Eat to Compete: An Athlete’s Guide to Performance Nutrition

September 1, 2020

With the start of school upon us, many high school and college athletes are returning to their respective sports and gearing up for competition (so long as COVID-19 doesn’t shut things down!). While much time is spent in training for sports, often overlooked is fueling the body properly for those sports.  Whether you’re an athlete yourself, or the parent of an athlete, learning what to put into the athlete’s body is critically important. Proper nutrition helps to improve performance as it provides more energy and strength during practice and competition, while also helping athletes to recover faster and avoid illness.

One of the issues for many young athletes is that they are often underfueled. Calorie needs for an athlete depend on the person and the duration and intensity of exercise. The metabolic requirements for super active teens can be as high as 3,500 calories a day. Focusing on the right mix of carbs, protein, and healthy fats and timing the intake of each is key.

Timing of food and fluid intake is important:

  • The amount of glycogen (or stored carbohydrate) available right before an event is the result of how you have eaten and exercised for the past several days. Glycogen stores in the body are increased by rest or light levels of exercise and high levels of carbohydrates (particularly starch) in the diet. Glycogen stores in the body are lowered by high levels of exercise and low levels of starch in the diet. Once glycogen stores are exhausted, it takes at least two days to fully restore them.
  • Although the pre-race meal can stabilize blood glucose levels and provide some energy, don’t look to it to provide the bulk of your energy for the race.

Days Leading up to the Race/Game:

  • Start each day with a good breakfast. Cold cereal, milk, fruit, and/or fruit juice make an easy-to-fix, quick meal that provides plenty of starch. PB&J or a fruit and yogurt smoothie are other great, quick options.
  • Select meals that contain foods from all five food groups. Our bodies use nutrients more efficiently when they are consumed together. Aim for a colorful plate!
  • Use snacks as another opportunity to power up with starch.  Cold cereal with milk serves as a quick snack at any time.
  • Give starchy foods particular emphasis on the days right before the event by building the main meal around a high-starch entree like spaghetti and meatballs. Make sure the other food groups are also represented.
  • Taper training the day before and the day of the event to continue building glycogen stores. Practices directed by your coach are enough. Rest up!
  • Drink plenty of fluids–even at mealtimes–to guard against dehydration.

Hours Before Competition:

  • Pre-race meals should consist of bland, easily-digestible carbohydrates, and should provide between 300-1000 calories, depending on the athlete. 
  • Aim to have this meal 3-4 hours before the event and try to consume only moderate amounts of protein, especially in the warm weather. 
  • Restrict simple sugars in this meal, as they could cause a sharp spike in blood sugar. Also remember to hydrate, drinking 14-22 oz before exercising.

Post Race/Competition Refueling

Your body will be rebuilding muscle tissue and restoring carbs and fluids for up to 24 hours after the competition, so it’s important that you get plenty of protein, fat, and carbs in the postgame hours.  Also, don’t forget to drink plenty of water before, during and after games. 

Most importantly, remember this: you have invested a lot of time, effort, energy, and money into training. Don’t forget to invest that same effort into fueling your body in the best way possible. Eat healthy meals and snacks consistently, even during the off-season, and you will provide a solid foundation during times of competition.

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