Okay, so no meal will turn you into Michael Jordan. But when you’re counting on food to fuel you through a grueling soccer game, swim meet or triathlon, good nutrition is crucial. Without proper nourishment, you could get fatigued before your time and have trouble focusing. The good news is that you don’t need to blow your cash on fancy sports bars or shakes—you’ll probably find everything you need in your own kitchen.
First of all, Atkins is not for athletes. Your body needs carbohydrates to convert to glycogen, a form of sugar that your muscles store for energy. And according to Colorado State University Extension, the amount of glycogen you have dictates how long you last on the field, track or court. Most of the time, strive to get 45 to 65 percent of your calories from carbs. If you’re an endurance athlete—meaning you sustain heavy activity for 90 minutes or longer—you may benefit from eating extra carbs for a couple of days before major events. This is called carb loading, and some athletes get up to 70 percent of their calories from carbohydrates during these times. Just don’t carb load all the time, or you won’t get a balanced diet.
For maximum nutrition, choose carbs from fruits, veggies, beans and healthy whole grains like brown rice and whole-rye bread. During your event, you get a free pass to snack on honey, white bread and other easily digested carbs for pure energy.
Now let’s take a look at protein. You need the stuff for muscle building and repair, so protein requirements are somewhat higher for athletes. However, there’s no need to splurge on protein supplements, which probably contain more protein than you need, anyhow. Look to lean protein sources like egg whites, organic tofu and salmon to get your fill. According to WebMD, athletes need up to 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (a kilo is 2.2 pounds); so at 145 pounds, serious athletes are good on 112 grams of protein per day. Don’t consume more than this though, or you’ll stress out your kidneys.
The most important nutrient of all for athletes is plain old H20. Without enough water, you’ll lose energy and focus fast. CSU Extension recommends drinking plenty of fluids the day before the big game, then drinking 2 to 3 cups of water with your pre-event meal. Have another 2 cups of water two hours prior to the event, and then another 2 cups 30 minutes before kickoff. You’re not done drinking yet—during your performance, down half a cup of cold liquid every 15 minutes or so; you absorb cold fluids more quickly than warm ones. While water is the drink of choice in most cases, you may need to replace lost electrolytes if you exercise longer than 90 minutes. This is where sports drinks come in—or, you can just eat a salty snack or prepare some highly diluted saltwater.
When your mom told you not to eat a big meal before swimming, she was right. Plan a balanced meal several hours before game time, and then eat some carbs and protein after the event to replenish lost stores. Got it? Now get to practice, already!