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A L A B A M A A & M A N D A U B U R N U N I V E R S I T I E S
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Sports Nutrition
For Young Adults
ood consumed before
and between athletic
events can have a
signicant impact on an
individuals ability to per-
form. Many people have their
own ideas about what foods
to consume around athletic
events. Some of these ideas
may be good. However,
many foods consumed by
athletes before and between
events are inappropriate
and may harm the athletes
performance. This publica-
tion outlines the proper
aspects of eating close to
performance time.
Body Functions
A basi c understandi ng of cer-
tai n bodi ly functi ons can be
helpful i n learni ng the i mportant
components of a good pre-event
Digestion. Athleti c perfor-
mance wi ll be better i f vi rtually
no food i s i n the stomach or
small i ntesti nes at the ti me the
event i s bei ng performed. All
food must be di gested i n the
stomach and small i ntesti nes be-
fore bei ng absorbed i nto the
body and, thus, clear the gas-
troi ntesti nal tract. However, the
ti me needed for di gesti on vari es
due to factors such as the carbo-
hydrate, fat, and protei n content
of the meal as well as the si ze of
the meal. For example, carbohy-
drates are relati vely easy to di -
gest. Carbohydrates can general-
ly be di gested and absorbed i n
about three to four hours.
However, fat and protei n requi re
a much longer ti me, approxi -
mately ve to seven hours, to di -
gest and absorb. The si ze of the
meal also can i nuence the
overall ti me needed for di gesti on
and absorpti on. Large meals may
requi re many hours to clear the
gastroi ntesti nal tract, whereas,
smaller meals may be di gested
i n just a couple of hours.
Nervousness often associ ated
wi th athleti c events also can i m-
pai r normal di gesti on and ab-
sorpti on of food.
Blood Supply. An aver-
age-si ze adult wi ll have about
ve quarts of blood ci rculati ng
Eating Before &
Between Athletic
2 Alabama Cooperati ve Extensi on System
throughout the body. Chi ldren
have less, the amount dependi ng
on the si ze of the chi ld. Follow-
i ng i ngesti on of a meal, blood
wi ll be di verted from areas of the
body wi th low needs to the stom-
ach and i ntesti nal area. Thi s extra
blood helps the processes of di -
gesti on and absorpti on of the
food that has been eaten. Duri ng
exerci se, large amounts of blood
are di verted to the worki ng mus-
cles and to the ski n for sweat
producti on and cooli ng. I n thi s
process blood i s actually shunted
away from the gastroi ntesti nal
tract. Thus, di gesti on and absorp-
ti on of food can be i mpai red dur-
i ng exerci se because the di gesti ve
system recei ves less blood i n-
stead of more. Therefore, i t i s ad-
vantageous to the athlete to have
the di gesti ve and absorpti ve
processes vi rtually complete by
the ti me exerci se starts. There
should be li ttle or no food i n the
stomach and small i ntesti ne at the
ti me of exerci se.
Liver Carbohydrate. The
li ver i s capable of stori ng carbo-
hydrate ( called glycogen) . Thi s
li ver carbohydrate can be re-
leased to the blood and i s a
major source of blood glucose
( blood sugar) . I f the blood glu-
cose concentrati on drops too
low, worki ng muscle and brai n,
whi ch rely on the glucose for
energy, can be depri ved of thi s
fuel source and not functi on
properly. Thi s would be detri -
mental to the person who i s ex-
erci si ng. The li ver can store
enough carbohydrate to supply
the brai n and resti ng muscles for
about 12 to 15 hours. Worki ng
muscle wi ll use up li ver carbo-
hydrate much faster. Thus, mak-
i ng sure li ver carbohydrate
stores are at maxi mum levels
would be i mportant for an ath-
lete about to enter an event.
Components of a
Good Pre-Event Meal
Certai n components of a
proper pre-event meal can be
i mportant to performance. The
meal should clear the gastroi n-
testi nal tract by the ti me the
event starts. The meal should be
able to enhance li ver carbohy-
drate stores, and the meal
should help support hydrati on i n
the athlete.
Basi c gui deli nesfor proper
pre-event mealshave been devel-
oped. These are summari zed i n
Table 1 and di scussed i n more
detai l i n the followi ng paragraphs.
Timing. Because vi rtually
all food should be cleared from
the gastroi ntesti nal tract pri or to
exerci se, ti mi ng of the meal be-
comes an i mportant i ssue. Pre-
event meals should be con-
sumed from 2 to 4 hours before
exerci se. Thi s allows ample ti me
for a proper pre-event meal to
be cleared. I f the meal i s con-
sumed longer than 4 hours be-
fore the event, then the athlete
may become hungry. Foods
eaten less than 2 hours before
exerci se may not have ti me to
be di gested and absorbed. Thi s
can actually hurt performance.
