Athlete Nutrition: What to Eat Before a Big Game

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Healthy vegetables and food for athlete nutrition

It’s always important to be cautious of the foods you put into your body, especially if you’re an athlete. What an athlete eats before a game has a big impact on their performance. No matter the sport, the body needs the proper nutrients and energy to get through games, competitions and events. Athletes put so much time and effort into their training to make sure they’re ready for game day, and it would be a shame if food got in the way! That’s why pre-game fueling is so important. To help you understand what an athlete should eat before a competition, we did some research and here are some key athlete nutrition guidelines.

Concentrate on Carbohydrates

You’ve most likely heard the phrase carb-loading when it comes to sports nutrition, and that’s because carbohydrates play a very important role in an athlete’s diet. Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy, because they are digested quickly and the muscles use the glucose from carbs as a source of fuel. Carbs are made up of sugars, fibers and starches, and are found in grains, vegetables, and beans. For an athlete preparing for competition, carbs should take up 70% of a pre-game diet. They can be found in whole-wheat bread, oat bagels, brown rice, baked potatoes, fruit juices, spaghetti with tomato sauce, bananas, dry cereal, pretzels and english muffins… to name a few!  

Don't Forget About Protein and Fat

Although the majority of a pre-game meal should focus on carbs, it’s important not to forget about including small amounts of protein and fat. Protein is important for athletes because it helps support growth, and builds and repairs muscles. Some protein-rich foods to include in your pre-game meal are eggs accompanied with whole-grain toast and fruits, or a sandwich with low-sodium deli meat on whole-grain bread with yogurt and raw veggies.

A small amount of fat is also healthy to incorporate into an athlete’s diet. Fats help athletes function properly by giving the body energy, helping the body grow and develop, and helping with the absorption of vitamins. While it’s important for athletes to incorporate fats into their diet, they should be eaten in small amounts before a competition as they are harder to break down and digest. Athletes should focus on eating unsaturated fats and avoid eating unhealthy fats such as saturated and trans-fats. Unsaturated-fats that can be included in a pre-game meal are nuts, peanut butter, reduced-fat cheeses, fish and seeds.

Pieces of salmon for athletes to eat before a game

Timing Is Everything

Not only knowing what to eat before a big game, but also when to eat, is important in an athlete’s performance. It’s crucial to allow enough time to digest before the main event. Experts suggest that a big meal should be eaten at least 3 hours before an athletic event. While this is a good rule to follow, there are times where this might not be possible, especially for student athletes who have games and competitions after school. Here is a guideline of the amount of time it takes to digest food:

  • 3-4 hours to digest a big meal
  • 2-3 hours to digest a small meal
  • 1-2 hours to digest blended or liquid food
  • Less than 1 hour to digest a small snack

If an athletic event is taking place in the morning, have a big meal for dinner the night before, and a light breakfast the morning of. Make sure the big pre-game meal is high in carbs and low in protein and fat. Athletes might also find it helpful to avoid eating for one hour prior to competition as digestion also uses up the body’s energy.

Nutrition is a crucial component to an athlete’s success. Although it’s essential to fuel the body correctly before a big game, it’s also important they eat healthy all year round to ensure they are getting the nutrients they need during training season. Athletes should focus on including carbohydrates, protein, fats, vitamins and minerals into their daily diet to stay healthy and get the energy and strength they need to perform their best when it counts most.  

While it’s important for athletes to make sure they are eating a healthy and balanced diet, it’s even more important to stay hydrated. To learn more about hydration, check out our blog Hydration for Athletes: What You Need to Know to Maximize Performance

Please note that we are not nutrition experts, and you should always consult a qualified professional on what’s best for you.