By Kristen Aline, B.S Sport and Health Science, NSCA-CPT, CSCS
Functional Exercise Specialist
Integrative Nutrition & Health Coach
This information is meant as a guide to maximize your strength and stamina on game day as well as improve your overall health and well-being off the field. Genetics play an important role in determining what foods are appropriate for each of us. For instance some people do an okay job of breaking down starchy foods and grains while others fair better omitting these foods entirely. Some humans have evolved to be able to digest cow’s milk while others lack the enzymes to do so. And some people are able to extract the nutrients they need from a mostly plant based diet while others need a healthy dose of protein, fat and other nutrients found only in animal based foods. The point is that we’re all different and no one diet is best for everyone. With that in mind, here are my nutrition suggestions for improving performance on game day.
You should have these 5 goals in mind when preparing for competition.
- Muscle Glycogen Stores: Glycogen is basically our stored form of energy. Since sports like soccer, tennis, and basketball require plenty of intermittent bursts of power it is important that your muscles have enough energy to compete until the end. Carbohydrates that are packed with nutrition and absorbed slowly are the answer.
- Alert Energy: You want to be focused, yet energized. Sugar, juice, sports drinks and processed carbohydrates give you a quick burst of anxious energy followed by a crash; not good when you need to be alert and energized for an extended period.
- Electrolytes & Hydration: The combination of water and electrolytes keeps you hydrated so muscles and nerves work properly. We lose some of these electrolytes through sweat so it’s important to load and restore. Most of the time electrolyte rich foods and plain old water is the best way to do this. An electrolyte drink may be required for tournaments or longer competitions.
- Feel Light, Not Bloated: You want your energy to be used for competition, not digesting a heavy meal. Eat your last big meal at least 3 hours before competition and avoid heavy foods that are difficult to digest at least 24 hours ahead of competition.
- Amino Acids: With extended exercise your body will start to burn amino acids for energy. If your body doesn’t have have enough available it will take it from your muscle. While this is only an issue for extended competitions or tournaments, it’s worth mentioning. The best sources of amino acids are animal foods.
Sugar & Processed Grains: Sugar and processed grains are completely void of nutrition and can be linked to nearly all disease. They cause your blood sugar to rise quickly and then plummet which can leave you depressed, slow and sluggish on game day. Do your best to avoid all sugar and processed grains within 24 hours of game time. Avoid these foods in general to maintain optimal health.
Whole Grains: Whole grains include more fiber and in most cases are digested more slowly than grains that have been heavily processed. That means they may not cause extreme dips in energy levels like sugars and refined grains, but keep in mind that labels can be deceiving. Almost all packaged items have to be processed in some way, especially if they are not preserved in the freezer. They may contain some whole grains, but most of them also contain refined grains, sugars and preservatives. Always read labels.
note: For anyone who regularly experiences anxiety, depression, digestive discomfort, acne, chronic inflammation, asthma or other autoimmune disease symptoms you may be in a category of people who have trouble digesting grains. From an evolutionary stand point humans have only been consuming grains for a short time and our bodies have not had time to adapt. Grains can inhibit the absorption of nutrients and cause chronic inflammation which is a precursor to disease. For those experiencing any of the above symptoms I 1st recommend the exclusion of all gluten. If symptoms persist the exclusion of all grain foods is recommended. Note that rice seems to be the least damaging of all grains.
Fruits & Vegetables: Fruits and Vegetables are packed with nutrients and fiber while also providing sustainable focused energy for game day. In contrast, sugar and processed grains decrease mental clarity and eventually provide low blood sugar resulting in decreased energy and strength. Fruits and vegetables are an important part of your pre-game nutrition strategy.
Nuts and Seeds: Most nuts and seeds are high in both electrolytes and amino acids. Snack on a mix of nuts, dried fruit and dark chocolate on game day to boost energy. Yes, dried fruit and sweetened chocolate are sources of concentrated sugar, but this snack is also high in fiber and protein making sugar absorption more gradual. It’s a much better alternative to high sugar sports drinks. Limit nuts and seeds to a small snack as they can be difficult to digest. Sprouting and or soaking nuts can help make them more digestible.
