An athlete’s training should include lessons about foods that are and aren’t well tolerated before physical activity. Young athletes should understand the importance of fueling during events and eating immediately afterward to recover.
Pregame meals are those meals eaten three to six hours before a game or other activity. The purpose of a pregame meal is to keep the blood sugar in a normal range and to add to the existing glycogen stores so that your athlete has a maximum amount of fuel before the event. The pregame meal should be well digested but filling enough for the athlete to avoid hunger during competition.
Normally, it takes about three to four hours to completely digest and absorb a regular mixed meal. As long as there’s enough time for digestion, the pregame meal can be anything that contains carbohydrates, protein, and fat and which the athlete knows he or she can well tolerate.
Because fat takes longer to empty from the stomach, it’s probably wise to avoid fried or high-fat foods on game day (and most other days). Eating high-fat foods can cause sluggishness because the energy they provide isn’t as available as the energy from carbohydrate-rich food. Foods high in fiber, such as bran cereal, should also be avoided before exercise. Fiber can cause cramping as well as necessary bathroom visits at inconvenient times.
Athletes competing in events with short, intense bursts, such as sprinting, short-distance swimming, or rowing, should allow their stomachs to empty before competition starts to prevent nausea. During intense activity, working muscles channel blood flow away from the stomach, causing discomfort if exercise is begun with food still in the stomach.
For some athletes, eating a carbohydrate-rich snack within an hour before their event fuels them up. A piece of fruit, an energy bar, or some crackers should be easy to digest. Some athletes can tolerate anything they eat. Others find that drinking a carbohydrate drink such as juice is easier than eating. All of this depends wholly on the individual. Whatever athletes choose as their pregame meal should be familiar to their bodies and taste good. This is not a good time to experiment with new foods.
For early morning events, encourage athletes to get up early enough to allow time to eat. A carbohydrate-rich meal helps increase muscle glycogen before morning exercise. At the very least, have athletes drink a box drink of fruit juice and eat a cereal bar.
Athletes know the phrase “hitting the wall” but usually associate it with distance runners depleting their glycogen stores and running out of gas. In fact, hitting the wall can happen in any sport. Soccer, football, and tennis use glycogen to fuel the intense stop-and-go activity common to these sports. Without snacking and drinking during these long games, athletes feel exhausted quickly and hit the wall.
When muscles are well nourished, with good glycogen stores at the beginning of an event, they perform longer if they also receive fuel during the event. Encourage athletes to take advantage of breaks in activity to eat or drink easy-to-digest, carbohydrate-rich foods such as fruit, energy bars, or sports drinks. They’ll feel more energetic throughout the event.
What you eat within the first few minutes after a workout or competition is known as your “recovery meal.” This small meal is the most important and underrated part of training. It sets the stage for how the athlete feels for the rest of the day and affects the next day’s training or competition.
Recovery eating is essentially reloading the muscles with glycogen. Fifteen to 30 minutes after exercising, the muscles are like sponges, waiting to refill the glycogen stores that have just been exhausted. If athletes refill within this time range, they’ll be revved to go. If they miss their window of opportunity, they’ll feel sluggish and lazy for the next event.
Carbohydrate plus protein appears to be the most effective combination for restoring glycogen. Eating a snack (such as a banana with yogurt) within 15 minutes of the end of a workout and then eating a regular meal 2 hours later maximizes muscle receptivity.
Many athletes just can’t or don’t want to eat directly after exercise. In such cases, drinking a sports drink or diluted fruit juice is a good first step to refueling. Athletes who want to lose weight often choose not to eat right after exercising; they rationalize that they’ve just burned a bunch of calories and shouldn’t replace them right away. In fact, recovery eating often helps these athletes refrain from bingeing later in the day. Remember that the recovery meal is just a small eating episode—-it’s not breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
Planning meals for athletes is challenging, but the payoff makes it worthwhile. Young athletes feel much more energized if they take time for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They’ll have more productive workouts when they refuel correctly and can better manage their day. When families are involved in these meals, everyone benefits.