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With the inter-county GAA championship season coming to a climax and the rugby season getting under way, it seems appropriate to discuss nutrition best practice in preparation for games and during recovery for team sports.
Today's article will deal with nutrition preparation for games, and next week we will deal with optimum nutrition for recovery.
Most athletes know nutrition is important for peak performance. However, many do not know what, how much and when to eat in the lead-up to games.
Although coaches and players have different beliefs about what athletes should eat, the primary nutrition goals in the lead-up to games are to maximise energy stores with appropriate foods and to ensure you are well-hydrated.
Carbohydrate is the main macro-nutrient that athletes must consume, as the primary source of energy the body relies on during high-intensity exercise.
CARBOHYDRATE DESPITE THE GENERAL ACCEPTANCE THAT ATHLETES SHOULD MAXIMISE CARBOHYDRATE STORES, IN MY EXPERIENCE, MANY GAA ATHLETES DO NOT EAT SUFFICIENT AMOUNTS OF OR THE RIGHT TYPE OF CARBOHYDRATE-RICH FOODS.
A high carbohydrate diet has been shown to improve performance by limiting fatigue and maintaining energy levels.
Carbohydrate stores within the body (glycogen) are relatively limited in supply and must be topped up after each training session.
Planning and preparation of appropriate carbohydrate meals is therefore an essential part of an athlete's routine.
The process of fuelling up for games is commonly known as carbohydrate-loading. In simple terms, the strategy is that training sessions will be tapered in the days leading up to a game, whilst the athlete will eat a large amount of carbohydrate (more than they usually would) to store as much glycogen as they can.
THE RIGHT FOOD
The focus must be on slow-digesting food that provides a sustained amount of energy.
Because there is a greater requirement for carbohydrate at these times, and because many convenience foods are rich in carbohydrate (eg cereal bars, wraps, soft drinks, jellies, etc), many athletes are tempted to treat these periods as a convenience food free-for-all.
Given that preparation and recovery are spread over three days, spending almost half of the time eating substandard food choices will not be appropriate.
For those athletes struggling to consume their target for carbohydrate, in this case, fruit juices and smoothies will help.
A moderate amount of protein should also be included. Protein will slow the digestion of meals that are based on carbohydrates, and will also supply essential amino acids that are important for mental focus and recovery. Chicken, lean beef, pork fillet, white fish and lamb are good options.
If an athlete has not consumed sufficient fuel in the 36-48 hours prior to the day of the game, they will not be able to compensate for the energy deficit by eating an enormous pre-game meal.
The aim should be to plan your nutrition strategy based on the time of the match. Most are either on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon or evening. If a game is on a Saturday evening, most teams will train on the Thursday evening. In this case, you should increase your energy and in particular your carbohydrate intake immediately after training.
Your first post-training meal (within 30 minutes) should contain a fast-digesting source of carbohydrate and protein, ie a flavoured milk, followed by a balanced meal like homemade shepherd's pie with lots of root vegetables.
The Friday before the game is the day when you will consume the majority of energy and carbohydrate-based meals, spaced out into three main meals and three snacks.
The amount of carbohydrate required in the lead-up to a game will depend on the length and intensity of the game. For inter-county Gaelic football players or indeed professional rugby players, the requirement may be as much as 8g-10g of carbohydrate per kg of body mass for carbohydrate loading. This equates to 640g-800g per day for an 80kg player.
A simple way of looking at it would be to add two extra carbohydrate meals on top of your typical intake. For example, a bowl of porridge with chopped banana or a smoothie with mixed fruit and fresh fruit juice.
On the day of the game, it should be a matter of topping up with lighter, easy-to-digest meals.
If your game is in the afternoon, you should get up early and have a medium-to-large breakfast based around carbohydrate foods. The meals should be low in fat, low in fibre and contain a slow-digesting source of carbohydrate – a bowl of porridge fits the bill nicely here.
Your breakfast should be your largest meal. Your stomach should be more or less empty come throw-in/kick-off, so your last meal should be three to four hours before the game.
The meal should be easy to digest, so fat, lots of protein and high-fibre foods like vegetables should be limited. Pasta and chicken has traditionally been one of the most common pre-match meals, but, in my experience, athletes often feel better prepared by eating a rice and chicken dish, or a couscous salad with chicken as these are much lighter options.
If an athlete feels hungry or habitually consumes a specific light snack like two jaffa cakes, and feels better by having it in the one to two hours before the game, then that is perfectly fine.
The fluid being consumed immediately before and during exercise should contain a source of electrolytes and a source of carbohydrate to off-set fluid and fuel losses. Along with helping to maintain hydration, the source of carbohydrate will help to maintain energy levels.
If you give time and consideration to your pre-game fuelling and hydration, it will ensure you are ready to consistently perform at your best.
Daniel Davey BSc MSc, CSCS, NEHS is a performance nutritionist