Nourishing your body for demanding training sessions and peak performance becomes topical in the final weeks leading up to competition. Good dietary habits can speed up and improve recovery from training sessions and enhance your overall preparedness and performance. Athletes should strive to improve and maintain good long-term nutrition habits for greatest benefits. Nevertheless, improving your diet quality in the lead up to competition is still advantageous.
Before training sessions, aim to eat a small meal 1-2 hours prior to physical activity. Try not to eat within the hour before training to avoid indigestion and allow more time for the food to be processed. If you are participating in rigorous activity, you may want to allow more time or eat a smaller meal. Limit large amounts of high-fat proteins, such as cheese, cured meats and peanut butter, as they can take longer to empty from the stomach. Low glycaemic index (GI) carbohydrates may be useful before training to provide a more sustained energy release.
After trainings, the body’s tissues are stressed and depleted of energy. Moderate to high GI foods and fluids may be beneficial immediately following trainings to replenish these energy stores. Protein is also essential to help with tissue repair and synthesis. Suitable choices to start refuelling could be fruit and yogurt or a protein-rich smoothie and some dried fruit. Liquid meals should be considered if you train late in the evenings.
Adequate intake of minerals (also known as electrolytes) is essential for recovery. Calcium is well known for being hugely important for bone health, but did you know that calcium is also critical for nerve conduction and muscle relaxation after contracting? Magnesium also plays an important role in muscle contraction and in protein biosynthesis. Mineral water, legumes, nuts and seeds can help contribute magnesium to the diet. When buying mineral water, check the label for calcium and magnesium content. The one with the higher number is usually best.
Alkalising foods or drinks after and between trainings may also help with recovery. After strenuous exercise, the body’s pH decreases slightly becoming more acidic. Furthermore, as your body requires more protein in the post-exercise period for muscle repair and synthesis, protein only adds to the acid load. By consuming foods that are alkalise-forming, you can help counteract this affect and recover faster. So what foods are alkaline-forming? Try green-vegetables, green drinks, lemons and limes (you heard correct!) and seeds.
Make sure to get adequate restful sleep. During rest, the body is dedicated to repair, disposal of wastes and building new physical structures.
Avoid alcohol in the lead up to competitions and optimise trainings and overall performance. Consumption of alcohol is commonly associated with the displacement of nutrients. It also adds unnecessary calories to your energy intake. Did you know that alcohol is more energy dense than protein or carbohydrate? But it’s not a useful energy because it requires metabolism in the liver and adds to the toxic load of your cells. Alcohol is also a potent dehydrator. As an athlete, you already loose large volumes of water during workouts. If an injury is sustained, alcohol can increase swelling because it contributes to blood vessel dilation. For those familiar with injuries, the more swelling in an injured area, the longer it can take to recover and get back to playing form. Avoiding alcohol is the best option for competitive athletes. You work hard all season; it’s just not worth it!
Hydrate with water. Dehydration will negatively affect your performance. Two signs of dehydration are fatigue and poor balance. Good hydration starts long before the performance. Fuel up in the preceding days and first thing in the morning of your competition. Make sure you have water throughout the day. You will be more relaxed and confident if you hydrate with water and avoid other beverages, especially those containing artificial sweeteners, colours or additives. Just don’t drink too much immediately before the performance or competition or you may find yourself needing an inconvenient trip to the toilet.
As for coffee, one small caffeinated drink on the day of performance may help with alertness and reduce the perception of exertion. However, you need to way up the positive and negative influences. Caffeine can trigger digestive upsets, and make you feel jittery and more nervous. If you don’t consume caffeine regularly, it’s probably best to avoid it on competition day.
So you’ve practiced hard and psyched yourself up for the big event. On competition day, stick with foods that are familiar to your body. It is not the day to start experimenting with new foods. A few hours before your competition you should choose a meal similar to your pre-workout meal, which you know works for you and optimises your performance. If you are not competing until later in the day, pre-prepare small high-carbohydrate snacks for throughout the day to keep you energized. Avoid meals that are predominantly high in fat, protein or even dietary fibre, as these can increase potential digestive discomfort.
Nutrition can give athletes a real competitive advantage and help aid recovery between trainings. While improving your diet quality in the lead up to competition is advantageous, it is important to maintain and improve overall nutrition habits. You choose to be physically competitive, and your dietary choices can make a difference to consistent trainings and performance. When you work so hard and commit a lot of your time and energy to trainings for competition, it’s just not worth spoiling it all on poor dietary choices.