Meat, Fish and Eggs: Try to avoid red meat within 24 hours of a competition and instead opt for easily digestible proteins like chicken, fish and eggs. Go ahead and enjoy a steak or a hamburger after your competition.
Dairy: If you’r trying to decide between skim milk and whole milk, current research suggests you’re better off sticking with full fat. Fatty acids in dairy fat have been shown to reduce triglycerides, improve insulin sensitivity, and improve blood-sugar regulation. Dairy fat is also a good source of fat-soluble vitamins like retinol (active vitamin A) and vitamin K2. When considering pre-game nutrition strategies full fat dairy in conjunction with high fiber fruits and vegetables will provide sustained energy for both your brain and your muscles. You may also want to consider consuming grass fed dairy over conventional. It offers more Omega 3 fats, it’s higher in antioxidants, and it doesn’t contain added hormones, antibiotics or other drugs.
note: Many people are not particularly efficient at digesting dairy. As with grains, we haven’t been consuming it long enough to have adapted. Lactose, a sugar in cow’s milk, and casein, a protein in cow’s milk are especially problematic for some people. Full fat fermented dairy like yogurt and kefir seem to be more easily digested because the lactose has been broken down during the fermentation process. My favorite brands are Dreaming Cow and Maple Hill Creamery; both use grass fed whole milk. Other good dairy choices for those who are sensitive are ghee, butter, and cream because they are mostly free of lactose and casein. I choose grass fed in those categories as well.
Legumes (peas, beans, and peanuts are all legumes): Legumes can cause bloating and be difficult to digest. To maintain that light, not bloated feeling, avoid them within 24 hours of competition.
The most important way to feel energized and focused on game day is to avoid all sugar and processed foods within 24 hours of competition.
Carb load with nutrient dense, easily digestible, but slow releasing carbohydrates like fruits, vegetables and rice instead of heavy grains.
Eat plenty of natural fiber, protein or natural fat with carbohydrates to allow for constant focused energy without spikes and dips in blood sugar.
Nuts, seeds, fruits ands vegetables are more efficient sources of electrolytes than high sugar sports drinks.
Stay hydrated with plain water. Electrolyte drinks may be required when competing hard for 90 minutes or more. See recipe below.
Keep that light energized feeling by avoiding red meat, heavy grains and legumes within 24 hours of competition.
Choose full fat grass fed dairy over low fat dairy to avoid blood sugar spikes and for easier digestion. For those sensitive, avoid dairy all together or stick to fermented full fat yogurt or kefir, ghee, butter and cream.
When competing hard for over 90 minutes it may be necessary to load and replenish amino acids. Meat, fish, dairy, eggs, nuts and seeds are all good sources.
SAMPLE 24 HOUR MEAL PLAN (click links for recipes)
Dinner the night before
grilled chicken breast and steamed broccoli with lemon butter sauce, baked sweet potatoes with butter salt and pepper to taste.
2 eggs, banana cinnamon smoothie
Lunch – Rice, an easily digestible protein like chicken, fish or eggs, and a vegetable
A stir fry with a simple Tamari sauce or a burrito bowl of rice, chicken or fish, and vegetables would work here.
About 1.5 to 2 hours before game time
If hungry, snack on nuts and fresh or dried fruit between meals or this Pistachio Coconut Chocolate Bar.
Electrolyte Drinks. Are they Really Necessary?
(electrolyte drinks are only helpful if you are exercising at a high intensity for at least 90 minutes; less if you are exercising in extreme heat. Otherwise, plain water is your best option for hydration.)
Most sports drinks you buy in the store contain high fructose corn syrup, food coloring, artificial flavoring, preservatives and other junk that doesn’t benefit you on game day.
Gatorade Perform Cool Blue
32 oz. contains 50 sugars
All of Gatorades ingredients have been heavily processed. I highlighted the ingredients that are especially concerning.
Powerade Mountain Berry Blast
32 oz. contains 55 sugars
Ingredients: water, high fructose corn syrup, citric acid, salt & magnesium chloride & mono-potassium phosphate (electrolyte sources), natural flavors, modified food starch, calcium disodium EDTA (to protect color), medium chain triglycerides, sucrose acetate isobutyrate, vitamin B3 (niacinamide), vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine Hydrochloride), Vitamin B12, Blue 1.
