When it comes to working towards a goal, we all know that reaching our potential and performing at our best goes well beyond simply ticking off the training sessions. From how we’re fuelling our bodies, to the mindset we carry into our training and racing – optimising performance is all about taking a holistic and balanced approach. Get it right, and you’ll be smashing your goals and feeling great in the process. But knowing where to start, how to stay consistent and how to strike that optimal balance when it comes to taking care of both overall wellbeing and performance can be tricky.

Performance nutritionist Barbara Cox-Lovesy shares 10 ways to improve your performance, along with her top tips for integrating healthy habits into your daily routine…

10 Ways to Improve Your Performance

We all want to improve our performance and general health – so staying focused, without becoming obsessed with every macro that we consume – is key for moving in the right direction for a wellness regime that will support our goals.

I believe in keeping it simple. After over 20 years as a performance nutritionist, I know that simple daily wellness habits are what builds physical and psychological resilience in our bodies long-term. To improve your performance and wellbeing, you need to make healthy choices on a consistent basis so they become a non-negotiable part of your daily regime, just like brushing your teeth!

Today I’m sharing 10 ways you can improve your performance. Try to implement one of these things each week, and you’ll build a new foundation. When all 10 are in place, there will be a synergistic effect, and you’ll really notice how your energy, focus, mindset and body composition starts to improve.

One: Nutrition

Plan meals ahead of time

Don’t get caught out feeling hungry then grabbing anything in sight! Plan accordingly. Make a meal planner of your weekly meals, snacks, food timing and make sure it’s filled with variety so ‘recipe fatigue’ doesn’t leave you feeling uninspired with what’s on your plate.

Aim for three meals a day at regular intervals, with healthy snacks in between if needed

This helps to keep blood sugar levels even to enable you to train longer and harder. Get your recipe books out to feel inspired and look for recipes that are: anti-inflammatory, balanced with protein, low GI carbohydrates and low sugar to fuel your training.

When we talk about ‘anti-inflammatory foods’ we’re referring to fresh ingredients that are not processed in any way. If you want to perform at your best at an event, it’s best to avoid things like ready meals, alcohol, processed cereals/bars etc. A full explanation of ‘low GI’ along with a handy list of low GI foods can be found at the bottom of this article.

Use suitable portion sizes

Part of the planning of a balanced diet is portion control. This serves to ensure that you’re getting the nutrients you need while refraining from overloading the digestive system, which can lead to unnecessary weight gain.

Make sure you’re getting enough protein

Good quality protein will help build muscle, repair body tissue and balance blood sugar levels. It may also reduce food cravings. But don’t just stick to beef. Add variety by pairing meat-based sources such as venison, lamb, duck and turkey, or plant-based sources such as lentils, beans, nuts and seeds with vegetables.

Food is fuel

How many people do you know who look after their cars better than they look after themselves? They wouldn’t dream of putting inferior fuel in their cars, so why do they put inferior food in their stomach?

Food is fuel, so make sure you choose it wisely so you can enjoy long-term health benefits as well as improving your fitness levels.

Remember the “80/20” rule

Think you’ll struggle to be a nutritional saint 100% of the time? Stick to the 80/20 rule – 80% “very healthy”, 20% “healthy-ish”.

Keep a food diary

Keeping a track of your food intake alongside your hydration, energy levels – and other markers such as weight or body measurements if you wish – can help you to identify any habits that aren’t working for you, and also acts a blueprint to look back on during busy or stressful times to help you stay on track.

Two: Hydration

“Keep properly hydrated” is my mantra! Water is the most plentiful substance in our body and is vital to our health. Water penetrates every cell and regulates all bodily functions. To name a few, water cleanses the body, transports nutrients, removes waste and regulates our body temperature.

Knowing all of this, I find it baffling how many people don’t know the importance of drinking plain water. At least 70% of our body is made up of water, yet these days people don’t think twice at topping up with fluids that are high in sugar, sweeteners, caffeine, gas, preservatives and salt. We’d never put the automotive equivalent of fizzy drinks in our cars, but I see people do it to their bodies all the time.

Top tips for staying hydrated:

Sip little and often throughout the day. The rate of passage of water from your stomach to your intestines depends on how much water is actually in your stomach. If there is lots of fluid, then it is like a flood flowing from your stomach to the intestines. The idea is to have a smaller amount of water, so it drips like a tap into the intestines. Practise sipping often throughout the day. Take 3-4 sips of water every 10 minutes.

