Athletic & Sports Performance

Athletic & Sports Performance

The evolving science of sports nutrition creates new product opportunities to support athletes’ core needs of strength, energy, and recovery—while incorporating emerging interests like mood benefits, plant proteins, and eSports nutrition.

Never before in the history of sports nutrition have we known so much about the vital role of nutrition in sports performance—from optimum protein intake for athletes to sports nutrition supplements for strength, energy, and recovery. As the research in sports nutrition science expands, brands have an unparalleled opportunity to offer consumers products with evidenced-based benefits that can help them achieve their workout and performance goals.

At the same time, sports nutrition consumers are beginning to view their health and performance in more holistic ways, considering factors like mental wellness, gut health, and plant protein options to support a more sustainable lifestyle. Interest is growing in natural, non-stimulant energy, as well as adaptogens that can improve resilience to physical and mental stress. Active lifestyle consumers and gamers are also looking at sports nutrition products, though their needs differ from those of core users.

Download our Sports Nutrition Guide for an overview of today’s essential topics in sports nutrition.

Trends in Athletic and Sports Performance

woman with shaker bottle in gym

There is high growth ahead for sports nutrition products, with protein powders making up the largest segment but protein bars and non-protein products (like amino acids and pre-workout products) growing the fastest. Weight management has emerged as a top driver for the use of sports nutrition products among US consumers.

Brands focused on core users, which include athletes and gym goers, are discovering new opportunities in products for active lifestyle consumers, who are increasingly reaching for sports nutrition products to support their strength and energy needs. Preferences among this group include no/low sugar hydration, natural energy boosters, and on-the-go protein.

Interest in plant-based sports nutrition continues to rise due to its association with health and sustainability. Brands are innovating in vegan protein powders and bars, shifting from soy to pea protein and new plant protein blends. Many of these brands have doubled down on their sustainability stance to include the use of plastic-free or recyclable packaging.

Some emerging topics in sports nutrition science are oxidative stress in athletes, the gut microbiome’s influence on performance and recovery, and mental health in sports nutrition. Opportunities ahead for brands in the space include sports nutrition products fortified with nootropics, adaptogens, or beauty-from-within ingredients and those targeting the new, youth-focused sports at the Summer Olympics.

Strength and Muscle

man lifting weight in gym

Protein is one of the most essential nutrients in sports performance, particularly for supporting muscular health and strength, with a key role in pre-workout nutrition. Consumers are using protein to fuel their workouts, as well as for recovery, managing satiety, and as a healthy snack. The trend in plant-based nutrition for athletes has expanded into newer plant protein sources such as flax, chia, pumpkin, sunflower, and hemp seed, often in innovative blends to improve amino acid balance.

Though plant-based nutrition is gaining momentum, dairy protein remains the premium choice for athletes, with recent research indicating potential benefits in weight management, immunity, and healthy aging. Whey protein is the most in demand in sports nutrition, but choosing the right type is important. For example, compared to whey protein concentrate (WPC), whey protein isolate (WPI) is higher in leucine, which has a unique role in stimulating muscle protein synthesis, and is virtually lactose-free.

More active lifestyle consumers are purchasing protein products from the sports nutrition category. However, key drivers tend to be muscle support for their active lifestyles and for healthy aging, unlike core users, who are motivated by muscle building and strength. Additional performance-enhancers sought by core users include hydrolyzed whey protein, creatine, nitric oxide boosters, glycerol, and IGF-1. 

Sports nutrition for women is becoming more differentiated. Products are still protein-based but with added nutrients such as iron, calcium, and vitamin D, plus bioactives for women’s health. Go-to formats for muscle support products are ready-to-mix powders, ready-to-drink beverages, gels, and supplements, though the convenience of protein snacks makes this a space to watch closely (with cheese and protein snacks some of the best snacks for pre-workout use). 

Energy and Endurance

two women running

Nutrition and sports performance go hand-in-hand, with nutritional products that can help optimize energy high on the list for athletes. Energy drinks remain popular in pre-workout nutrition for sports performance, but interest in healthier versions is growing. Some exciting trends in energy drinks include amino acid fortification, no sugar formulations, and plant-based ingredients, including natural, non-stimulant sources of energy.

Energy products also highlight the important role of vitamins in sports performance—particularly the B vitamins, which are essential to the process of energy metabolism. This process provides athletes with a more sustained energy through the conversion of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins into ATP to fuel the body (compared to the quick energy boost from caffeine).

Popular dietary supplements for athletes interested in improving performance include creatine due to its unique role in supplying energy to the cells. When the body’s ATP supply is used up, the body breaks down creatine to produce more. While creatine users are often bodybuilders and weight lifters, they’re also more likely to participate in team sports and combat sports (like martial arts and boxing) in which endurance is critical to performance.

For endurance athletes such as long distance runners, cyclists, and swimmers, healthy sports nutrition requires electrolytes like potassium as part of their hydration strategy due to the high losses that occur during sweating. If potassium levels drop too low during exercise, fatigue and muscle weakness can set in. Nitric oxide boosters are another sports performance ingredient that can minimize fatigue to improve endurance. 

Rest and Recovery

two men high fiving

Proper rest and recovery allow athletes to maintain their overall health and quickly return to prior performance levels. However, this process relies on the availability of key nutrients in the body. Recovery nutrition after exercise includes fluids, electrolytes, and protein. Proteins and the amino acids they provide are critical to the protein synthesis (for both muscle repair and muscle building) that occurs during recovery.