Dextrose: a sweetener generally processed from starchy plants like corn, wheat, and rice.
Citric Acid: a preservative that can be derived from citrus fruits. Most processed foods now use citric acid that has been made by growing mold in the presence of sucrose or glucose derived from corn or sugar beets. This is an efficient and cheap way to convert sugar into citric acid.
Gum Arabic: Binder processed from hardened sap of a tree
Ester Gum: Emulsifier processed from wood rosin and glycerin
Modified Food Starch: Stabilizer or thickening agent most often made by chemically treating corn starch
Calcium Disodium EDTA: A preservative that’s made from formaldehyde and sodium cyanide
Sucrose Acetate Isobutyrate: An emulsifier made by chemically treating sucrose and sugar
Blue 1: Artificial food dye (food dyes have been linked to hyperactivity and attention deficit disorder.
Natural Ingredients to Make Your Own Electrolyte Drink
Purified Water: In most cases clean, fresh water is sufficient for rehydrating during exercise. For high intensity long duration activities or when exercising in extreme heat use fresh water with some of the natural ingredients below.
Purified Infused Water: Water infused with fruits and vegetables contains vitamins and electrolytes and has little to no sugar. Infused water is my 1st choice for a sports drink base.
Coconut water: Contains vitamins, minerals, amino acids, electrolytes and enzymes. In tropic regions it is used in patients with nausea and diarrhea to replace fluids and electrolytes in the gastrointestinal tract.
Fresh Squeezed Juice: Contains vitamins and electrolytes and is a much better choice than artificially flavored sports drinks. Use small amounts of fresh squeezed juice (especially citrus) to add flavor. Fruit juice is high in sugar and I don’t recommend it as an everyday form of hydration.
Sea Salt: Electrolyte
Raw Honey: A natural sweetener that contains vitamins, minerals, and live enzymes. Honey still has a dramatic impact on blood sugar so use moderately.
Pure Maple Syrup: Rich in minerals and antioxidants. Grade B is darker and more nutrient dense than A. As with honey, use moderately.
Stevia: A natural sweetener that comes from the leaf of the stevia rebaudiana plant. It has a negligible effect on blood sugar, but does have a slight after taste. It’s best used with other natural sweeteners like honey or maple syrup.
Apple Cider Vinegar: High in electrolytes and other beneficial compounds. I enjoy the flavor, but my kids weren’t impressed with the electrolyte drink that included apple cider vinegar. You may want to avoid it or use a very small amount when preparing an electrolyte drink for your kid.
Strawberry Electrolyte Drink
2 cups purified water
1 cup rinsed and sliced fresh organic strawberries (include the stem)
1/2 cup coconut water
1 tsp. fresh squeezed lemon or lime juice
1/8 tsp. sea salt
1 tsp. pure maple syrup or raw honey (optional)
2 drops liquid stevia (optional)
Place all ingredients in a large glass mason jar. Secure lid and shake vigorously for 10 seconds.
Refrigerate and let the flavors infuse for 6-12 hours. Strain and store in the refrigerator for up to 48 hours.
Citrus Electrolyte Drink
2 cups purified water
1/2 medium orange, washed and sliced with skin
1/2 medium lemon, washed and sliced with skin
1/2 cup fresh sliced pineapple
1 tsp. fresh squeezed lime juice
1/2 cup coconut water
1/8 tsp. sea salt
1 tsp. pure maple syrup or raw honey, optional
2 drops liquid stevia, optional
Place all ingredients in a large glass mason jar. Secure lid and shake vigorously for 10 seconds. Refrigerate and let the flavors infuse for 6-12 hours. Strain and store in the refrigerator for up to 48 hours.
Holmberg, Thelin (2013) High Dairy Fat Intake Related to Less Central Obesity: male cohort study with 12 years’ follow-up. Scandinavian Journal of Primary Health.
Kratz, Guyenet (2013) The Relationship Between High-fat Dairy Consumption and Obesity, Cardiovascular, and Metabolic Disease. European Journal of Nutrition. Vol 52. Issue 1.