Add carbohydrates if you’re exercising for over an hour. Plain water is fine if you’re going to be training for under 60 minutes, but for longer exercise sessions it’s best to add some carbohydrates (such as a sports drink solution) to your bottle to keep you fuelled.

female cyclist holding water bottle

Three: Rest and Recovery

Resting and recovering properly is just as important as training – it’s during rest that the adaptations happen – so make it a priority.


Sleep is one of the most important forms of rest and provides time for the body to adapt to the physical and mental demands of training.

Make sure you’re getting enough sleep (8 hours per night is a good guideline) and ensure your sleep is good quality by making sure the room is dark, quiet and peaceful. “Passive resting” such as reading a book or listening to music are also great ways for the body to relax, both physically and mentally.


Resist the temptation to skip the cool down after your training sessions. The cool down is a group of exercises performed immediately after your main training session – for example slowing down to an easy jog and then a walk after a run session – and is often combined with stretching. Performing a cool down can help to reduce muscle soreness and also helps to bring your cardiovascular system back to a resting state.

Having regular sports massages is also a great way to promote recovery and take care of your body. Massage helps to:

  • Increase blood flow
  • Enhance oxygen and nutrient delivery to fatigued muscles
  • Increase removal of lactic acid
  • Warm and stretch soft tissues to increase flexibility and work through any knots or adhesions.

In addition to these physical benefits, massage has been reported to help improve mood, help increase relaxation and reduce feelings of fatigue.

Four: Mental Attitude

Performing at your best starts with a good attitude towards success and failure – building the mental resilience to prevent yourself from giving up when the going gets tough. No high performance athlete would be where they are now if they had given up!

Confidence is key. High performance athletes have been shown to have strong confidence levels which gives them the power to push themselves to the limit, through a belief in themselves and their abilities. Don’t be afraid to believe in yourself!

Stay motivated. Remember, your goal is to be able to perform at your best. Be determined and stay the course.

Fuel the brain to fight off low moods. B vitamins, iron, omega essential fatty acids and zinc can help raise your immune system and help to control the body’s response to stress, so make sure you’re eating a variety of food packed with natural nutrients and goodness.

cyclists smiling

Five: Goal setting

Having a clear goal in mind will help to keep you energised and on track. Knowing you want to improve your cycling is one thing – but having a specific goal (such as taking 1 minute off your 20 mile cycling time trial personal best) will give you the focus you need to take the steps to improve your performance. Setting a “SMART” (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timed) goal will give you a roadmap to improve your performance:


What is your goal? Maybe you’re going to try and beat your previous time trial personal best, cycle a certain distance, aim for a particular run time or to place in the top 10 at a race. Whatever it is, make sure it’s something specific.


How will you measure your goal? For example, this might be time, distance or based on race results.


Is your goal achievable?


Is your goal realistic? Strike the balance between aspirational and realistic to avoid overwhelming yourself. For example, if you’re currently ranked 49th in your sport and you want to be ranked number 1 by next month – that’s quite a lot of work to do! But setting a more realistic goal of moving up to 40th, for instance, will motivate you without overwhelming you and can act as a stepping stone.


When do you want to achieve your goal? Work back from there and ask yourself what you can realistically achieve in the time between now and then, and with the time you have available in your daily schedule.

Now that you’ve set out your SMART goal, displaying it somewhere that you’ll see it every day can help you to stay motivated – such as on a bathroom mirror, the fridge, on your phone screensaver or on your computer.

Six: Injury Prevention

While it’s impossible to prevent injuries in sport, as well as life, it is however possible to take precautions in order to decrease the likelihood of anything happening. Failing to warm-up sufficiently before training and events is the most common cause of sports injury. Meanwhile, intense training can make certain muscle groups vulnerable to injury through overuse. Taking a few simple steps to try and prevent injury will give you the best chance of being able to perform at your best, injury free:

Warm up

One of the most significant ways to prevent injury is to warm up properly.

A warm up session, depending on the sport, should be at least 5-10 minutes and involve gentle stretches gradually building up in intensity to increase flow of blood to the muscles.


Proper technique can minimise the risk of injury so it’s important to correct technique and form associated with your sport or when you’re working out in the gym.

