Written by Nate Winkler
There are few days in the year more important than ‘Game Day’ for athletes, if any. Every month away from season is spent preparing, training, dieting, and dreaming of what will happen next season, when all the hard work culminates in dominating performances. Making all that pain, practice and sacrifice worth it a 100X over. For many of you, Game Day now looms hours away, it’s time to shine, and you may be wondering, ‘What do I do now, am I ready?’ Assuming that your coaches did a good job preparing you mentally and physically, you now have total control over priming your body for peak performance by incorporating these nutrition strategies into your Game Day Preparation.
Nutrition: What, Why, and When
There are just a few nutritional aspects that even need discussing and clarifying when it comes to athletes and performance. One major premise that should dictate your dieting mindset and decision making process is this: The focus of in season athletes is peak performance, and nothing else, so eat that way. Starving yourself and trying to loose 25 lbs. during season will absolutely lead to poor performance or injury. Like wise, going to the buffet bar and eating 25 fried buffalo wings and washing them down with a ‘Diet Coke’ after practice will sabotage all your hard work as well. You need tons of calories, you need lots nutrients, and a diet based on whole foods, not fast foods. Vegetables and protein are a given, simply put, you need tons of both. So much misinformation surrounding protein sources and serving sizes bombard athletes, and it’s time to clarify these areas of confusion.
My biology teacher in college would strictly adhere to the serving suggestions of the FDA for everyone, but the FDA doesn’t take into consideration individual body weight, lean tissue mass, and the caloric/recovery demands of a training athlete. There are also misconceptions out there about protein digestion and synthesis. So many think that you have to get protein into your body 20 minutes after training or all is lost and you shouldn’t even bother. Or some compare tissue repair and protein replacement to a light bulb, one ‘flick of the protein switch’ and your muscles are healed, repaired, and ready to go again an hour later. This couldn’t be more wrong.
Muscles are not light switches, eating protein and rebuilding muscles does not occur with ‘one flick of the switch’. It is a continual process and each meal should contain protein sources that allow you to recover for your next training session.
The soreness you feel after training is partly due to the muscle tissue micro-tears and trauma induced by exercise. Think of these micro-tears more as small cuts in your muscles, these take time to heal, and protein serves as the Band-Aid to make this process happen more efficiently. Right now, you may be thinking, ‘This makes sense, but what’s wrong with thinking that you have to get protein into your body right after training?’. Well, nothing, but thinking that the 20 minute window after training is the only time to get protein into your body is where many go wrong.
Tissue rebuilding/repair and protein synthesis occur around the clock. You wouldn’t try to argue that blood flow only occurs around exercise would you? That would be idiotic, which is much like the argument surrounding ‘time frame’ protein digestion. Protein absorption works much in the same way, like blood flow, nutrient exchange and digestion occur at accelerated rates during exercise, but nutrient exchange occurs every second of the day. Not realizing that athletes need more calories and protein than non-athletes, all the time, is a huge mistake. Increasing these two aspects of your nutrition will greatly improve your Game Day performance.
The Big Three
Caffiene, carbohydrates, and proper ion concentrations are major areas of confusion and impact your performance the most. A full discussion of the positives and dosages of these three components are outlined in my previous article, Nutrition for Two A Days, under the ‘Logical Considerations For Athletes’ section. Trying to argue that caffeine is not effective nor improves performance is simply ignorant. There is a reason that sports like track and field disqualify athletes that test with high blood serum levels of stimulants like caffeine (and the hormones caffeine induces the release of) and why gimmicks like the ‘Power Balance’ band are allowed, one works and the other doesn’t. The effects of caffeine are comparable to a ‘game day steroid’, focus increases, muscle contraction strength and coordination improves, endurance increases, the list goes on. The point is, caffeine is legal, and if you are looking for every edge you can get over your competition, you should consider its use.
