No matter what sport, no matter how large or small the athlete, how powerful, strong, nimble, or graceful, there are certain tenets that hold true across the board. Although the specifics for each sport and athlete may differ, all athletes will benefit from keeping these three strategies in mind when creating their own plan: aim for consistency, go for quality, and tune in to timing.
Just as consistency in training is important, so is consistency in fueling. Regularly scheduled meals and snacks are a must. Distribute your calories throughout the day. If you eat a lot one day and then skip meals the next or eat unevenly throughout each day, your energy and moods will be inconsistent. Your concentration and stamina will be inconsistent. Your play will be inconsistent. All athletes will benefit from muscles that are ready to perform, meaning they need to be appropriately fueled and hydrated as well as controlled by a brain that is not starved from low blood sugar. If you do not practice well, you won’t compete well. Training days are just as important as game days when it comes to reducing the risk of injury and learning and practicing the skills, plays, routines, and strategies needed to win competitions.
A base of adequate calories and nutrients, day in and day out, is essential. Your muscles store and use energy and nutrients throughout the day. A pattern of regular meals and snacks keeps energy levels consistent and keeps muscles and tissues properly fueled from an energy perspective as well as from a repair, growth, healing, immunity, and health perspective. Repair of muscle tissue occurs over many hours—eating strategically provides nutrients the body can use over time. Regular meals help maintain a more even caloric distribution, which improves body composition even when weight is relatively stable. Distributing calories evenly throughout the day also results in better levels of cholesterol, blood sugar, insulin, and cortisol.
Go for Quality
Choose the quality of food that is right for the timing of intake. Everyone knows there is a significant difference between gummy bears and broccoli, but the gummy bears may be the better choice right before practice. The times around performance are for fueling, meal time is for nutrition. At meal time, choose nutrient-rich foods that will help with long-term resilency. Before, during, and after training, choose foods and beverages that will help fuel the workout. Although you surely can take in enough calories with any type of food, the quality of the food you eat will ultimately impact health and well-being along with performance. For instance, you may avoid fat right before a workout, but you need healthy fats as part of a healthy training diet. Or, you may avoid fiber right before working out but need fiber as part of your overall diet. Whey and casein proteins may be great as part of a recovery snack, but mealtime proteins ideally provide iron and zinc (lean meats, legumes) or omega-3 fatty acids (tuna steak, sablefish, sardines).
Similarly, tomatoes may not be the food of choice during an event, but the vitamin C they provide is necessary for collagen formation and soft-tissue repair. Vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals (plant chemicals) in whole foods serve vital functions in your body. Bars, gels, and sports drinks are formulated for consumption around activity, not to replace meals. Carbohydrate eaten throughout the day, further away from training, is best when it is nutrient-rich, such as whole grains, beans, legumes, fruits, and vegetables, including those with more fiber which slow digestion rates. Remember to eat for fuel before, during, and after training and competition, but eat for health and well-being for all other meals and snacks.
Tune in to Timing
It matters what you eat, when you eat, and how much you eat. Your training and competition is affected by the nutritional choices you make. Waiting too long between food intake, eating too much or too little, consuming the incorrect types of foods before training or competing, eating or drinking too little or too much during activity, as well as delaying recovery nutrition, all impact every aspect of performance. It can make a big difference, or it can make a small difference that yields a different positive outcome. In the 2008 Summer Olympics, the difference in taking home the Gold was 1.07 seconds in Men’s Cycling Mountain Bike; 0.01 seconds in the Men’s 100m Butterfly Swim; 0.01 seconds in the Women’s 50m Free Swim; .004 seconds in Women’s Canoe/Kayak; and 5.19 seconds in the Men’s Triathlon!