If you’re an athlete, you’re accustomed to watching what you eat. But you may not know what to eat before an event to optimize performance and send your energy levels soaring through the roof. Supplements can certainly help with this effort, but without satisfying crucial dietary needs, the foundation upon which you base everything else will crumble. At that point, you can forget about being at the top of your game.
We survive and thrive on four things in our diets: protein, carbohydrates, fat and water. Without proper balance and consumption of these nutrients, along with the single element of water, we can forget even functioning correctly. Given this balance isn’t disrupted, everything within the body exists in perfect stasis, and our systems tend to operate optimally, in perfect synergy.
A few decades ago, protein diets were abundant and everyone ate steak, game meats, pork, and eggs out the wazoo! But then someone came along and said, “No, no, no, no! Protein in such large amounts is bad for the system. It’s carbohydrates that are the source of all good and no evil.” So, everyone flip-flopped their diets to include far more pasta, rice, potatoes and bread. Now, we’re headed headlong back into a protein age; where steak is no longer a dirty word and carbohydrates make you fat! Our bodies don’t store protein, taking in enough daily is crucial to health, muscle to fat ratios and ultimately, performance.
For the average person, carbohydrates are essential only in small amounts. Sources most recommended come from leafy green sources, cruciferous vegetables, rather than from starch, such as potato, rice or pasta. In fact, too much carbohydrate (particularly starches) can send the body into sudden spiraling low blood sugar, and cause the body to secrete insulin. Free-floating insulin molecules will only attach themselves to free-floating sugars (undigested carbohydrates) and store them as fat. Because of this, no longer are carbs being jammed down the throats of the average American. On the other hand, for the athlete, carbohydrates are crucial to sustained energy levels and strength and muscle contraction.
Luckily for the endurance and explosive athlete, fat is no longer the big bad wolf of the nutritional world. In fact, it’s as important a macronutrient as any other; including protein. While it doesn’t build muscle, it maintains the health of so many independent systems throughout the body, it’s a crucial link to good nutrition. The key is to eat the right kind of fat. Assume that any fat that is solid at room temperature is not your friend because it indicates that it is the saturated kind. The best sources of fat? Vegetable sources, all mono or poly-unsaturated fats such as peanuts and other nut butters, canola oil, olive oil, walnuts, almonds, and avocados. Most endurance athletes know first hand how important fat loading can be to competition. Gone are the days of total carbohydrate loading. Today, athletes use a combination of fat and carbohydrate loading to satisfy their high demands for fuel.
Water needs no explanation, really. It is the most essential thing in our diets, bar none! Without it, we die. Dehydration is a big reason why people get sick, become irritable throughout their day, have organ failure, or keep unnecessary fat stores locked on to their body. Water is essential to proper liver and kidney function, washing out toxins and ridding the body of ketone bodies that develop as a result of fat burning. It has no calories, it tastes great hot or cold and it is absolutely free! Average people should drink 8-10 glasses daily. Athletes should drink up to a gallon of water daily; more in extreme hot or cold climates. Super hydrating prior to a competition can mean the difference between winning and losing, as well as feeling healthy after a grueling event.
Nutritional Guidelines for Increased Energy and Performance
Now that the lesson is over and we understand how important these four elements are, let’s get into how an athlete can improve performance—and health—to explosive levels.
What you eat and drink before and during athletic events can play a significant role in how well you perform. The body needs a certain combination of nutrients, hydration and calories to perform a particular way in your sport of choice. Learning how to unlock the codes that set these guidelines within your body can be the single thing that pushes you from good to great! So here’s the lowdown on your body’s nutritional needs prior to, and during, any athletic event.
The night before physical activity is a good time to pack in the carbs and fats. Oatmeal, brown rice and yams are all effective, and are also low glycemic choices that won’t send your body into a low energy phase when you need to feel energized and alert. Keep fat intake moderate and eat small portions of high-protein foods such as meat, fish and eggs over the course of the day prior to the big event.
