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Sports Nutrition

Eating Before Competition

by Danelle Swearingen

You've practiced hard and psyched yourself up for the big event, preparing for a super performance. You're ready... except there's just one thing lacking - proper nutrition that will keep you going throughout the competition!

The first and most important thing to remember in designing a pre-event meal is to stick with foods that your body is familiar with. The day of the big game is no time to start experimenting with new meals - always try new things during training first!

Some of the most important reasons for eating well before an event are to prevent hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) and it's symptoms such as dizziness, nausea, fatigue, muscle weakness, blurred vision, indecisiveness; to settle the stomach by absorbing gastric juices and preventing the distraction of hunger; to top off your muscle glycogen stores for maximal energy, and to give the peace of mind that comes with knowing your body is well fueled. (Clark, p. 167)

Some guidelines for choosing your pre-event meal are:

  • Eat adequate high carbohydrate meals every day to keep glycogen stores full and make the most of your training sessions.
  • Allow at least 3-4 hrs digestion time for a large meal, 2-3 for a smaller meal, 1-2 for blended or liquid meals, < 1hr for a small snack. If you are participating in very intense exercise, you may want to allow a little extra time.
  • If your stomach is easily upset, try liquid meals (shakes, blended meals, etc).
  • If you eat less than 1 hr before the event, be sure to snack on any "tried and true" low fat, high carbohydrate snack.
  • Limit high fat proteins such as cheese and peanut butter - they take a long time to empty from the stomach and will slow you down. A small amount of low fat protein can settle the stomach and stay around long enough to prevent hunger - try cottage cheese, 1-2 eggs, milk and combine it with some sort of carbohydrate for best results.
  • Try looking at the Glycemic index of foods - this is a measure of how much and how fast a food will cause your blood sugar to rise. Although this is very dependent on the individual, there are tables available from many sources that provide a rough idea. Simple sugars such as candy cause a very rapid increase, but some starchy foods can also cause a very large but slower increase. It's best to have high glycemic index foods during or after exercise (such as glucose, potatoes, bagels, raisins, oatmeal, sugar) and stick with low to moderate index foods before exercise (pasta without sauce, chocolate milk, PowerBar, green beans, yogurt, apples, less ripe bananas), especially if you are eating within 60-90 minutes of the event.
  • Go easy on high sugar or high glycemic index foods to avoid a "sugar crash" that can occur when your blood sugar rapidly rises and then falls again.
  • Drink extra water the day before, have 2-3 glasses before bed and 1-3 glasses 5-10 minutes before the event and remember to re-hydrate after the event! You should replace every pound of weight lost with at least 2 cups of water, or 3 cups if you have another event on the same day. Sports drinks are recommended for events lasting longer than one hour to replenish electrolytes lost through sweating and give your muscles the carbohydrates they need to keep working hard.

Despite the best of intentions, some athletes are unable to eat before events. Studies show as many as 30-50% of athletes have an upset stomach if they eat before an event. This is aggravated in sports that jostle the insides, in less trained athletes, younger people, women, those under emotional or mental stress, those participating in high intensity exercise, eating high fat or high protein foods, high fiber, high caffeine and simple sugars, and dehydration. If you fall into this category, be absolutely sure that you eat very well the day before and also early on the big day if possible (if the event is later on in the day).

Specific suggestions for eating before events from Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook:

  • 8am event: Eat a high carbohydrate dinner and drink extra water the night before, at 6-6:30am eat a 200-400 calorie meal (yogurt, banana) and have more water.
  • 10am event: Eat a high carbohydrate dinner, extra water, have a familiar breakfast by 7am to prevent fatigue.
  • 2pm event: Eat a high carbohydrate breakfast and a light lunch or combine them into a big brunch eaten by 10am. Be sure to have a high carbohydrate dinner the night before, drink extra water day before and up to noon on the event day.
  • 8pm event: Eat a big high carbohydrate breakfast and lunch, have dinner by 5pm or a lighter meal by 6-7pm, drink extra fluids all day.
  • All day event: Two days before the event, cut back exercise to rest the body, rest completely the day before, eat a high carbohydrate breakfast, lunch, and dinner the day before and drink extra fluids, eat a breakfast you can tolerate on the day of the event, snack every 1 ½ to 2 hours on carbohydrates during the day if possible, eat lunch if you can, drink fluids before you feel thirsty.

Resources:

  • Clark, N. (1997). Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook (2nd edition). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics (editor and publisher).
  • Duyff, R.L. (1998). The American Dietetic Association's Complete Food & Nutrition Guide. Minneapolis, MN: Chronimed Publishing.
  • Williams, M.H. (1999). Nutrition for Health, Fitness, & Sport (5th edition). USA: McGraw - Hill.