Know your limits (and gently push past them)

Listening to your body and knowing your physical limits puts you in a very confident position to be able to gently extend that comfort zone without causing injury.

group of cyclists talking

Seven: nail your event day nutrition

Getting your nutrition intake spot on during day-to-day training is important. But even more so is carefully practicing and honing your nutrition in the lead up to, and during your event. Get it wrong, and frustrating stomach issues or low energy could throw a spanner into the works after all of your hard work in training.

Before your event:

In the 1-3 days leading up to an endurance event, the following pre-event tips are suggested in order to maximise the levels of carbohydrates within muscle and liver:

  • Increase carbohydrate intake three days before the event.
  • Spread the intake of carbohydrate foods and drinks over smaller and more frequent meals or snacks, so maybe try 6 smaller meals a day.
  • Reduce fat and protein intake to leave more room for the carbohydrates.
  • Increase fluid intake as carbohydrate need water to be stored.
  • Avoid alcohol in the 24-48 hours leading up to the event,

On race day:

There’s lots of evidence concluding that a pre-event meal 1-4 hours prior to an event should consist of food and drink which is high in carbohydrate, particularly if the athlete has low carbohydrate stores due to prior events, training schedule or if the event is long and/or hard.

Generally, low to moderate GI foods are suggested for pre-event meals (scroll down for an explanation of GI). Why? If the foods were high GI, the rise in insulin would therefore be high. This elevated insulin level suppresses the breakdown and use of fat as a fuel, that in turn increases glucose demand and usage at a time when we are wanting to save the carbohydrate for the event.

Research suggests there is no negative effect of such a practice in most athletes when they consume carbohydrates an hour before exercise. However, I always suggest that athletes should try their own pre-event strategy in training first to monitor how they feel and how their body reacts to certain foods. The guideline below can be considered when planning your pre-event meal:

  • Food to be taken 1-4 hours before depending on personal preferences, experience and event intensity, length and starting time. The closer the meal to the event, the smaller the meal should be.
  • 200-300 grams of carbohydrate for meals 3-4 hours before exercise have been shown to enhance performance.
  • Include fluids (400-600 ml).
  • Low in fat and fibre to help stomach and intestine emptying and minimise gut upsets.
  • Choose familiar foods that are easily digested.
  • Foods that are high in carbohydrate to maintain blood glucose and maximise muscle and liver glycogen stores.
  • Be moderate in protein and save protein for muscle recovery after an event.
  • Keep a food diary so you know what works and doesn’t work for you and practice the planned strategy before the major goal.

Examples of pre-event meals might include:

  • Cereal with low-fat milk and fruit.
  • Pancakes with honey, jam or maple syrup.
  • Pasta or rice with vegetable sauce or stir fry vegetables.
  • Rice cakes with peanut butter and banana.
  • Fruit salad and yoghurt, seeds and nuts.

During the event: tips to maximise your performance

Once your event is underway, it’s important to keep topping up your carbohydrate levels to maintain blood glucose that supplies energy to your working muscles. Not taking on enough fuel can lead to the dreaded ‘bonking’ feeling, which makes it impossible to maintain intensity, as carbohydrate stores have run out, leaving athletes shaky and feeling empty.

For events over 1 hour, carbohydrate intake needs to be well organised. Training pouches and other accessories mean that it is easy to transport snacks. Aim for between 30-60grams of carbohydrate per hour (depending on the intensity of your ride). 30 grams can be provided by the following:

  • Small handful of jellied sweets.
  • 1 large banana.
  • 1 large cereal bar or carbohydrate based energy bar (low fibre).

After the event: how to recover like a pro

Both protein and carbohydrate are important for recovery after training and events.  Carbohydrates are the body’s main fuel and are stored as glycogen (in the muscle and liver). With limited stores, these need to be replaced before the next training session.

Protein is vital for the growth and repair of muscle tissue. Hard training and endurance events causes the breakdown of the muscle tissue (made from protein), therefore, it’s important to consume protein after an event to provide the building blocks (amino acids) for growth and repair. Taking on protein after your event can also help to reduce muscle soreness the next day! It is usual for some athletes not to be hungry at this time, so use fluids in your recovery strategy if necessary.

20 grams of protein is the average amount that you need to hit to optimise the recovery process after training. The following are good examples of recovery snacks. Consider combining snacks or increasing the portion sizes after heavy training.

