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Pre-Game Meals

It is well established that exercise performance can be affected by diet and, in order to maintain optimal training, the body must be properly fueled with appropriate nutrients. The pre-game meal is an integral part of the complete training plan. Of course, a single pre-game meal will not compensate for a poor training diet. For this reason, the active person should routinely follow basic nutrition guidelines. It is essential that the diet contain enough calories to cover the active person's daily energy expenditure. It is also advised that the diet be composed of a wide variety of foods to ensure adequate intake of vitamins and minerals. The training diet should be high in carbohydrates without compromising necessary protein and fat.

The pre-game meal should have a definite focus on carbohydrate intake. Prioritizing carbohydrates is supported by evidence that exercise performance is typically enhanced following a high-carbohydrate meal as compared to a low-carbohydrate meal. Carbohydrate in the liver and muscles (glycogen) can be metabolized to provide energy for the working muscle more rapidly than fat, allowing a person to sustain a higher intensity level of exercise. Therefore, its depletion would inevitably result in a need to reduce exercise intensity or discontinue exercise. Because the body's glycogen storage is limited, the diet should provide enough carbohydrate to maximize glycogen stores, particularly for those participating in high-intensity or endurance games. The basic goals of the pre-game meal are as follows: (1) prevent weakness and fatigue, whether due to low blood sugar levels or inadequate muscle glycogen stores, during the game; (2) ward off feelings of hunger yet minimize gastrointestinal distress from eating; and (3) guarantee optimal hydration. In addition, individual preferences must be considered. If a person truly believes that a specific food will improve performance, then the psychological effect of consuming that food may result in enhanced performance.

The meal should consist primarily of carbohydrates and fluids, as they can be easily digested. If the meal is small (400-500 calories), it can be consumed approximately two to three hours prior to a game, allowing enough time for digestion and absorption. If the meal is high in fat, protein or fiber, extra time must be allowed for digestion. Also, as the amount of food consumed increases, so will the time needed for digestion. A large meal containing appreciable amounts of protein or fat, such as a large cheese omelet, may need to be eaten five to six hours before competition. Carbohydrates high in fiber and gas-forming (bran products, legumes and certain vegetables, such as onion, cabbage and cauliflower) are not recommended as they may cause intestinal discomfort. A liquid source of carbohydrate can be taken prior to the game when schedules do not allow time for meals or for those who have a sensitive stomach or experience pre-competition anxiety. Liquid meals can include sports drinks, juices, low-fat smoothies and shakes.

Carbonated drinks are questionable as they may cause stomach discomfort. Caffeinated drinks should be considered on an individual basis. For some individuals, caffeine may be ergogenic, most notably by making the effort seem easier. Caffeine may also spare muscle glycogen and thereby delay fatigue during endurance games. However, for others it may cause nausea and anxiousness. Once thought to be dehydrating, we now know that athletes who are accustomed to consuming caffeinated beverages can do so and experience enhanced performance, even in hot weather. The pre-game meal is particularly important before a morning game, since as much as 12 hours or more may have passed since dinner and liver glycogen levels could be sub-optimal. The prevent meal could replenish glycogen stores and decrease chance of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) and therefore, delay fatigue. Since early morning pre-game meals may need to be limited in size, it would be important to consume a substantial carbohydrate dinner the night before and/or a bedtime snack, such as a bowl of cereal. Again, plenty of liquids should also be consumed to ensure maximum hydration status. Consider the following pre-game food choices.

Morning games

The night before, eat a high-carbohydrate meal (such as pasta with tomato sauce). Early morning, eat a light breakfast or snack, such as cereal and non-fat milk; fresh fruit or juice; toast, bagel or English muffin; pancakes or waffles; non-fat or low-fat fruit yogurt; or a liquid pre-game meal

Afternoon games

Eat a high-carbohydrate meal both the night before and for breakfast. Follow with a light lunch: turkey sandwiches with small portions of turkey; brothy soups; a bagel with a little peanut butter; fruits; juice; low-fat crackers; or high-carbohydrate nutritional bars, pretzels or rice cakes.

Evening games

Eat a high-carbohydrate breakfast and lunch, followed by a light meal or snack: pasta with marinara sauce; rice with vegetables; light-cheese pizza with vegetable toppings; noodle or rice soups with crackers; baked potato; or frozen yogurt.

No one food or group of foods works for everybody; the person should experiment to find which foods, and the amount of food, works best. Food choices may vary based on the type of exercise, as well as the intensity and duration of the exercise. However, it is important to experiment with new foods during training rather than around competition.

Courtesy of the United States Olympic Committee