The food an athlete eats can make all the difference when it comes to game day performance.
"A properly fueled body is able to perform better and train harder, which translates into more robust outcomes such as faster speed, greater endurance, and more strength and power," says Noel Williams, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, and performance dietitian for Children's Health℠ Andrews Institute Sports Performance Powered by EXOS.
When choosing what to eat on game day, the goal is to give the body the fuel and energy it needs to power performance. "Think of this as topping off the body's gas tank," Williams explains. "You would never leave for a road trip on an empty tank of gas, and similarly, you shouldn't start your competitions with low fuel stores."
Williams shares how to develop a game day meal plan that works best for you.
Game day meal plan guidelines
- Test your meal plan ahead of game day. Every athlete is unique and tolerates foods differently. Experiment with pre-sport meals and snacks ahead of game day to find out what makes you feel best. The day of competition is never the time to try something new.
- Learn what foods to avoid. Depending on your body's preferences and the type of sport you play, it may help to avoid dairy, high-fat or high-fiber foods on game day. There is nothing bad about those nutrients, but during exercise, blood is diverted away from the digestive tract to the working muscles, making it harder to digest high-fiber, high-fat meals. This can lead to stomach cramps or other gastrointestinal symptoms during exercise.
- Hydration is key. Properly hydrating before, during and after competition is essential for success. Research has shown that physical and cognitive performance declines with as little as 2-3% loss in water weight. Most of the time, water will be sufficient to stay hydrated, but there are times when sports drinks are beneficial. See more hydration tips for athletes.
- Understand the role of carbs. Carbohydrates are an essential energy source for the brain, red blood cells and muscles during moderate to high-intensity exercise. The body's stores of carbohydrates are limited, so it is necessary to consume enough carbohydrates daily, as well as just before exercise. For many athletes, a good daily carb recommendation is 3-5g/kg of body weight. To determine weight in kilograms, divide your weight in pounds by 2.2.
- Eating well isn't just for game day. While athletes may pay special attention to nutrition right before a big game, a consistently healthy diet is essential to get the most out of training all season long. Learn more about effective sports nutrition.
What to eat for breakfast on game day
Breakfast is an opportunity to start game day right. A winning breakfast may include:
- Whole grain cereal, low-fat milk, sliced strawberries
- Greek yogurt with blueberries and a sprinkle of granola
- Eggs, whole wheat toast with peanut butter and a fruit smoothie
- Oatmeal topped with chopped almonds and sliced bananas
Pre-game meal ideas
Athletes should eat a balanced meal containing carbohydrates, protein, and fruit or vegetables 2-3 hours before game time. Make sure to drink 12-24 ounces of water with a pre-game meal to stay hydrated.
Pre-game meals may include:
- Whole wheat chicken sandwich with vegetables
- Brown rice, salmon and roasted vegetables
- Whole wheat turkey wrap with vegetables and hummus
- Whole wheat pasta with sauce, grilled chicken and vegetables
Healthy pre-game snacks
Athletes can eat a light snack 30-60 minutes before game time. The best snacks close to game time are easily digestible carbohydrates with a small amount of protein.
Optimal pre-game snacks for athletes include:
- Homemade energy bar
- Whole wheat toast with almond or peanut butter
- Whole grain crackers with cheese
- Hummus with whole grain crackers
How to fuel during a game
The most important nutritional factor during exercise is to stay hydrated. If exercising for more than 60-90 minutes, or if exercise is intense or in extreme heat, water alone may not be enough to replace electrolytes, and a sports drink would be appropriate. When choosing a sports drink, look for products that contain at least 110-240mg of sodium per 8oz serving.
When extra fuel is needed, especially when exercising more than two hours, products containing 15-20g of carbohydrate per 8oz serving will provide an optimal amount of carbohydrates to sustain you during long or very intense training sessions.
Post-game food to help athletes refuel
Nutrition after competition is just as important as fueling up before and during games. Athletes should eat a healthy snack containing both protein and carbohydrate within 30-45 minutes after finishing exercise.
Healthy snack options after exercise include:
- Fruit smoothie with Greek yogurt
- Cottage cheese with berries
- Apple and string cheese
- Banana with almond or peanut butter
- Greek yogurt topped with granola or fruit
- Chocolate milk
- Homemade protein bar
One to three hours after a game, athletes should eat a balanced meal that contains carbohydrates, protein, vegetables or a fruit. This helps with muscle recovery and replenishes energy stores after exercise.
Healthy post-game meals ideas include:
- Turkey chili with whole wheat roll
- Baked chicken with quinoa and vegetables
- Whole grain turkey sub with vegetables
- Beef burrito on whole wheat tortilla
- Chicken stir-fry with brown rice
- Whole wheat toast with eggs and fruit
What to eat before a tournament
Athletes headed into a long tournament, which can include multiple games over one or two days, need to make meal planning a priority. Pack plenty of healthy, balanced snacks to consume between games. Aim for a combination of protein, carbs and fluid to stay optimally fueled.
Consider the following snacks between tournament games:
- Peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole wheat bread
- Turkey and cheese sandwich on whole wheat bread
- Pretzels or whole grain crackers with nut butter
- Fresh fruit and beef or turkey jerky
- Chocolate milk or Greek yogurt cups
The dietitians at Children's Health Andrews Institute can help athletes reach peak performance through meal planning before, during and after game day – and all season long. Learn more about our wide-range of orthopedic and sports performance services available to help athletes improve their game.
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