Special goalWA.net feature by Claire Bennett
Maintaining a nutritious diet is important for good general health, but on days where you have a game or a heavy training session scheduled it’s particularly crucial to pay attention to what you eat and when. You’ll find your energy and focus slipping if you don’t eat well on the day, but the right foods at the right times will give you the power you need to play a great game.
US men’s team coach Jurgen Klinsmann has always stressed the importance of building a healthy foundation with a good diet and sensible lifestyle habits. Eating nutritious food on a regular basis is a requirement to perform well in any sport—your body doesn’t operate effectively if you feed it low-nutrient food, and a poor diet makes for a poor player. Fresh vegetables and fruit, complex carbohydrates, lean protein, and healthy unsaturated fats provide you with the calories and nutrients that give you energy, endurance, and power. All of these dietary measures contribute to good general health, too, which will serve you well in the long term, both on and off the field, aiding high energy levels, a strong immune system, faster healing from injury, healthy hair and scalp, and better mental alertness. Do you need supplements? In most cases, no—if you maintain a healthy, varied diet, you’re most likely getting all the nutrients you need. Generally you only need to supplement if you’re deficient in a particular vitamin or mineral for metabolic, rather than dietary, reasons.
Eating before a Game is Part of Good Preparation
Jurgen Klinsmann also stresses the importance of eating small, regular meals; he recommends eating between four and six meals or snacks spread out over the day, to ensure your body has a consistent supply of fuel, and keep your metabolism running steadily. Unless you’re specifically trying to lose or gain weight, counting calories isn’t strictly necessary most of the time, but it can be a useful tool to keep track of how well you’re spreading your food intake throughout the course of the day. On game days, or days where you have an intense workout or training session scheduled, it can be useful to count calories to make sure you’re getting as much fuel as you need to get you through the heavier exertion.
On these days, it’s also important to pay close attention when you eat as well as what and how much. Eating too far out from a game means you run the risk of your energy levels flagging too soon, while eating too close means your body may still be trying to digest what you’ve eaten, which can leave you feeling lethargic. Your best bet is a good-quality meal of complex carbs and protein with little fat, such as lean turkey, chicken, or fish with vegetables and bread, pasta, or rice. You’ll need to eat between 300 and 500 calories, three to five hours before the game is due to start. This means you’ll have the energy you need when you need it, and can get through the game with minimal topping-up at half time. Aim to drink three cups of water with your pre-game meal, and at least the same amount again during the hours before kickoff.
If you’re unable to eat at the right time, follow the general rule of 100 calories per hour before kickoff, and make your meal a liquid one if you have to eat within two hours of the game. Avoid sugar, which will metabolize too quickly to provide lasting energy, and can also lead to dehydration. Finally, make sure to only eat foods you’re familiar with, and avoid anything you know your digestive system doesn’t handle well.
Keeping your Energy Levels Up During a Game
Staying well-hydrated is just as important as eating well at the right times. Remember the old saying that by the time you feel thirsty, you’re already dehydrated—it’s absolutely true, and it’s also true that thirst isn’t the only warning sign. Dehydration can also lead to fatigue, muscle cramping, and reduced mental alertness, any of which can make you a liability on the field. You’ll typically need to replace around half a cup for every fifteen minutes of play. Aim to drink around half a cup of water at each break, and sports water during halftime, to quickly replenish your carb and electrolyte levels. Try to drink as slowly as you can in the limited time you have, to prevent bloating.
After the Game
Once the game is over, it’s important to refuel your body as soon as possible, preferably within 30 to 45 minutes—your carbohydrate stores are almost entirely depleted at this point, and replacing them quickly will help your body recover from its exertion faster. You also need some extra protein, to help your muscles recover from their workout. This post-game meal should be high in complex carbohydrate foods such as whole-wheat bread or pasta, or rice, along with some extra protein and fat.