The Sprinters Diet

Nutritional Assessment: Training and competition Requirements

'The sprinters diet does not need to be complex, however must meet the needs of the individual athlete. The goal is to enhance muscle mass and strength whilst reducing body fat, and to speed up recovery with combined sources of protein and carbohydrates. Keeping well hydrated is also essential'. 

Characteristics of Sprint Training 

Before delving into the sprinters diet, I want to give a quick roundup of the characteristics involved in the training. Sprint training can be broken down into different phases throughout the season. The number or name of the phases may change slightly depending on preferences, but the type of training is usually similar. We generally break the season into 4 stages. These include the off-season, the Indoor season, pre season and the Summer Season.

 The length of each training phase could vary depending on the athlete's level, experience and what competitions they plan to compete in. Generally speaking, the off-season contains a lot of conditioning and commitment to weight training. Although still applied in the competitive season, the majority of the training focuses on speed work which is usually carried out on the track. As well as this, the training will involve various sprint technique drills, plyometrics and stretching to aid recovery.

Now let's take a look at how, as a sprinter, you can use nutrition to fuel training, competitions, and recovery.

Primary Nutritional Goals

The primary nutritional goals of a sprinter are as follows:

- Recover from Training and Competition: Training for sprinters often contains short bursts of high-intensity exercise for multiple sets and series. This continuous stress placed upon the body, especially the legs, means it's vital to fully recover during rest periods and between training and competitions. A proper warm-up, focus on sprinting technique, cool down, stretching and massage are all physical actions you can take to aid recovery. However, it is also vital that you fuel your body before, during and after training and competitions so that you can recover efficiently.

- Influence Training Adaptations: It's important for a sprinter to maximise their muscle mass and consume sufficient carbohydrates to fuel training needs without becoming bulky, and whilst maintaining low body fat levels. You can ensure this by eating a diet containing nutrient dense carbohydrates such as cereal, bread, fruit, and vegetables. A list of suitable foods for training and competition are listed later.

- Stay Hydrated: This one should be obvious but it’s also highly important and often neglected. I can’t stress enough how important it is to remain hydrated, especially throughout training, competitions and in hot climates.

Needs for Female A​thletes

women running track

Mostly, the nutritional needs for female athletes do not differ too much from that of a male athlete. Female athletes still need to fuel their bodies so that they have sufficient energy to meet the demands of training and competitions. This means eating an adequate amount of food to supply their bodies with the required energy. This amount however, is usually less than men.  

The biggest differences that you’ll find will actually be in terms of personal preference when it comes to food and how each individual reacts to certain foods. This is obviously something that will differ for both men and women.

However, one point I will make is that it’s important that athletes do not sacrifice food (especially protein and carbohydrates) intake to achieve a desired body fat percentage. Reducing energy levels could potentially lead to dips in performance on the track and long term problems to health.

Needs for Young Athletes

track and field

I wouldn't recommend cracking down on the diets of young athletes. Of course as coaches or parents we should encourage healthy eating habits, but this should be done through education on what constitutes a nutritious diet and meets the energy needs for their participation.

You have to remember that younger athletes are not training as intensely or as often as older or professional athletes (or at least they shouldn't be). The energy requirements for children will therefore be a lot lower than that of adults. This is still true for gifted athletes who show great ability at a young age.

From my experience with younger athletes, I’ve found that providing them with information on healthy, nutrient rich snacks and asking them to take control and think about what they are eating usually works best. After all, they want to learn, grow and improve in the sport too.  

Children should be eating a wide range of foods and not need to consume dietary supplements. This can sometimes be a problem because younger athletes are eager to improve and think that this will be a quick fix to improve performance. It won't. There's no shortcuts to success!

vegetables

Food and Fluid for Training 

During training periods it's important to continuously maintain a good diet, eating a range of food sources which will enable you to have the required energy to complete your training as well as recover from high-intensity sessions. Eating a small snack high in carbohydrates before and after training will help keep glycogen levels high.

It’s important to note that overloading on proteins has shown no benefit to performance. Many athletes actually overload without realising, due to the amount of protein in various foods. Usually, this will not cause you any problems but it is suggested that you do not increase protein intake if you have kidney problems.

