In order to perform to the best of their abilities, athletes must fuel their bodies correctly before partaking in training or competition.
The extra level of activity means athletes need additional calories that include a wide range of nutritional elements such as protein, vitamins, fats and minerals.
Iron is vital to supply oxygen to the muscles, while calcium keeps bones strong and healthy. Protein helps to boost muscle power and healthy fats provide energy for endurance.
Water intake is also important, as dehydration can have a negative impact on both cognitive and physical performance.
Read on as we assess three essential components of the modern athlete's diet - supplementation, optimisation and pushing natural limits.
Supplementation helps athletes shine
Research has shown that dietary supplements are a valid part of a top-class athlete's training regime, particularly when used to compliment a healthy diet.
Supplements are fortified foods like protein shakes and sports drinks that include nutrients in concentrated forms such as vitamins, minerals, amino acids and essential fatty acids.
Sean Casey, a sports performance specialist at the University of Wisconsin, says supplements can definitely have a positive impact on athletes.
“Before talking about supplements, it's important to note that the foundation of any successful long term sports nutrition plan revolves around a key component – a healthy diet,” he said. “You have to have the fundamentals in place to start.”
“That said, many individuals can benefit to some degree from supplements. There is a distinction between "maximum" health and "adequate" health.”
“Even with a perfect food-based diet, it can be extremely challenging to get everything one needs to maximise health and physical performance, so that is where supplementation can be beneficial.”
One mistake many athletes make when considering using supplements is failing to adequately understand their current food intake.
Casey says that before buying any supplements every athlete should spend time analysing their current diet to assess where any weak areas lie.
“Often individuals trying to gain weight/lean mass to enhance their athletic performance load up on supplements but forget that one of the main factors contributing to weight gain is calories,” he added.
“As a result, they under-eat (calorie-wise) and fail to put on weight despite the fact they use a particular protein powder, for example.
“If someone is trying to increase body weight for their sport, the best thing is a combination of a healthy diet with very specific supplements that target nutritional deficiencies.”
Optimising your exercise nutrition
The internet is full of advice relating to exercise nutrition, with many different organisations promoting what they believe to be the correct information.
Studies often prove contradictory, although one common theme that runs through much of the research is that different athletes often have varied requirements in terms of calorie intake.
A structured eating plan forms part of the most effective pre-workout and post-workout training regimes, but many athletes struggle to get the balance right.
Nutrition and dietetic expert, Sarah Keogh, says that what an athlete needs to eat depends on what type of activity they are undertaking.
“If someone is body building, they are going to need a lot more protein,” she said. “If someone is running, they will need more carbohydrates, and if they are doing ultra-running, they actually need a bit more fat.
“When we think about athletes, we think of them as being fit without being extreme. Processed foods are almost entirely gone from most athletes' diets - it is about real, natural foods.
“They may use some supplements, but they are very careful about making sure their body gets the nutrition it needs. When you eat a lot of processed foods, there tends to be lower levels of vitamins and minerals.
“If you are cooking from scratch and eating whole, unprocessed foods, then you are getting better nutrition and that is one thing that is common to anyone who is an athlete.”
Keogh says that some athletes overdo their intake of protein, mistakenly believing that it is the key to improving performance.
She insists that maintaining balance is an integral part of optimising exercise nutrition and suggests that taking an overall view is crucial.
“I've seen a lot of men, in particular, who go to the gym a lot and have great muscles but still have a belly - that's because they are overdoing the protein shakes or protein in general,” she added.
“What a lot of people don't realise is that you do need protein to build muscle, but the body can absorb only a certain amount of it at a time, so if you eat a huge amount of it, the body takes what it needs and the rest is turned into fat.”
Pushing the natural limits of the body
Pushing the body beyond the limits of what most people would class as normal is prevalent in many different sporting disciplines.
Mixed martial arts (MMA) is perhaps the most notorious sport for placing what may appear to be unrealistic demands on its athletes.
'Weight cutting' has been a controversial subject in the UFC over the past few years, with the organisation criticised for putting the health of their fighters at risk.
However, George Lockhart, nutritionist to Conor McGregor and other MMA fighters insists that pushing the natural limits of the body is possible if planned correctly.
“If you want to do sports, you won't get far without a proper diet.” he said. “The metaphor of cars comes closest to the diet of an athlete: 'If you don't use the right fuel, you can't get ahead'.
“With our fighters, we pay attention to four things in the diet - the type of food, the time of meals, the size of the portions and the hormonal response to food.”
Lockhart says that choosing the right type of food is crucial for modern athletes, but can vary dependent on what specific type of training you are undertaking.
“When you jog, fat is the main source of energy for your body, but if you're doing strength training, it's carbohydrates,” Lockhart added.
“Sticking to a nutritional program is the most important thing. Whether you're on a zone diet, a paleo diet, or a ketogenic diet, if you stick to it, you'll see results.”