Every match and every tournament it was the same routine. Starve for a day or two to lose a bunch of weight then gorge on terrible food choices in the locker room just before a match. It would be a foot long sub and poptarts with mountain dew or gatorade. Between matches at tournaments the go to foods often be the cheesy pretzels or some other garbage being sold at the food stand. Luckily most of my competitors were eating the same junk.
What you eat plays a huge role in performance yet very few coaches give advice other than “carb load” and drink lots of water. You want foods that make you feel great, not sit in your gut bogging you down. Your energy, your strength, your stamina, your performance is all affected by what you eat!
Let’s start with the carb loading advice I got and coaches are still giving their athletes. The most common advice is to load up on pasta, with many sports teams hosting pasta parties. I remember packing pizza and soda away before football games, and following up wrestling weigh-ins with un-toasted pop-tarts and sub sandwiches just to make sure I was loaded up on my carbs.
The whole philosophy is to ensure you have enough sugar energy stored up for the day’s event. When you eat carbohydrates, your body breaks them down into simple sugars and then stores the sugars as glycogen. When you compete in an athletic event these glycogen stores are converted back to sugar to be used as energy.
Because your body can only store so much glycogen, you really are not storing extra glycogen by eating a huge pasta meal. Think of it like a bucket being filled with water; no matter how much water you add, it can only hold so much. Eating pasta does not provide any healthy fats or proteins that your body will also need for peak performance. You do want to make sure your body is fully stocked with glycogen to get ready for the competition, but there is a much better way than loading up on pasta.
For a night before event meal, I’d have a healthy protein source like salmon, halibut, or fish you’ve caught. As a side, I recommend mashed sweet potatoes or sweet potato fries baked with olive oil and salt and pepper. Low fiber fruits to include with the meal are bananas, peaches, cantaloupe, or watermelon. Eating this meal provides everything you need for the next day’s events without the gluten, phytates, lectins, and other problem causing factors found in wheat. The carb sources I recommend are also lower in fiber, so they are easily digested. For some reason when we think carbs, we think pasta. Remember, every fruit, vegetable, and potato is a carb! Fiber is a carbohydrate that humans can’t digest.
On competition day, make sure to eat at least an hour before the start of your event; two hours before would be even better. You want to eat low fiber foods that are quickly and easily digested. Sadly, high fiber, whole wheat products like bagels and breads, which could sit in your gut soaking up fluids for hours, are often eaten instead. That is not a good feeling to have at the start of a match. Terrible stomach pain was once common for me. It’s tough competing if you feel like you have an ice pick in your stomach. Stomach pain has gone away since I changed the way I eat.
Bring hard boiled eggs with low fiber fruits like bananas, peaches, cantaloupe, or watermelon. During the hour leading up to the match, only drink water to avoid any insulin spikes common with sport drink consumption. Caffeine has proven performance benefits and consuming some 20 minutes before the match can improve performance. Just be careful to not consume too much, as this could cause an upset stomach or nervousness. About 10 minutes before the match, consume a few ounces of sports drink to get some sugars in your system.
If competing in a tournament, you want to restore any nutrients that were lost in your first match; you want to replace your lost electrolytes as well as any burned up energy stores. Electrolytes are the salts sodium, chloride, potassium, magnesium, and calcium. I recommend making shakes ahead of time to bring to the event and consume immediately after each match. Again, you want to have everything in you at least an hour before your next match. To make the shakes, start with orange or pineapple juice as they are high in magnesium, calcium, and potassium. To the juice, add a couple pinches of salt and any berries you enjoy for taste as they are a slowly absorbed sugar source. Then add some powdered dextrose (glucose – a quickly absorbed sugar), and egg white protein, cricket protein (top choice) or whey isolate (not concentrate). Whey concentrate has casein and lactose which causes stomach pangs for many, and the last thing you want is a stomachache before your next match. Also, make sure your protein powder is not loaded with added sugars or artificial sweeteners. This shake is fairly inexpensive with all the ingredients you need to recover and maximize performance.
Throughout the day, only drink these shakes and eat easily digestible foods like hard boiled eggs and fruits mentioned above to keep from bogging down your stomach with slow digesting foods. This is going to take more effort than going to the food stand and getting nachos and cheese, a hot dog, or soft pretzel, but higher performance is worth the effort.
Amounts for post match recovery shakes.
Do not wait until an important tournament to try this. Experiment with different juice and berry combinations, and have a shake after practice to see what makes you feel the best. Try and eat 2 hours before practice, 1 hour before practice. Find out what timing works best for you. If you do not like orange or pineapple juice, use apple or grape juice instead. Orange and pineapple juice have higher electrolyte concentration, so that is why I recommend them first.
I hope this helps and improves your performance on match day. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask.
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