The importance of context in sports nutrition

When I am asked a sports nutrition question as a sports dietitian or performance nutritionist, it is pretty common that on nine out of ten occasions my answer will begin with ‘It depends’. Allow me to delve into some of the complexities of sports nutrition, why there should never be a one size fits all approach and why the context is essential to provide the right answer.

When I began my nutrition blog on Dietitian Without Borders a few years ago, my original tag line was ‘putting nutrition into context’. Considering how often I talk about the importance context plays when it comes to nutrition advice, perhaps I should revert to it!

Last week I attended a Leaders in Performance sports nutrition conference hosted by Asker Jeukendrup in the Netherlands. At one point during he compared the importance of knowing the context when providing sports nutrition advice to a Peppa Pig episode.

Let me explain.

Apparently there’s this Peppa pig episode where Peppa is told that spiders are safe and she doesn’t need to be scared of spiders.

No problem in the context of the UK where spiders ARE safe.

In Australia however? Most (if not all) spiders are extremely deadly, even the little spiders. Cue uproar about this dangerous advice being shared amongst young kids.

Similarly when it comes to sports nutrition, the advice that might be beneficial for one situation may be disadvantageous in another.

As a result, context is everything when it comes to providing the right information.

Context is everything for sports nutrition

With perhaps the exception of eating plenty of vegetables and being adequately hydrated, there are very few (if any) general rules that apply in all situations.

Say for example you’ve had a tough training session and depleted all your glycogen stores.

It could be said that you should replace those glycogen stores with carbohydrate as soon as possible.


What if you were going to do your next training session intentionally with low glycogen stores to help drive training adaptations, improve fat utilisation and help your body adapt to being deprived?


What if you are in the middle of a multi-stage race and have a hard long ride the next day, and the next day, and the next day and need that glycogen to be replaced like NOW to ensure you make it to the end?

The nutrition advice for those specific situations is going to differ because of the context and the goals of each of those situations.


Truth requires context and the context is everything.

There is no one perfect diet that suits every athlete.

Every athlete is different, has different preferences, requirements, beliefs, backgrounds. What is right for one athlete isn’t going to benefit the next. It doesn’t make it right or wrong. It just is.

Some athletes require more carbohydrate to sustain them. Other athletes are magnificent fat burners and can go for hours and hours on what seems like nothing.

Some athletes train for events that last minutes. Others train for events that last hours, days or even weeks. The nutrition required for these different events can vary dramatically.

Some athletes follow vegan diets. Others prefer meat. Either way is fine.

It’s the specifics and the context that matter and make the difference when it comes to getting quality and tailored sports nutrition advice.



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Image: David Lake Photography

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