The following information is meant as a guide to maximize strength and stamina on game day as well as improve overall health and well-being off the field.
Each person’s genetics plays an important role in determining which foods are appropriate. Some people do an okay job of breaking down starchy foods and grains while others fare better omitting those foods. Some humans have evolved to be able to digest cow’s milk while others lack the enzymes to do so. And some people are able to extract the nutrients they need from a mostly plant-based diet while others need a healthy dose of protein, fat, and other nutrients available only in animal-based foods. No one diet is best for everyone. With that in mind, these are my suggestions for improving performance on game day.
Keep these 5 goals in mind when preparing for competition.
- Muscle Glycogen Stores: Glycogen is basically stored energy. Because most sports require intermittent bursts of power, it is important that muscles have enough energy to compete through the end. Carbohydrates that are packed with nutrition and absorbed slowly are the answer.
- Alert Energy: Athletes need to be focused, yet energized. Sugar, juice, sports drinks, and processed carbohydrates give a quick burst of anxious energy followed by a crash—not optimal when you need to be alert and energized for an extended period.
- Electrolytes & Hydration: The combination of water and electrolytes keeps you hydrated so muscles and nerves work properly. Because some electrolytes are lost through sweat, it’s important to load and restore. Most of the time electrolyte-rich foods and plain old water are the best option. An electrolyte drink might be required for tournaments or longer competitions. Click here to learn which commercial electrolyte drinks I recommend—or avoid—and simple recipes to make your own.
- Feel Light, Not Bloated: You want your energy to be used for competition, not digesting a heavy meal. Eat your last big meal at least 3 hours before competition and, at least 24 hours before a competition, avoid heavy foods that are difficult to digest.
- Amino Acids: With extended exercise, your body will start to burn amino acids for energy. When your body doesn’t have enough amino acids available, it will take it from your muscle. While this is only an issue for extended competitions or tournaments, it’s worth mentioning. The best sources of amino acids are animal foods.
Sugar & Processed Grains: Sugar and processed grains are completely void of nutrition and can be linked to nearly all diseases. They cause blood sugar to rise quickly then plummet, which can leave athletes depressed, slow, and sluggish on game day. Avoid all sugar and processed grains within 24 hours of game time. Avoid these foods in general to maintain optimal health.
Whole Grains: Whole grains include more fiber and in most cases are digested more slowly than grains that have been heavily processed. That means they may not cause extreme dips in energy levels like sugars and refined grains do, but keep in mind that labels can be deceiving. Almost all packaged items have to be processed in some way, especially if they are not preserved by freezing. While those foods might contain some whole grains, most also contain refined grains, sugars, and preservatives. Always read labels.
note: For anyone who regularly experiences anxiety, depression, digestive discomfort, acne, chronic inflammation, asthma, or autoimmune disease symptoms, you may be in a category of people who have trouble digesting grains. From an evolutionary standpoint, humans have consumed grains for only a short time, and our bodies have not fully adapted. Grains can inhibit the absorption of nutrients and cause chronic inflammation, which is a precursor to disease. For those who experience any of the symptoms mentioned, I first recommend the exclusion of all gluten. If symptoms persist, the exclusion of all grain foods is recommended. Note that rice seems to be the least damaging of all grains.
Fruits & Vegetables: Packed with nutrients and fiber, these foods provide sustainable focused energy for game day. In contrast, sugar and processed grains decrease mental clarity and eventually provide low blood sugar, resulting in decreased energy and strength. Fruits and vegetables are an important part of pre-game nutrition strategy.
Nuts and Seeds: Most nuts and seeds are high in both electrolytes and amino acids. Snacking on a mix of nuts, dried fruit, and dark chocolate on game day will boost energy. Yes, dried fruit and sweetened chocolate are sources of concentrated sugar. Because they’re also high in fiber and protein, sugar absorption is more gradual. Nuts and seeds are a much better alternative to high-sugar sports drinks. Limit them, however, to a small snack—they can be difficult to digest. Sprouting and or soaking nuts can help make them more digestible.
Meat, Fish and Eggs: Try to avoid red meat within 24 hours of a competition. Instead, opt for easily digestible proteins like chicken, fish, and eggs. Go ahead and enjoy a steak or a hamburger after your competition.
Dairy: If you’re trying to decide between skim milk and whole milk, current research suggests that you’re better off with full fat. Fatty acids in dairy have been shown to reduce triglycerides, improve insulin sensitivity, and improve blood-sugar regulation. Dairy fat is also a good source of fat-soluble vitamins—like retinol (active vitamin A) and vitamin K2. When considering pre-game nutrition strategies, full-fat dairy in conjunction with high-fiber fruits and vegetables will provide sustained energy for both brain and muscles. You may also want to consider consuming grass-fed dairy over conventional. It offers more Omega 3 fats, it’s higher in antioxidants, and it doesn’t contain added hormones, antibiotics, or other drugs.
Click here for pre-game smoothie recipes.
note: Many people are not particularly efficient at digesting dairy. As with grains, humans haven’t been consuming it long enough to have adapted. Lactose, a sugar in cow’s milk, and casein, a protein in cow’s milk, are especially problematic for some people. Full-fat fermented dairy—such as yogurt and kefir—seem to be more easily digested because the lactose is broken down during the fermentation process. Other good dairy choices for those who are sensitive are ghee, butter, and cream, because they are mostly free of lactose and casein. I choose grass-fed in those categories as well.
Legumes Peas, beans, and peanuts are all legumes and they can cause bloating and be difficult to digest. To maintain that light-not-bloated feeling, mostly avoid them within 24 hours of competition.
- Feel energized and focused on game day by avoiding all sugar and processed foods within 24 hours of competition.
- Carb load with nutrient-dense, easily digestible, but slow releasing carbohydrates—fruits, vegetables, and rice instead of heavy grains.
- Eat plenty of natural fiber, protein, or natural fat along with carbohydrates to allow for constant focused energy without spikes and dips in blood sugar.
- Snack on nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables, which are more efficient sources of electrolytes than high-sugar sports drinks. Click here for my Chocolate Pistachio Energy Bar recipe. Click here for my No Bake Chocolate Peanut Butter Bar recipe.
- Stay hydrated with plain water. Electrolyte drinks may be required when competing hard for 90 minutes or more. Click here to learn which commercial electrolyte drinks I recommend—or avoid—and simple recipes to make your own.
- Keep that light energized feeling by avoiding red meat, heavy grains and legumes within 24 hours before competition.
- Choose full-fat grass-fed dairy over low-fat dairy to avoid blood sugar spikes and for easier digestion. For those who are sensitive, avoid dairy all together or stick to fermented full-fat yogurt, kefir, ghee, butter, and cream.
- When competing hard for more than 90 minutes, it may be necessary to load and replenish amino acids. Meat, fish, dairy, eggs, nuts, and seeds are all good sources.
Good nutrition is imperative to athletic performance as well as overall health. Teaching kids to make healthful choices will improve their chances for success on the field, decrease their likelihood for injury, and improve the odds of them becoming healthy adults.
Parents and coaches: If raising happy, healthy kids is important to you, modeling healthful eating habits is part of your job description.