Yes, there is a bit of scare tactic in the title of this article ... and for good reason. Processed food rules the day which fills our food with dangerous chemicals and depletes it of necessary nutrients. That is not a good thing for health, nor is it good for athletic performance. As a matter of fact, your nutrition choices can make or break your athletic performance.
In many sports competitions, athletes must perform several times per day for one or more days. Multiple matches in tennis, multiple heats in track and field, two or three soccer games, and three to five or six volleyball matches in a day are not unusual. And these competitions may be multi-day events.
All of the world’s top sports organizations like the IOC (International Olympic Committee), FIFA, ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine) agree that proper nutrition is critical to not only athletic performance, but injury recovery as well.
“Food consumed before and between athletic events can have a significant impact on an individual’s ability to perform. Many people have their own ideas about what foods to consume around athletic events. Some of these ideas may be good. However, many foods consumed by athletes before and between events are inappropriate and may harm the athlete’s performance.” (Ref)
Do top athlete’s (parents, coaches) understand and practice “good” nutrition?
This study (which provides an overview of the nutritional intake, eating habits, and correlates of eating practice of soccer players) says, “There is a virtually unanimous agreement on the inadequate nutrient intake of male and female soccer players, and the need for the design and implementation of nutrition education programs to address this problem [emphasis added].”
What are the adverse effects of improper event nutrition? “Most adverse effects of pre-event meals are associated with food still remaining in the stomach and intestines when physical activity begins. This food can cause numerous gastrointestinal problems: nausea, intestinal cramps, belching, low blood sugar, vomiting, flatulence, diarrhea, and dehydration.” “All of these side effects could cause the athlete to perform less than optimally. Even if symptoms are not severe, the athlete’s performance is probably being compromised.”
Here is what a registered dietitian/mother of three athletes says, “As a registered dietitian and mother of three teenage wrestlers I can tell you it is a huge struggle on game day. The concessions offer inappropriate food options for athletes. We always come in with a bag loaded with nutritious options…. It’s the only way we can get through the day. “
Does your team pack food? Does it look like this?
And what about the typical concession at these events? Do the choices look like this?
When should you eat? “Food consumed before exercise is only useful once it has been digested and absorbed. This means you need to time your food intake so that the fuel becomes available during the exercise period.” The Australian Sports Commission continues, “The time required for digestion depends on the type and quantity of food consumed. Generally, foods higher in fat, protein and fibre tend to take longer to digest than other foods, and may increase the risk of stomach discomfort during exercise. Large quantities of foods take longer to digest than smaller quantities. Generally, food is better tolerated during lower intensity activities, or sports where the body is supported (e.g. cycling) than sports such as running where the gut is jostled about during exercise. A general guide is to have a meal about 3-4 hours before exercise or a lighter snack about 1-2 hours before exercise. You need to experiment to find the timing, amount and make up that best suits your individual needs.”
The key point here is personal experimentation to see the timing that works for your digestive tract!
What should you eat and drink? Given the poor choices available at concession stands or nearby restaurants at these all day events, it may be prudent to pack your own food. The other reason to pack your own is that (after experimenting) you know what works best for you. When competing multiple times in a day, each food/drink becomes both pre-event and post-event (recovery) nutrition.
Fluid: Keeping hydrated is so important at these all day events. If the tournament is outside in the heat, you are sweating. If you are inside, the environment is typically very dry. Water is always recommended, but these events require additional electrolytes and a small amount of proper carbohydrates. Most of the products made for this purpose have artificial sugars, high fructose corn syrup, and other chemicals that at best do not help and at worst can harm. And be very careful with anything carbonated.
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Food: Event nutrition must be practiced just like you practice your sport skills. You must understand your digestion as it is affected by both the amount and type of foods you choose. As the amount of food you consume increases, so will the time needed for digestion. Certain carbohydrates are high in fiber (good for your overall health, but maybe not as a pre-event choice) and are gas producing.
Most sports nutrition authorities (see what Harvard University recommends) recommend a pre-event meal of low fat, low to moderate protein, and low glycemic index carbs (carbs that do not spike your blood sugar levels – remember experiment!). Harvard calls post-game nutrition the VITAL PERIOD. This means it is very important. Recovery requires much more protein.
But as we have already explained, at all day events, every time you eat it is after what you just did and before your next round. Thus, choose your foods carefully! Since digestion can be the biggest issue at these events, liquid nutrition may be your best choice. In addition, packing food can be a bit of a hassle as you will need a cooler and ice. If you are traveling and you have a multi-day event, bringing nutritious food to the event becomes very challenging.
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“All athletes should adopt specific nutritional strategies before, during and after training and competition to maximise their mental and physical performance."
International Olympic Committee Consensus Conference on Nutrition and Sports Performance