The right nutrition for athletes

Whether you're just starting out exercising or you're a dedicated athlete, the right nutrition is vital to helping you meet your goals. We spoke to John Heiss, director of Herbalife’s sports and fitness products when he was in South Africa recently, here is what he says about the importance of the right nutrition.

"Nutrition is one of the three key areas of focus for an athlete, in addition to training and rest/ recovery. Endurance athletes are often looking to optimise their power-to-weight ratio, sprint-athletes are looking to improve muscular strength, and yet other athletes a combination of these two. Consider the Tour de France – where the top 20 positions are separated by only 1-2% differences in performance. For all elite athletes, training is a given. That’s why having a solid nutritional foundation 24 hours a day is key to maximising the benefits of exercise.

"While good nutrition won’t turn a mediocre athlete into a superstar, poor nutritional choices can easily turn a superstar mediocre," he says.

So how does this apply to someone who has recently taken up exercise or has only been exercising for a few months? According to Heiss, the same 'rules' apply.

"Anyone who is active is an athlete – we are all athletes to some extent. Even the weekend-warrior still needs great nutrition. The average person doesn’t get a massage and get to nap after the gym. Instead, they might be busy fixing a healthy breakfast for the kids while getting ready for a busy day at the office. That’s why these people are so reliant and good nutrition – his recovery time is really reduced," he says.

What and when to eat for the best results

According to Heiss, you don’t get stronger while you're training – you get stronger when your body is at rest and you are sleeping and eating.

He explains that in fact exercise adds stress to the body by breaking it down so it can rebuild stronger, and it is during this resting period that the window of opportunity to rebuild with proper nutrition exists.

"Athletes need to get a combination of good proteins and carbohydrates after exercise. The protein can be used to build lean muscle, and a modest amount of carbs will offset the energy used during exercise so you’re not drained the rest of the day. Look for complete proteins like milk, whey, casein, soy, egg, or combinations of proteins – these have all 20 amino acids your body needs to rebuild stronger and leaner.

Heiss says that if you have a workout that lasts over an hour, there is recent research suggests a combination of carbohydrates works best to prolong endurance.

"This is between 30-70g of carbs per hour, depending on the workout intensity. Sugars, like fructose and sucrose are actually beneficial during and after exercise to supply energy and aid in recovery. They just get a bad reputation because too many people consume kilogrammes of sugar while watching the TV."

To shake or not to shake?

While whole foods are best, many people don't have the time to prepare healthy, fresh meals for before, during and after gym to get the most of the nutrients in the food. This is when they opt for meal replacement shakes and recovery shakes. But what's in them? And how much do you need to take?

According to Heiss, good sports supplements should be built on the basics of sound nutrition; a blend of carbohydrates and quality protein.

" I urge those who don’t have access to a specifically formulated sports-recovery drink to consider a meal-replacement shake and perhaps add extra protein. Meal-replacement shakes usually have a good mixture of carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and complete vegetable-based proteins, like soy protein isolate.

Of course, overall high-quality food is a given.

"My weekly dinners usually see a variety of lean meats like chicken, pork, and fish (often salmon) paired with loads of vegetables. Most athletes like to get the majority of their carbohydrates in the morning and at lunch, and then increase protein and fat, while reducing carb intake at night.

Post training shakes are popular with people who have a long drive home after a workout or who go to work immediately afterwards and don't have time to eat. Heiss says that protein-carbohydrate drinks not only fuel them during the workout, but also start the recovery process even earlier. The classic recovery shake is typically a combination of protein and carbs; usually about 10-30g of protein and 15-50g of carbs (depending on the exercise duration and type)."

He advises that for most workouts people should look to consume 15-20g of carbs with 20-30g of protein, which appears to be the sweet-spot of protein intake without over-doing it.

Heiss says it’s important to consume these two macronutrients together as they each have a critical role in new muscle synthesis and muscle glycogen replenishment (the fuel you burn during exercise). Without carbs, you’re more likely to feel sluggish later in the day or during the following workout.  

"What makes specialised sports drinks so effective is the precise combination of nutrients, and more importantly, the nutrient timing. For example, a combination of a quickly-digested whey protein and a more slowly-digested casein protein extends the muscle-building window over several hours – thereby increasing the benefit as compared to pure whey protein alone.

Do you use sports supplements and shakes? How do you find them? E-mail us at

Source: John Heiss, Herbalife


(Health24, January 2013)

Read more:
5 high-protein post-workout snacks

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Voting Booth
What are your thoughts on the possibility of having permanent Stage 2 or 3 load shedding?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
I'll take that over constant schedule changes
13% - 1463 votes
Why are we normalising Eskom’s mess?
72% - 8048 votes
I've already found alternative ways of powering my home/business
15% - 1664 votes
Rand - Dollar
Rand - Pound
Rand - Euro
Rand - Aus dollar
Rand - Yen
Brent Crude
Top 40
All Share
Resource 10
Industrial 25
Financial 15
All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes Iress logo
Editorial feedback and complaints

Contact the public editor with feedback for our journalists, complaints, queries or suggestions about articles on News24.