

To find out more about Jessica, check out her websites: and

By Jessica Spendlove

Jessica is a Sydney-based Dietitian who works with some of Australia’s leading sports teams including the Greater Western Sydney Giants (AFL), the Cronulla Sharks (NRL), Giants Netball and the Sydney Kings (NBL). Jessica has recently started a dietetic consulting business, Health and Performance Collective, with fellow APD Chloe McLeod. Their goal is to help individuals optimise performance in all aspects of life through elite nutrition practices.