Composition of the
meal. Carbohydrate foods clear
the stomach and small i ntesti nes
faster than hi gh protei n or hi gh
fat foods. Thus, pre-event meals
should consi st pri mari ly of hi gh
carbohydrate-type foods. Small
amounts of protei n and fat are
acceptable. Examples of good
hi gh carbohydrate foods to be
used i n pre-event nutri ti on can
be found i n Table 2. I tems such
as breads, cereals, pasta, pan-
cakes, ri ce, frui ts and frui t jui ces,
and low fat yogurt are all exam-
ples of foods that could be used
i n a pre-event meal. Foods such
as steaks, eggs, french fri es,
hamburgers, hot dogs, nuts, and
bacon are hi gh i n fat or protei n
and should be mi ni mi zed i n
meals eaten before competi ti on.
Bland foods. Foods eaten
before competi ti on generally
should be somewhat bland i n
taste. Spi cy foods wi th pepper or
chi li powder and foods such as
oni ons, cabbage, broccoli , and
beans should be avoi ded. These
foods tend to sti mulate the gas-
troi ntesti nal tract, produce gas,
and could cause problems when
eaten before athleti c events.
Whi le a small amount of a car-
bonated beverage i s probably
acceptable, consumpti on of large
quanti ti es of these beverages
should be avoi ded due to possi -
ble gas producti on.
Table 1. Components of a Good Pre-Event Meal
The meal should be consumed 2 to 4 hours before the event.
The meal should be hi gh i n carbohydrate content wi th small amounts of
fat and protei n.
Generally, foods should be somewhat bland. Spi cy, gas-produci ng, and
other i rri tati ng foods should be avoi ded.
The meal should be low i n di etary ber.
The meal should be small i n si ze less than 1, 000 calori es.
Di lute, non-caffei nated dri nks should be consumed. Alcoholi c beverages
should be avoi ded.
Table 2. Pre-Event High Carbohydrate Foods
Toast and jelly Spaghetti wi th tomato sauce Bread
Macaroni Low fat yogurt Sherbet
Ski m mi lk Pancakes wi th syrup Bagels
Low ber cereals Thi ck-crust cheese pi zza Ri ce
Baked potato Canned frui t Puddi ngs
Applesauce Bananas Gri ts
Frui t jui ces Wafes Cream of wheat
Engli sh mufns
Sports Nutrition for Young Adults: Eating Before and Between Athletic Events 3
Dietary ber. Normally, i t
would be a good practi ce to i n-
clude foods wi th ample di etary
ber i n ones di et. However,
some types of di etary ber can
sti mulate defecati on and havi ng
to go to the bathroom duri ng an
athleti c event i s not advanta-
geous. Foods hi gh i n ber, such
as beans, vari ous types of bran,
nuts, and raw vegetables, should
be mi ni mi zed duri ng the hours or
day pri or to a major competi ti on.
Meal size. As previ ously
menti oned, large meals take a
long ti me to be di gested and ab-
sorbed. Large meals eaten the
day before an athleti c event
would be acceptable; however,
large meals should not be con-
sumed on the day of an event,
before the competi ti on.
Consumpti on of large pre-event
meals wi ll vi rtually guarantee
that food wi ll sti ll be i n the
stomach and small i ntesti nes at
the ti me of competi ti on. Thi s can
cause mi nor to seri ous di scom-
fort for the athlete. I t i s recom-
mended that pre-event meals not
exceed 1, 000 calori es. O ften the
meal may be only 500 to 600
calori es. For example, a turkey
sandwi ch made wi th whi te
bread, mustard, and a small
amount of lettuce and tomato
would contai n approxi mately
350 calori es. Add a glass of
apple jui ce ( 120 calori es) and a
cup of avored yogurt ( 220 calo-
ri es) and you have a pre-event
meal of almost 700 calori es. A
breakfast of two 6-i nch pancakes
( 200 calori es) , 2 pats of mar-
gari ne ( 90 calori es) , 4 ounces of
syrup ( 100 calori es) , and an 8-
ounce glass of orange jui ce ( 120
calori es) would provi de a total
of 510 calori es.
Beverages. The consump-
ti on of ample quanti ti es of ui d
i n the hours before competi ti on
i s encouraged. Thi s wi ll i nsure
that the athlete does not go i nto
the event i n a dehydrated state.
Beverages such as low fat or
ski m mi lk or frui t jui ces can be
consumed up 2 hours before the
event. Water and sports dri nks
should be consumed 2 hours or
less before the start of the event.
Consumpti on of carbonated bev-
erages should be mi ni mi zed i n
the pre-event peri od as these
types of beverages may result i n
excessi ve belchi ng and stomach
di scomfort before exerci se.
Consumpti on of caffei ne-con-
tai ni ng beverages such as coffee,
tea, and cola also should be
avoi ded duri ng thi s ti me.
Caffei ne has a di ureti c acti on
Table 3. Adverse Symptoms of an Improper Pre-Event Meal
Nausea Vomi ti ng
I ntesti nal cramps Flatulence
Belchi ng Di arrhea or the urge to defecate
Low blood sugar Dehydrati on
that can i ncrease uri ne output
and possi bly contri bute to dehy-
drati on. Caffei ne consumpti on
also can i ncrease the frequency
of defecati on. Alcoholi c bever-
ages should be avoi ded. Alcohol
has a di ureti c acti on si mi lar to
caffei ne. I n addi ti on, alcohol
consumpti on beyond mi ni mal
amounts can have adverse ef-
fects on performance.
