What you eat before a game, event or competition plays a huge role in your ability to perform at a high level. But we’re not just talking about the hours before taking the field – you need a long-term performance nutrition strategy to achieve the best possible results in your sport. If you’re neglecting nutrition, you might notice some of these signs.
1. You feel wiped by half-time
When you’re performing at your peak it’s normal to feel beat during a game but you should still have energy in the tank for the full duration. If you feel yourself fading after halftime, you’re probably missing a “primer” – a quickly and easily digested snack in the 15 to 30 minutes before your game. Carbohydrates are the main source of fuel used by the body during exercise so it’s critical to top up your stores before you leave the locker room. Choose a high GI carbohydrate option like pikelets and jam, rice crackers, honey on toast, lollies, fruit or a sports drink. Avoid high-fat, high fibre and high-protein foods during this time period as they will leave you feeling sluggish and nauseous during exercise.
So, should you eat during a game?
Rather than searching for a snack once you’re feeling wiped, it’s also important to be strategic and proactive with your fluids and fuel throughout exercise to reduce the onset of fatigue. For brief exercise with a duration of fewer than 45 minutes, carbohydrates are not always needed but you can ingest, or even use a mouth swish-and-spit of a sports drink. For sustained, high-intensity training or races with a duration of 45 to 75 minutes, carbohydrates should be consumed with the goal of 30-60 grams per hour. If you struggle, start with a carbohydrate rinse (swirling a carb-rich fluid around your mouth – good for people who do not tolerate foods well during events) and progress to sipping on sports drinks. The best place to practice ingesting more carbohydrates is at training! For endurance events or extended training of 90 to 120 minutes, a carbohydrate target of 30 to 60g/hour is recommended (this could include a sports drink, coconut water, white bread, sports gel, lollies, bananas, pretzels, or even fruit-based baby food pouches). For ultra-endurance events greater than 2.5 hours, up to 90g/hour of carbohydrates is suggested (however, there are individual factors that should be discussed with your dietitian)
2. Your performance is plateauing
If your performance has plateaued on the field (or in the gym) or you’re working harder to reach your normal output, these can be signs you’re not nailing your recovery. What you achieve in the seconds on the track or minutes on the field is directly influenced by what you do during your downtime – from the food you eat to how you sleep. If you’re not making recovery a priority, you’re likely to experience increased fatigue (in exercise and in day-to-day life), reduced performance, extra muscle soreness, reduced gains from your efforts and impacted immunity. We live by the 5 Rs of recovery – refuel, repair, revitalise, rehydrate and rest, which you can read more about it here. Repair (through adequate, consistent and well-time protein intake) and rest (with seven to nine hours of quality sleep per night) are particularly important but often overlooked when it comes to supporting the adaptations that will get you over the try line or shave that millisecond off your PB.
3. You experience more injuries
If you’re missing particular nutrients or protocols you can jeopardise your physical and cognitive performance, increasing your risk of injury. Hydration is one of the key pieces of the puzzle for injury prevention and it should be the primary fuel focus during a game or event. During exercise, your body cools itself by sweating. If you don’t properly replace these fluids, you can experience dehydration. Just a 2% loss of fluids decreases your blood volume, making it more difficult to maintain blood pressure and blood flow, and increases your heart rate and body temperature. This impact on your cardiovascular system makes normal efforts more challenging leading to decreased skill level, as well as mental and physical fatigue. Adequate hydration helps sustain physical and mental performance, improves decision-making, regulates body temperature, and enhances recovery afterwards.
Another contributing factor to injuries, especially in younger athletes, is a lack of physical development equal to the requirements of your sporting load. Using an experienced strength and conditioning coach, who has knowledge of your chosen sport can go a really long way to your continued improvement and growth in the sport.
Each athlete will have different sweat rates and fluid requirements that vary depending on their body size, environment, humidity and training intensity. As a starting point, aim for 250 to 500ml of fluid per hour, for the hour before and throughout the competition. This should be sipped on, not guzzled all at one time. If you’re a heavy sweater, understanding your own sweat rate is encouraged. There are benefits to consuming both water, electrolytes and sports drinks to optimise fluid intake, but other competition priorities include carbohydrate intake and electrolytes.
After exercise, you want to be rehydrating with 125 to 150% of the fluids you’ve just lost. If you’re not getting enough protein and key micronutrients – such as antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids – you can delay your recovery post-game, increasing your risk of injuries. Ensuring your day-to-day diet features consistent, adequate sources of protein and a colourful range of fruit and vegetables is essential.