It can also be a good idea to bring a carbohydrate drink (sports drink) to have during training such as Lucozade or Powerade. It’s best to perform training sessions when you are already well hydrated. So don’t wait until you start training to drink water.

Examples of Snacks or Meal Combinations: 

- Breakfast cereal with milk and fruit

- Fruit with flavoured yogurt

- Fruit smoothie or liquid meal supplement

- Sandwich with meat and salad filling

- Meat or chicken with vegetables and rice/noodles/pasta

Competition Day Food and Fluid

Carbohydrate loading is popular with runners but is unnecessary for sprint events as the races are short and do not deplete glycogen stores. This means that if you are already eating a nutrient dense diet with the adequate amount of carbohydrates, you will not need to change your eating habits in the lead up to a competition.

 On the day of your competition, your meal planning will be heavily influenced by your race times, how many races you have during the day (heats, multiple events) and your personal preferences on what you like to eat. So it is important to plan in advance and be aware that your meal planning could change from competition to competition.

Generally speaking, you want to have a carbohydrate-based meal for breakfast which will help maintain blood glucose levels. This does not mean load up on carbs. The goal is to avoid hunger throughout the day without any feeling of discomfort or having a full stomach. If this has happened to you before, you know it's horrible to race in this condition and your performance is likely to suffer.It’s important that you experiment with your competition day diet during training so that you can be confident of your routine when it comes to the day. It’s never a good idea to change your routine, or try a new food on the day, or days before your competition, as you don't know how your body will react.

This is often why athletes bring their own food when travelling to different countries to compete where they are not familiar with the local cuisine. This is not to say don’t try new foods, it’s one of the pleasures of travelling, just be aware of what you are consuming in regards to your competition and how you want to perform.

When competing in hot conditions and climates it's vital to stay hydrated so make sure you drink PLENTY of water!

Good Examples of Food Supplies for When Travelling:

- Breakfast cereal

- Cereal and breakfast bars

- Rice cakes- Spreads

 - honey/jam/peanut butter

- Sports drinks and liquid meal supplements (protein shakes)

- Sports bars- Dried fruit and nuts

Foods to Avoid

- Avoid foods that result in dehydration and gastrointestinal discomfort

- Avoid foods that you have not tried before as you don’t know how your body will react

- Avoid foods that you are unsure about how they have been prepared.

- Avoid energy-dense foods such as fast food, chocolate, cakes, soft drinks, alcohol etc

Competition Meal schedule

Suitable Foods 3-4 Hours Before Exercise

- A breakfast cereal/muesli/porridge with milk

- Cottage cheese and potato

- Beans on toast- Toast with cheese/meat

- Yogurt

- Fruit salad

- Pasta with vegetables/lean meat

- Glass of milk

Foods Suitable 1-2 Hours Before Exercise

- Liquid meal supplement (protein shake)

- Milkshake or fruit smoothie

- Sports bars

- Breakfast cereal with milk

- Cereal bars

- Fruit flavoured yogurt-

 Fruit

Foods Suitable to Eat if There is Less Than 1 Hour Between Events

- Sports drink

- Carbohydrate gel

- Cordial (sweet drink, squash)

- Sports bar

Supplements

It's important that you do not replace standard food sources with supplements, including powders or pills. If you have a full nutritional diet then you can get everything you need from food sources and will have no need to take any supplements.

Before looking to take any supplements as a quick fix you should first take the time to make sure you are practising good eating habits and applying adequate rest to your training program.

It is always best to consult a sports dietitian before taking any new supplements but there are some that can be beneficial. If you are looking to use supplements to accompany your food sources then here is some information on the ones I use as well as some of my athletes.

Creatine - Increases muscle mass and strength/ increases the intensity of repeat sprint performance. 15-20g day  for 4-7 days (loading phase) then 2-5g a day maintenance)Protein supplement (whey isolate)Caffeine- 1-2mg . kg-1 capsules/tablets (avoid caffeine from coffee within hours of exercise or competition races)

Follow this guide and you'll be fuelling your training and recovery efficiently to help you increase your performance throughout the season and run faster times during your event!