Adverse Effects of
Improper Pre-Event
I mproper pre-event nutri ti on
can harm the athlete i n several
ways. These are outli ned i n Table
3. I f meals before competi ti on are
taken too far i n advance or are
low i n carbohydrates, then the
athlete could go i nto the event
feeli ng hungry and perhaps wi th
blood sugar values that are lower
than opti mum. Low ui d con-
sumpti on i n the hours before an
event can result i n the athletes
bei ng dehydrated. Thi s would ad-
versely i nuence performance,
especi ally on hot, humi d days.
Most adverse effects of pre-event
meals are associ ated wi th food
sti ll remai ni ng i n the stomach and
i ntesti nes when physi cal acti vi ty
begi ns. Thi s food can cause nu-
merous gastroi ntesti nal problems
as outli ned i n Table 3. All of
these si de effects could cause the
athlete to perform less than opti -
mally. Even i f symptoms are not
severe, the athletes performance
i s probably bei ng compromi sed.
Robert E. Keith, Professor, Nutri ti on and Food Sci ence, Auburn Uni versi ty
Trade names are used only to gi ve speci c i nformati on. The Alabama Cooperati ve
Extensi on System does not endorse or guarantee any product and does not recom-
mend one product i nstead of another that mi ght be si mi lar.
For more information, call your county Extensi on ofce. Look i n your telephone di -
rectory under your countys name to nd the number.
I ssued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension work in agriculture and home economics, Actsof May 8 and June
30, 1914, and other related acts, i n cooperati on wi th the U.S. Department of Agri culture. T he Alabama
Cooperati ve Extensi on System ( Alabama A& M Uni versi ty and Auburn Uni versi ty) offerseducati onal programs,
materi als, and equal opportuni ty employment to all people wi thout regard to race, color, nati onal ori gi n, reli gi on,
sex, age, veteran status, or di sabi li ty. UPS, 15M06, New Aug 1998, HE-750
HE-7 5 0
Eating Between
Many athletesmay have to
perform several timesduring a
day. Multiple matchesin tennis
and two or three soccer gamesin
a day are not unusual. Guidelines
for eating between these events
generally are not different from
those previously discussed for
pre-event meals. Thisisespecially
true if there are at least 2 hours
between events. The between-
eventsmeal then becomesa pre-
event meal. O ften the time be-
tween eventsislessthan 2 hours.
I n these casesa full meal cannot
be consumed. I nstead, a small,
high-carbohydrate snack will need
to be consumed along with ade-
quate uid intake from sports
drinksand water. Examplesof
high carbohydrate snack foods
can be found in Table 4. Gener-
ally, in these situationsthe athlete
would not want to consume more
than about 300 calories. The main
focusisto keep the athlete hydrat-
ed and not feeling hungry, yet still
leave the gastrointestinal tract
empty when competition begins.
Eating in
I f possi ble, i t i s probably
best to eat pre-event meals at
home and to bri ng between-
events snacks wi th you the day
of the event. Thi s allows better
control by the athlete of food
choi ces, volume, ti mi ng, etc.
However, eati ng foods from or
at home i s not always possi ble
and athletes must choose foods
from restaurant menus. As much
as possi ble the same gui deli nes
should be followed when eati ng
out ( ti mi ng, composi ti on, and
si ze of meal) . Most restaurants
wi ll offer some lower fat foods.
For example, choose a gri lled
chi cken sandwi ch wi th honey
mustard i nstead of a hamburger
wi th mayonnai se and cheese.
Choose orange jui ce or water i n-
stead of a carbonated dri nk. I f
eati ng Mexi can food, choose a
basi c bean burri to wi thout sour
cream and cheese. I f eati ng
I tali an, spaghetti wi th just a
tomato sauce would be better
than a spi cy meat sauce. A thi ck-
crust cheese and mushroom
pi zza would be better than a
thi n-crust pepperoni , sausage,
and peppers pi zza. I n a Chi nese
restaurant eat mostly ri ce wi th
just a li ttle of the other di shes.
These are just a few examples of
proper pre-event menu choi ces
i n vari ous restaurants. Wi th a li t-
tle knowledge and forethought
choosi ng good pre-event meals
from restaurants can be accom-
pli shed.
For More I nformation
Berni ng, J.R. and S.N. Steen.
Sports Nutrition for the 90s.
Aspen Publi shers, I nc. Gai thers-
burg, MD, 1991.
Clark, N. Sports Nutrition
Guidebook. Lei sure Press,
Human K i neti c Publi shers, I nc.,
Champai gn, I L, 1990.
Jackson, C.G.R. Nutrition for
the Recreational Athlete. CRC
Press, Boca Raton, FL, 1995.
Table 4. Between-Events Snack Foods
O atmeal rai si n cooki es Fi g/Apple/Strawberry Newtons
Graham crackers Salti ne crackers
Pretzels Low fat yogurt
Ani mal crackers Rai si ns
Bread Bananas
Canned peaches Applesauce
Low fat puddi ngs Poptarts
Vani lla wafers Sports dri nks