Nutritional Timing and Selection for Optimal Performance

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Youth athletes and even adults are practicing and playing sports at a record pace, sometimes participating in multiple sport events each day. Keep in mind that athletes include those involved in intense, multi-hour practices and competitions for cheer and dance as well. This extensive activity places a high priority on the appropriate selection and timing of nutrition when practices can start as early as 6am and run as late as 10pm for some sports. Here’s a basic planned, timed out pre and post event nutrition schedule to help maximize performance when needed most.

Three to four hours before practice or game:

Use carbs to prevent fatigue and improve glycogen stores in the body. Eat a meal rich in carbohydrates but low in fat, with limited fiber and low to moderate levels of protein to prevent stomach upset.

Best bets: pancakes or waffles with fruit and milk, yogurt with granola and fruit, bagel with cream cheese, 1-2 eggs with toast and fruit, sandwich with fruit and milk

One hour before event or one hour between tournament games/matches:

It’s too late for much of what you eat to make an impact on a practice or game that is less than one hour away, and you don’t want to eat too much to send blood to the digestive system when you need it for your working muscles and joints. Plus, no one wants to feel weighed down, gassy, and nauseous. Choose instead to eat a light carbohydrate with low glycemic index to avoid a blood sugar crash right in the middle of your game.

Best bets: sports bar or drink, pretzels, crackers, high-carb granola bar; avoid candy and high sugar foods, including high sugar content fruit and fruit snacks

During the athletic event:

If the youth athletic event lasts only one hour and is not performed during extreme heat, most athletes do not require carbs while participating in a game or match. However, if it is very high intensity for an hour or more, or if it is a lower intensity but longer duration endurance event (running a half or full marathon, triathlon, etc) a dose of carbs can help improve performance by replenishing lost glycogen, which is the fuel for exercising muscles. A caveat for athletes with easily upset stomachs- always practice a new nutrition plan for practices before trying on game day or during a tournament, so precious playing time isn’t lost in the restroom!

Best bets: sport drink, bars, or gels with carbohydrate, small piece of fruit (half a banana, small orange or small apple, handful of grapes or berries)

Immediately following a game or practice:

Consume carbs and proteins right after exercise to refuel muscles and rebuild muscle. The more intense and longer duration the event, the more carbs and proteins you will need. Start with easy to digest drinks or small amounts of bland food if nausea inhibits eating and drinking right after a practice or game.

Best bets: low-fat chocolate milk, smoothie, yogurt, bagel, piece of fruit with peanut butter

One to two hours after game or practice

Continue to ingest carbohydrate and protein-rich food to complete the refueling process your body will be going through to ready you return to play or practice in 24 hours. Don’t forget to also include the replacement of electrolytes lost with significant sweat loss, as well as adequate fluids for re-hydration.  Sleep is also critical for restoration of taxed muscles by reducing inflammation and antioxidants and to build the immune system.

Best bets: whole grain or brown rice with fish or chicken, pasta with meat sauce or meat balls, sandwich or wrap, sweet or regular potato with steak

Reference: Doane J & Vinciguerra A. Clocking Nutrition. NATA News: July 2018;21.