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You've been working your tail off all week in practice. You were the hardest worker in the off-season. You're going to have a great game today no matter what you do, right? Wrong!
A proper pre-game meal can make or break your performance on the day of a competition—and it doesn't matter what sport you're playing. All athletes' bodies have certain needs that must be met from food. No matter how hard you work, if you go into a competition with a large order of fries, a jumbo coke and a few greasy burgers in your belly, you're not going to play your best.
In the ever-increasingly competitive world of athletics, every athlete needs a competitive edge, and what you eat on the day of a competition may give you the upper hand. Let's take a closer look at the all-important pre-game meal.
Q: What should an athlete eat on game day?
A: Simply put, your body needs energy to perform at its best, and you get that energy from glycogen. Glycogen acts as your body's fuel source and is the key ingredient to a proper pre-game meal.
Q: Where is glycogen found and what foods are the best sources of it?
A: Glycogen is found in carbohydrates— more specifically, complex carbohydrates. Complex carbs traditionally are found in foods such as cereal, bread and corn. Candy, for example, is loaded with carbohydrates; however, candy and similar foods are filled with sugar and contain simple carbohydrates, so they are of little use to the athlete. To make sure you are eating foods with plenty of complex carbs, look to foods that are rich in starch—foods like potatoes, pasta and rice. This type of food is an athlete's "best friend" when it's time to dominate an athletic contest.
Unfortunately, determining the exact amount of complex carbs in certain foods is not always easy. In some cases, the nutrition facts label can be used. Look at the nutrition facts label on the back of any drink or food, and you can find the amount of carbohydrates found in whatever you are about to eat.
Q: How do you read a nutrition facts label?
A: On a typical nutritional facts label you'll see words such as total carbohydrates, sugars and dietary fiber. Because glycogen is found only in complex carbohydrates, subtract the grams of dietary fiber (a type of complex carbohydrate but not the type you need) and sugar from the grams of total carbohydrates. What remain are the grams of complex carbohydrates.
Additionally, some nutrition facts labels have a third category, other carbohydrates. In most cases, these are the grams of complex carbs so no calculations are needed to determine the grams of complex carbs in this food or drink.
Some nutrition facts labels include complex carbs in the sugars category. In these instances, the previously described method of calculation will not work because the number of grams of dietary fiber and sugars equal the number of total carbohydrates.
Q: Pasta, potatoes and rice are my best options for complex carbs, but how much of them do I have to eat?
A: For a pre-game meal, it's best to get at least 75 to 150 grams of complex carbohydrates.
Q: Does it matter when I eat before a game?
A: Yes—beyond making sure to eat the right foods, it's also key to eat three to four hours before you compete. It's extremely important that your body has time to digest the food so you can avoid cramping, and in extreme cases, vomiting. This time window also gives you enough time to eat a large enough meal so you won't feel fatigued or hungry at the start of the competition.
Q: So that's it? Just eat some rice and pasta?
A: Well, as with all things in life, it isn't that simple. Solid meals aren't always the best answer. If you're pressed for time and you only have two to three hours before a game, liquid meal replacements make for a great pre-game substitute. These super-absorbent meals are well balanced and easily digested, making stomach cramps unlikely. In general, there is no golden rule to the pre-game meal: every athlete is different so it's important to try different meals and see what works best for you. Note don't try different meals on the day of a game. Instead, make sure to try out different meals before practices. This will help you avoid having a bad meal affect an important game.
THE PRE-COMPETITION MEAL SHOULD:
- Allow for the stomach to be relatively empty at the start of competition
- Help to prevent or minimize gastrointestinal distress (stomach pains)
- Help avoid sensations of hunger, lightheadedness or fatigue
- Provide for adequate fuel supplies, primarily carbohydrates, in the blood and muscles (Roughly 75 to 150 grams of complex carbs and 500 to 600 calories)
- Provide for an adequate amount of body water
- Fasting is detrimental to performance (If you don't eat, you won't play your best).
- Athletes should include familiar foods in the pre-competition meal, and if traveling, should bring along their favorite foods.
- Effects of pre-exercise meals on individual athletes should be gauged in advance of an important competition. In other words, try out pre-game meals before the actual game to make sure they're right for you. Never try a new pre-game meal before the actual game itself.