When you’re an athlete, your entire life revolves around your sport: Your bedtime, how many hours of sleep you get each night, your social calendar, work schedule, the clothes you buy, and the foods you eat.
It’s not just the time right before a game or event that’s important. Training is one thing that will help to ensure your success. However, just as important as the physical component; strength, and endurance, are the foods you use to fuel your body for optimum performance.
But how do you know what to eat? Are there any specific tips that apply to all athletes across the board?
10 Nutrition Tips for Athletes
1. Meal Prep
Most people live in a rush. Going from school to team practice, or from work to networking events, or from the grocery store, to picking the kids up from school, to the dry cleaners, to getting gas… No matter the stage of life, most people move from one item on their “To Do” list to the next. This means that planning ahead is crucial, especially for an athlete. Take some time in the evenings to plan what you’re going to eat the next day and do some meal prepping at home. The last thing you should do is eat fast food from a drive-thru because you feel that it’s the only viable option when you’re crunched for time.
2. Research Your Sport
A person who’s running a 5K has different nutritional needs as they prep for a race than a person who’s training for a marathon. Pace, weather, and duration of athletic activity all pose unique stresses on the body. By the same token, even if you qualify for Boston, Michael Phelps likely needs more calories than you do for another Olympic stint.
3. Eat Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates serve as the main source of fuel for endurance athletes. When you consume carbs, your body processes them and turns them into glucose, then stores them as glycogen in your muscles. When you’re physically exerting, your body turns the glycogen into energy. When engaging in a sporting event that lasts longer than 90 minutes, you’ll need additional carbs to carry you through.
4. If You Don’t Feel Like Eating, Opt for Liquid Nutrition
Spending months training for an athletic event often results in jittery nerves on game/race day. As a result, eating a full breakfast might not sound appealing. If this is the case for you, go for fruit and vegetable smoothies, or yogurt.
5. Don’t Try Anything New On Game/Race Day
Even if you decide to just mix a banana with oat milk in a blender, try this and any options several times during training. The last thing you need on your big day is an upset stomach or a sudden urge for a bathroom break.
6. Avoid Fiber and High-Fat Foods Before an Athletic Event
The former will send you to the restroom, while higher fat options take longer to digest and will slow you down. If you’re having pasta, opt for marinara sauce instead of alfredo or olive oil. If you’re having toast, spread jam or a little bit of peanut butter instead of butter. Skip baked beans, oatmeal, broccoli, fast foods, cheese, and ice cream.
7. Have a Snack
One or two hours before the event, eat a granola bar, half a bagel with peanut butter, or crackers for a last-minute energy store that won’t make your stomach feel heavy.
8. Replenish Glycogen and Fluids During Exercise
No matter how much you carb loaded prior to an event, if you’re out on the field or race course for several hours, you’ll need to replenish glycogen stores as well as electrolytes that were lost during exertion. Failing to do so can lead to decreased performance in a best case scenario, or a long list of health issues in the worst
9. Stay Hydrated
Sweating causes water loss as well as electrolyte loss. If not replenished, you could end up with muscle cramps, dizziness, and a headache. Fluid intake during an athletic event also helps regulate your body temperature, which is essential to stay healthy and to achieve your best performance.
Recovery is as important as fueling for an athletic event. Eating foods rich in protein will help your muscles to recover from the stress of the event. These foods include lean meats, quinoa, tofu, tempeh, edamame, lentils, potatoes, and rice and beans (together). If you opt for protein shakes, pay attention to the amount of added sugar. Going over the recommended daily amount may defeat the purpose of drinking protein powders for health reasons. Generally, this amount is 24 grams for women and 36 grams for men, but these numbers may vary depending on weight, height, body type, and any pre-existing health conditions. Always consult with your doctor before starting a new diet regimen.
How Many Hours Before a Game or Race Should You Eat?
If the athletic event will take longer than 90 minutes, start adding more carbohydrates to your meals three full days before the event. Keep in mind that while you should eat more carbs, this is not a free-for-all, “eat everything in sight” situation. You can keep eating the same amount of calories you eat on any given day. Just swap some of your usual foods for more carbohydrate-rich options. Aim for 8 to 12 grams of carbs per kilogram of body weight (one kilogram equals 2.2 pounds).
On the day of the big game or race, have a meal around three hours before the event, to give your body enough time to digest. If the game or race is very early in the morning, some athletes get up in the middle of the night to fuel and then go back to bed.
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