Carbohydrates are a performing athlete’s best friend, if you want to be explosive, if you want to have endurance, if you want to go hard the entire game/match, then you must eat carbohydrates. Eating carbohydrates at the wrong time is where most go wrong. Long story short (again, if you want the long story, read Consideration #2 in the ‘Two A Day’ article), don’t eat carbs the morning of any game, and try to eat a large amount of carbs the night before you play. Muscle glycogen is what allows you to be explosive, not eating carbs 90 minutes before you compete. The best carb sources out there are sweet potatoes, raw oats, black beans, and wild rice (that’s right, not bread). Your body doesn’t care how long ago you ate the carbs, all that matters is that there is glycogen in the muscle cell when contraction takes place.
Not eating enough carbohydrates is the main contributor to fatigue, but another strong contributor is inefficient ion concentrations in/around the muscle cell. You see, every muscle contraction, which generates movement, requires an exchange of Sodium (Na), Potassium (K), and Calcium (Ca); if there is a shortage of these ions, contraction efficiency diminishes, this contributes to fatigue, and eventually leads to cramps. Calcium is the most important ion, in my opinion, because it plays a pivotal role in so many bodily processes. Having a shortage of calcium will create major problems, and this must be avoided. The best sources of calcium are sesame seeds, almonds, herbs, green leafy vegetables, and whey protein.
Salt and fresh water fish are high in Vitamin D, which aids in the absorption of calcium, so if you have an indoor sport, or are in a poor climate make sure you consume fish as your protein source when possible. This is the problem in neglecting any macronutrient type, athletes must have a diet rich in every nutrient category because of the complementary interactions that occur. If someone is telling you not to eat a certain major food group, I would question their level of education and ability to help improve your performance. Below, depending on game time, I will outline how to get the nutrition you need, and prepare your body for great performances.
Game Day Nutrient Timing
Considering what we have discussed previously, morning games should be the easiest to prepare for nutritionally. The night before, dinner should consist of water to drink only, a medium sized animal protein serving (8oz for men, 4-6 oz for women), a dark green vegetable, and a large carbohydrate serving (gram size does not matter, just get full from a ‘good’ source). Before bed take your vitamins, with a small, concentrated whey/casein protein shake. The morning of the game you should eat proteins and fats only, carbs will only impair your ability to perform at this point. Caffeine can be consumed, just make sure you have experimented with this stimulant before, game day is not the time for trial runs.
For hydration, I recommend just drinking 6-8oz of concentrated salt water, this will give you necessary ions without all the corn syrup that many sport drinks give you.
The same ideas and concepts apply to these game times as the ‘Morning Games’, but the dinner carb sources should be more starch based (rice and sweet potato). If your game does not start until 2:00 pm, I recommend a blended protein shake around 11:00 am, with peanut butter and a banana; this will not introduce too many carbs (induce an insulin spike or activate the Autonomic Nervous System the way a whole food meal would), but will give you the calories and nutrients necessary to perform well. As you warm up, your body will become much better at processing food/glycogen, so snacking on small bites of fruit, trail mix, and energy bars is fine. Also, as you warm up, sip a caffeine source, or right before drink a small, concentrated caffeine source, again that is safe for YOUR body to operate with.
The previous day’s dinner is crucial for evening game times due to the amount of activity you will have prior to playing your game the following evening. Morning meals need to be very high in protein and fats, and should include a vegetable serving if possible. This will create blood sugar stability the entire day, while giving you a large amount of calories. At approximately 11:00 am (these times are not arbitrary), I recommend a blended protein shake with either 1-2 banana(s) or 1 cup of raw oats. At lunch, a medium carb serving should be eaten first, before any other menu item, try avoiding starches here and eat fruits or black beans for your carb source. Afternoon snacks should be whey protein, animal protein, trail mix, or fat based. Caffeine, because of time window can be consumed 30-45 minutes prior to warming up. Hydration throughout the day is important, make sure that you don’t over hydrate and excrete large amounts of ions in your urine. A concentrated class of salt water would be great for evening games as well.
Regardless of game time, you need to be at your best, these nutrition strategies will improve your body’s ability to cope with the demands of competition. You’ve worked too hard in the months leading up to the game not to give yourself every opportunity to dominate the opponent across from you.