Protein snacks are an ideal format for recovery nutrition since they answer both a need (protein to rebuild muscle tissue) and a want (an indulgent treat or reward). Protein snacks are expanding beyond the protein bar into sweet protein balls and bites, as well as savory protein snacks like high protein chips and extruded curls and puffs  made with protein from whey or cheese.

Athletes may also supplement with amino acids, especially BCAAs such as leucine, to influence muscle recovery more directly. In addition, recovery nutrition products often include key vitamins for athletes, such as vitamin D (involved in muscle contraction and protein synthesis), vitamin B6 (which metabolizes amino acids for muscle protein synthesis and repair), and vitamin C (which helps protect muscles from exercise induced inflammation).

Some brands are emphasizing the importance of stress relief and mood in the rest and recovery process, particularly as they impact sleep quality. Adequate sleep allows the body to enter into deeper stages of sleep, when the release of growth hormone and the tissue repair process are most active. Magnesium, vitamins B6 and B12, omega-3s, tryptophan, and adaptogenic herbs like ashwagandha are being incorporated into recovery products to address the emerging interest in mental health in sports nutrition.

Mental Focus and Alertness

girl playing video game

Another trend in nutrition for athletes is support for mental focus, a need relevant across all types of sports. Some of the latest dietary supplements for athletes contain nootropics, with claims to optimize cognitive performance (such as attention, learning, and memory), plus adaptogens to support mental balance.

Products with focus and alertness positioning are also catching the attention of gamers, a newer category of athletes seeking sports nutrition information that can give them an edge. ESports participation has grown phenomenally in recent years, with widely viewed, high-stakes competitions backed by major corporate sponsors.

Despite the excitement around this growing sport, the performance nutrition needs of gamers are not being fully addressed in the market. Gamer-focused products with mental focus, visual health, and sustained energy benefits are a clear opportunity. This includes functional beverages like no/low sugar (“crash-free”) energy drinks fortified with L-theanine, Panax ginseng, and B vitamins, along with other formats convenient to gamers like gels and snacks.

Adaptogens such as ginseng, as well as ashwagandha, Rhodiola, and kava, which have a long history of use in traditional medicine, are thought to have a wide range of holistic benefits for mental and physical resilience that could benefit athletes. This gives sports nutrition brands diverse positioning opportunities, including pre-workout mental focus, post-workout stress relief, and daily mood support.

Contact Glanbia Nutritionals to learn how to make the best products to support the needs of today’s athletic and sports performance consumers.

Frequently Asked Questions

Sports nutrition is the science and application of optimizing nutrient intake for athletic performance. It includes the study of the ideal vitamin, mineral, water, carbohydrate, fat, and protein intake for athletes, which helps determine the best diet for athletic performance and any dietary supplements that could be beneficial. The timing of nutrient intake is another aspect of sports nutrition science and includes pre-workout nutrition and recovery nutrition.

Proper nutrition supports muscle function, recovery, and adaptation to training, while inadequate nutrition can lead to fatigue, impaired performance, and increased risk of injury. Tailoring nutrition to an athlete’s needs and goals, including the right amount of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals, can enhance strength, endurance, and overall athletic performance.

The nutrition requirements for sports participants are typically more demanding than the requirements for those not engaging in athletic performance or strenuous exercise. Athletes expend more energy and are more likely to deplete their glycogen stores, suffer electrolyte and fluid losses, and experience muscle tissue breakdown. This is why nutrition for sports performance encompasses adequate intake of calories, carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, minerals, and water to meet these demands.

Success in sports hinges on rigorous training and practice, built on a foundation of health and fitness—both of which are sustained by proper nutrition. Nutrition fuels physical activity and supports muscle function, bone strength, tissue repair, healthy body composition, and immune function. Beyond general health and fitness goals, nutrition for athletes often focuses on maximizing endurance, speed, and strength. 

Sports nutrition supplements can complement an athlete's diet by delivering additional nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, or by providing specific compounds like creatine or caffeine to improve performance. Popular dietary supplements for athletes include protein and BCAA supplements to support muscle repair and growth, electrolytes to replenish essential minerals lost during sweating, and antioxidants to reduce exercise-induced oxidative stress and inflammation.

A healthy sports nutrition diet, which includes adequate hydration, macronutrients (like protein and carbohydrates), and micronutrients (such as vitamins, minerals, and omega-3s) is extremely important for athletes. Adequate nutrition optimizes the body’s ability to generate and utilize energy, prevent fatigue, maintain mental focus, manage exercise-induced inflammation, repair and build muscle, and speed recovery. 

Protein provides the body with amino acids that contribute to energy production and help prevent muscle breakdown during intense or prolonged exercise. Protein is also essential in recovery nutrition after exercise for its role in muscle repair and growth, which supports strong muscles for peak sports performance.

The best diet for athletic performance includes complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, which provide sustained energy for workouts, and lean protein sources like poultry, fish, beans, and protein bars, which support muscle repair and growth. Also, healthy fats from sources like nuts, seeds, avocados, and olive oil provide essential fatty acids that can reduce exercise induced inflammation, support heart health, and improve endurance.

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