If you’re training and practicing hard but your performance is consistently falling short on game day, the culprit might be what you are (or are not) eating.
Your diet has a huge impact on your performance, and even small nutritional mistakes can set you back big time. Sports dietician Leslie Bonci, who consults with the Kansas City Chiefs, Toronto Blue Jays, Pittsburgh Pirates and many top-tier college teams, has seen many of these issues firsthand. During her years of working with athletes, she’s encountered some of them more than once, especially when she starts working with a new client. Here are five of the most common mistakes Bonci spots, and how you can avoid them.
Mistake 1: Not Drinking Enough Water
Dehydration causes many performance issues, from premature fatigue and muscle cramps to poor focus to impaired strength and speed. In extreme cases, dehydration can lead to heat-related illnesses or even death. Yet too many athletes pay too little attention to the amount of water and other fluids they take in.
Bonci details a few common mistakes you might be making with hydration, such as ignoring the potential role of meals (food has fluids in it) or thinking that splashing water over your head will help (you’re not actually drinking anything when you do this). Most important, you need to drink a sufficient amount over the course of the day, not just at your event.
Here are Bonci’s hydration guidelines:
- Young males should drink 15 8-ounce cups per day; young females should drink 9-11 cups per day
- Take in 20 ounces of fluid an hour before your activity starts
- Drink regularly during your activity, taking large gulps
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Mistake 2: Not Taking in Enough Sodium
You know that sodium, found in salt, is bad for you because it can cause high blood pressure. This occurs more often among folks who are sedentary or have blood pressure issues or other chronic medical conditions. For athletes, salt is an important ally in the fight for proper hydration, according to Bonci. Your body needs sodium to produce consistent muscle contractions, maintain blood volume and improve recovery. Without this essential mineral, you will fatigue faster and suffer more frequent cramps.
The daily recommended baseline intake of sodium is 2,300 mg, but athletes who suffer frequent cramping, whose sweat tastes like salt, or who notice their clothes ringed in white powder following workouts may want to up their sodium intake.
Mistake 3: “Fueling” With Energy Drinks
Many so-called energy drinks make you feel cranked up, but they don’t actually deliver usable energy to your muscles in the form of calories. “[They] will stimulate you because of the caffeine, but they won’t provide energy,” says Bonci. After 30 minutes, the caffeine boost starts to wear off and you feel worse than when you started. “If you’re not providing calories with it, then you’re going to fatigue early on,” she adds. And though some energy drinks contain calories in the form of sugar, those calories might not be usable, according to Bonci, because taking in large quantities of sugar densely packed into small amounts of fluid can be hard for your stomach to digest. The calories wind up just sitting in your stomach instead of working for you.
Mistake 4: Relying On Supplements
Supplement companies advertise many benefits, some of which are legit. But relying too much on even the safest and most effective supplements can cause an imbalanced diet—the exact thing supplements are designed to fix.
For example, many supplements include only vitamins and minerals. These will boost your vitamin and mineral levels, but without the calories from fiber you get by eating real food. Other supplements like whey protein and pre-workout drinks contain calories, but they are not good substitutes for eating real food throughout the day.
“Supplements are meant to complement your eating. They’re not a replacement for it,” says Bonci.
If you need a quick dose of protein after a workout, go ahead and have a protein shake. Or if you’re deficient in vitamin D, feel free to correct that with a supplement. Just don’t sacrifice a complete balanced meal for a supplement.
Mistake 5: Not Eating Before Exercise
You don’t want to be too full before a workout or game. Food or fluids sloshing around your stomach is no fun.
However, eating nothing at all before exercise might be worse. If you’re working out or playing your sport on an empty stomach, you won’t have the fuel you need to perform at your highest level. And you might actually cause your body to break down muscle as a source of energy—the opposite of what you train for.
Bonci’s solution is simple: Eat a small serving of food, such as a small bowl of cereal or half a sandwich, one hour before activity.
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