Sports Food

exercise | September 16, 2017 | Author: Naturopath


Sports Food

It is well established that athletes need good nutrition, a balanced diet and sufficient hydration to enhance athletic performance. In addition to a healthy diet, many athletes frequently consume sport foods, defined by the Australian Institute of Sport as “specialised products used to provide a practical source of nutrients when it is impractical to consume everyday foods”. These include products such as rehydration solutions, sports drinks, energy gels, protein powders, and energy bars.

But do sport foods help or hinder performance and recovery?

re hydration solutionsRehydration Solutions

Rehydration solutions come as powders or tablets that are mixed in water, or ready made drinks, and typically contain sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium to replace electrolytes lost by sweat, vomiting or diarrhoea, and often glucose for energy. They can be used during or after exercise to restore fluid balance. Rehydration solutions are a preferred source of fluids to water for endurance athletes, particularly because they contain sodium.

Sodium is an electrolyte as it regulates your body's fluid balance. People who drink too much water while taking part in endurance sports are at an increased risk of diluting the sodium content of their blood - resulting in abnormally low sodium, a potentially life-threatening condition called hyponatraemia. It is still recommended to cosume water inbetween rehydration drinks.


  • Rapid restoration of fluids and electrolytes


  • Excessive sodium consumption is not recommended for people with high blood pressure.
  • The sodium content may alter the taste of the drink and result in insufficient consumption of fluid.

Sports Drinks

Sports drinks are ready to drink flavoured drinks that contain carbohydrates and sodium (salt), and are different to juice or cordial. Sports drinks are not gimmicks, according to the Australian Institute of Sports. They are proven to improve fluid intake and athletic drinks


  • Contain sodium to replace lost sodium through sweat
  • Contain carbohydrates that allow refuelling during exercise
  • Suitable for any sporting activity
  • Regulate body temperature and prevent dehydration
  • Come in a variety of flavours to enhance palatability


  • May contribute to dental erosion

Sports Energy Gels

Energy gels are a highly concentrated, semi solid source of carbohydrates that give the athlete fuel while training or racing, in order to sustain their energy levels. Athletes need carbohydrates, as they are the primary energy source for the body, providing readily available fuel in the form of glucose. They are especially essential during prolonged continuous or high-intensity exercise. Most energy gels provide between 20-25 grams of carbohydrates, generally in the form of maltodextrin, glucose, fructose, or sucrose. Most contain other ingredients such as caffeine and electrolytes.

Studies of endurance cyclists and runners found that taking energy gels increased blood glucose levels and significantly improved their performance, especially when the exercise lasted longer than 60 minutes.


  • Convenient – individual portable sachets
  • Easily digestible
  • Provide instant energy
  • Come in variety of flavours


  • Contain caffeine s(some). Possible side effects of caffeine consumption may include Insomnia, restlessness, nausea, vomiting, tachycardia, and arrhythmia; caffeine is also a diuretic, so gels must be consumed with water to avoid dehydration.
  • Not recommended for children, pregnant or lactating women and individuals sensitive to caffeine.
  • May cause gastrointestinal upset
  • Should be avoided by individuals with fructose malabsorption or FODMAP intolerance

Protein Powders

protein powdersProtein is needed for muscle growth and maintenance, and is also vital in supporting muscle recovery and repair. While the daily recommended intake for healthy non-exercising men and women is 0.8g/kg, athletes have higher protein needs, depending on the intensity and the duration of their exercise program.

The International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends daily protein intakes of 1.0 - 1.6 g/kg for endurance athletes, and 1.6 - 2.0 g/kg for strength/power exercise.

Athletes who cannot easily achieve their increased protein requirements through their regular diet may choose to use supplements in the form of protein powders. However, endurance athletes may need a protein powder that will speed recovery from workouts, whereas athletes engaged in strength sports, such as weight lifting, may want to take a protein powder that specifically increases muscle mass and power. 

There are many types of protein powders to choose from 

Proteins are found in both animal and plant foods. Animal-based protein powders contain all of the essential amino acids that our body needs. Common sources include milk-derived whey protein, milk-derived casein, and egg. Whey protein has the highest content of essential amino acids, and comes in three different forms:

  • Whey protein concentrate - contains low levels of fat and lactose (milk sugar) and about 70-80% protein. It is cheaper than whey protein isolate.
  • Whey protein isolate – negligible amounts of fat and lactose, with at least 90% protein.
  • Whey protein hydrolysate - considered the superior form of whey protein in terms of digestion.

Plant-base protein powders are commonly derived from soy, rice and/or pea, of which only soy-based protein powders contain all of the essential amino acids and as such are considered to be of higher quality.

Timing of protein ingestion is important.

Ingesting protein immediately before exercise is beneficial for increasing muscle mass, while intake of protein within an hour following exercise is beneficial for recovery.


  • Convenient – quick and easy to prepare and carry around
  • Better tolerated than food for athletes who experience appetite suppression post-exercise


  • Can lead to excessive protein intake
  • Not always nutritionally balanced

protein barsSports bars

Sports bars are snacks that are usually sold as individual bars or balls. They can be divided into two categories:

Energy bars - high in carbohydrates, moderate in proteins and low in fat to be used before, during or post endurance exercise. Pre workout bars should be low in fibre to prevent gastrointestinal problems during exercise.

Protein bars – high in protein and low in carbohydrates to be used as a snack after strength training.

Although they may have a healthy image, not all bars are created equal. Some sports bars are fortified with various vitamins and minerals, while others are loaded with fat or sugar. When choosing your bar, watch out for added sugars.


  • Convenient, ready to eat on the go, and portable
  • Provide instant energy


  • High in energy (kilojoules) and may lead to weight gain
  • Some are difficult to digest
  • Some may contain tree nuts, milk and gluten and may need to be avoided by athletes with allergies.  Australia's best online discount chemist


Australian Institute of Sport, 2009. Fluid - Who Needs It?, Available at:

Australian Institute of Sport, 2014. Electrolyte replacement supplements, Available at:

Australian Institute of Sport, 2014. Sports Bars, Available at:

Australian Institute of Sport, 2014. Sports Gels, Available at:

Australian Institute of Sport, 2009. Recovery Nutrition. Available at:

Bupa, Energy Bars Information - Who Needs Them?. Available at:

Campbell, B. et al., 2007. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: protein and exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 4(1), p.8. Available at:

Mayo Clinic Hyponatremia. Available at:

National Institutes of Health 2017, Dietary Supplements for Exercise and Athletic Performance.

Sports dietitians Australia 2011. Protein and amino acid supplementation, Available at:

The Irish Sports Council, 2013. Sports Gels, Available at:

backBack to Blog Home