Sports nutrition unpacked: expert insight into supporting active lifestyles

Whether you're hitting the gym, going for a run, or just staying on the move, what you eat plays a huge role in how well you perform and recover. Picture: Nathan Cowley /Pexels

Whether you're hitting the gym, going for a run, or just staying on the move, what you eat plays a huge role in how well you perform and recover. Picture: Nathan Cowley /Pexels

Published Apr 11, 2024


When you lead an active lifestyle, fuelling your body right is as important as lacing up your sneakers. Imagine your body is like a car. Just like different cars need different types of fuel to run efficiently, your body needs different kinds of nutrition to keep up with your active pace.

Whether you're hitting the gym, going for a run or just staying on the move, what you eat plays a huge role in how well you perform and recover.

But navigating the world of nutrition can feel a bit like trying to jog through a maze. Proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins – it can all get a bit overwhelming.

That's why we're diving into the essentials of nutrition for those who love to move. We'll keep it simple and fun because eating well shouldn't feel like a workout on its own.

Whether you're hitting the gym, enjoying long walks, tackling hiking trails, running, biking, swimming, playing sport like soccer or tennis, or trying out the increasingly popular sport of padel, all these activities not only help us stay in shape but also give us a break from the stresses of daily life.

If you’re looking for longevity in your sport, it's crucial to understand how nutrition plays a key role in an active lifestyle.

What you eat before, during and after your workouts or games can greatly affect both how well you perform and how quickly you recover.

But remember, all of this depends on the foundation of maintaining a healthy and balanced diet overall.

Paying attention to your nutrition can boost your performance in your favourite sport. Picture: Daniel Reche/Pexels

Kelly Scholtz, a spokesperson for the Association for Dietetics in South Africa (ADSA) and a registered dietitian, points out, "Whether you're someone who exercises regularly, plays a favourite sport once a week, or competes in events as a lifestyle athlete, it's vital to understand that your nutritional needs are a bit different from those who may not be as active.

Your nutritional intake must be tailored to support the additional demand for energy, as well as for the micronutrients, protein and anti-inflammatory nutrients that are required for healthy recovery from exercise.

“As beneficial as it is, exercise does represent a form of stress to the body.

“Although this is a positive type of stress, your body still requires adequate nutritional support for optimal adaptation to your exercise routine.

“Paying attention to your nutrition boosts not just your performance in your favourite sport but plays a preventative health role that enhances your overall enjoyment of your active lifestyle,” she said.

Start with a balanced diet

People with active lifestyles should start with supporting their health, well-being and performance with a general eating regime that prioritises fruit and vegetables, legumes, lean proteins, whole grains, low-fat dairy and healthy fats such as olive and avocado oils.

According to Scholtz, it's best to focus on meals made from whole foods versus those that are highly processed. Limit your alcohol intake and the use of tobacco or nicotine products.

When you work out, especially if it's intense exercise, your body prefers to use glucose for energy. This glucose comes either from your last meal or from glycogen stores in your muscles and liver.

For less intense activities, your body can also use fat for energy. If your workout lasts up to an hour, you generally don't need to consume extra calories or carbohydrates.

Drinking plain water to stay hydrated is enough. As long as you're eating a healthy diet, your body should have enough glycogen stored up to power through a session of that length.

For endurance activities lasting anywhere from an hour to up to 2.5 hours, refuelling during the session with 45-60g of carbohydrates, per hour, is generally recommended.

Scholtz adds, “There’s no need for expensive supplements or specially branded products as typical sports drinks, water and everyday foods like bananas, dates and peanut butter sandwiches can be effective during endurance activities.”

Rehydrate and recharge post-workout

After a high-energy sports or training session you can support your body’s recovery from the strain of exercise and promote muscle repair and adaptation with a snack or drink within 30 minutes.

“Optimal recovery snacks include a mix of protein and carbohydrates like milk with a banana, chocolate milk, an energy bar with lean biltong, or eggs or hummus on toast,” recommends Scholtz.