Snacks that provide 20g of protein include:

  • 80g of tinned tuna
  • 120g of scallops
  • 80g of turkey
  • 87g of chicken
  • 182g of egg whites (about 5-6 egg whites)
  • 75g of shrimp
  • 33g of spirulina
  • 140g of Quorn

Eight: plan your exercise schedule

Training to perform at your best is going to place demands on your organisational skills, as well as your physical fitness! Fitting everything in can be a bit of a juggling act, so carefully plan your day around your training, family and work commitments. Consistency is key, and communicating clearly with your friends and family about your busy schedule is paramount for keeping everyone happy and ensuring there are no misunderstandings which take your focus away from your goals.

Nine: consider supplements to help give you the edge

Using good quality supplements and taking a high-quality multi-vitamin is like having an insurance policy against possible vitamin and mineral deficiencies, which in turn will impact on your ability to perform at your best.

Antioxidants ward off any free radical damage that can be caused by a poor diet and stress, and they can also counter act the increase in free radicals produced as a result of exercise. (Packer L, Med Sci Sports 1989 21:42-47). When there are more free radicals present in the body than can be kept in balance by antioxidants, the free radicals can start doing damage to fatty tissue, DNA, and proteins in your body. Proteins, lipids, and DNA make up a large part of your body, so that damage can lead to a vast number of diseases over time. These include high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, inflammatory issues and more.

As for an omega supplement, research shows that flaxseed oil can prevent and alleviate post-exercise fatigue and accelerate recovery. It has also been reported that it may improve athletic performance. (Luoma, EFA’s, Muscle Media, 1997, 64:62-68)

Ten: be humble

One of the greatest attributes associated with successful athletes is respecting others involved in their sport, including the competition. Great athletes don’t just take care of their bodies, develop their skills or use the best products. It’s imperative for competitive greatness that the athlete is able to control his or her emotions and not get too angry or upset when things go wrong. Being able to do so helps your coaches, team and your friends/family to support you and means you’re far more likely to continue to enjoy what you’re doing. Being humble and respectful also gives those coming up into the sport good role models to admire.

Three cyclists at a cafe laughing and talking

Thanks for reading my top tips for improving your performance. Here’s to an amazing season of training, racing and enjoying being out in the elements!

Barbara Cox-Lovesy
Performance Nutritionist.

Find out more about Barbara on her website or reach out via her social media channels:
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GI Explained

Carbohydrates are converted by the body into glucose and glycogen. During exercise, our muscles are fuelled by the glucose in the blood and glycogen stored in the liver and in the muscles themselves.

Glucose and glycogen are inter-convertible, meaning that if the body has enough glucose then carbohydrates will be converted into glycogen. If there is a shortage, then glycogen will be turned into glucose. The digestion of carbohydrates is incredibly important as it helps maintain the balance between the level of glucose in the blood and the stores of glycogen.

Carbohydrates fuel all activities and it is important to choose correctly to avoid the sugar peaks and troughs. Complex carbohydrates are starchy and fibrous, while simple carbohydrates are simply sugars.

A measure of how quickly the energy of carbohydrate is made available for use by the body is its glycaemic index (GI).

Generally high GI foods are digested quickly and release their glucose quickly to produce a fast energy boost. On the other hand, those with lower GI take longer to break down and tend to increase glycogen reserves rather than meet instant energy needs.

Foods with a low GI:

All bran



Bulgur wheat

Grain breads

Oat bran


Whole wheat pasta


Rice noodles

Seeded breads

Sourdough and rye breads

Baked beans, black-eyed peas, butter beans, chickpeas, Haricot beans, kidney beans, lentils

New potatoes and sweet potatoes

Salad (tomatoes, lettuce, cucumber)

Fruit (Apples bananas cherries, mango, peaches, grapes, grapefruit, kiwi, oranges, pears, strawberries)

Foods with a medium GI:

Arborio rice, basmati rice, brown rice

Chapatti, Pitta bread, wholemeal bread, Melba toasts



Beetroot, carrots, regular white potatoes, broccoli

Fruit (Dried figs, melon, pineapple, dried apricots)

Foods with a high GI:

Baguettes, bagels, bread stuffing (Paxo)

Breakfast cereals (Coco pops, Corn pops, Crunchy nut cornflakes, Rice Crispies)

White rice

White pasta

Vegetables such as pumpkin, swede and parsnip

Fruit such as dates and watermelon