When you finally reach the morning of the big event, it’s a perfect time for a balanced, nutritious breakfast. On this morning, eat exactly as you would any other morning prior to practice, but make sure that your macronutrient balance (proteins-carbs-fats) are stilted in the favor of whatever your needs are. If you need explosive energy, choose a bit more fat in the morning. If you are a distance runner gearing up for a marathon, try a higher carb breakfast of 500-600 calories of carbohydrates. Whatever you do though, just don’t skip breakfast or put too heavy a load in your stomach prior to intense physical activity.
Nature’s Natural Lubricant
Several days before an athletic event, competitive athletes should up their hydration levels to the point of ‘hyper-hydration’. What this means is the athlete will drink water for two to three days well in excess of their normal water intake, and store up water in the tissues, organs and entire system to prepare themselves for the ensuing dehydration that is bound to occur when intense physical challenges are present; such as in high level athletic competition. Since the body is about 60 percent water, it needs to be fully hydrated to perform optimally. In fact, whenever performance levels are down, water loss, improper hydration, or actual dehydration are typical culprits. Weather may also be a cause of water loss: high or low temperatures or high humidity may be to blame, and may cause the body to expend needless energy to keep warm or cool; leaving less for performance purposes.
Should an athlete drink the popular sports drinks that offer carbohydrate sources and electrolyte replenishment? Well, they aren’t necessary, but may minimize stomach fullness and blood pooling that occurs during the digestion of whole foods. In general, athletic events that take less than 90 minutes don’t require an electrolyte replacement drink or carbohydrate booster. But if you pass that 90 minute mark, electrolytes should be replaced, particularly if the sport is played on a hot or cold day. Most people don’t associate electrolytes being lost or profuse sweating with cold weather, but those who engage in winter sports lose more water than one might think. Some drinks that contain corn syrup and sugars should be avoided, however, because they slow down the body’s absorption of water and negatively effect performance.
Sports Nutrition Bars
Just about every company puts out a meal replacement or athletic sports bar. Bars are good in a pinch, but are mostly made up of sugary high carbs. Many do swear by the protein amount in certain bars, and swear that it gives them the extra edge they needed to win. However, they are typically not superior to eating a high protein/ high carbohydrate meal. Their only advantage is that they pack easily, are convenient, and are calorie and nutritionally dense for their weight. But do watch the calorie count in the bars. They can add an enormous amount of calories to your daily intake. In many cases, for the nutritional value offered, a candy bar might provide more energy in fewer calories!
Day of Competition Tips
The quality of any athlete is eclipsed by his or her ability to remain injury free during training and athletic competition. Before you find yourself injured in an athletic event, remember these things:
Properly hydrated and well-fed muscles end up with fewer injuries. When you’re dehydrated, or your glucose is low, you’re weak and fatigued. Injuries usually occur later in events when fatigue and dehydration has set in. Eat, drink, and replenish!
Do not use thirst as a gauge to judge hydration. Our body’s gauge for thirst presents itself only after we’ve lost about 6 percent of water weight—way too late to prevent dehydration.
Cramping may be an indication of salt depletion through sweat. Or, it could be loss of potassium. If you are feeling nauseous, replace salt through crackers or other high sodium foods. If you are feeling cramping in the muscles, replace with potassium.
What worked once when you prepared for an event, may not work this time around. Our bodies change from year to year; even from month to month. Experiment with preparation techniques and with actual foods that you think will serve you well in competition. Try them 3 to 4 weeks out from the event to make certain they have the desired effect. You may also want to keep a journal of all preparation techniques as well as foods and ratios of macronutrients you’ve done well with, and poorly with, so that you can better determine what will work best for you on “D Day”.
The bottom line to all of this is simple: Athletes require more of almost everything, and specific things within broad categories that average people traverse. The main thing to remember is to remain as hydrated as possible at all times. That is even more important than actual food intake and ratio of proteins, carbohydrates and fats. However, nutrition is underrated and can be the difference between winning and losing. Experiment with different foods, fluids and other conditions such as weather or hormonal changes within your own body. Eventually, this trial and error experience will teach you how to enhance your own levels of performance in competition and in training throughout the year. Practice, as they say, does indeed make perfect!