Match day nutrition series: episode 1: pre-competition nutrition

Welcome to the first episode of the ‘Match Day Nutrition’ series! The series that will explain you all the do’s and don’ts of nutrition on your match days. In today’s post, you will learn all about eating in the hours before the competition. Let’s jump straight into it!

As discussed in last weeks’ article, ensuring appropriate glycogen availability to the muscles is one of the key determinants of athletic performance. If you want to read up on the processes behind this strong association, check last week’s article. As you could imagine, the pre-workout meal plays a major role in restocking these storages after a long night of sleep. This can be illustrated by the fact that 20% of the ingested pre-workout meal carbs will be directly stored in the liver & muscle glycogen storage is increased by 42% 1.

Endurance related sports will benefit most from high carb meals before a competition. Glycogen storages are generally depleted after 90-120 min of physical activity2. Increasing the total amount of glycogen stored will thus be beneficial for sports that surpass/approach this duration (i.e. ‘European’ football, tennis, long-distance running, cycling, etc.). For other sports, increasing muscle glycogen stores may be of a less impact as the duration is simply not long enough to deplete glycogen stores. SCIENCE-based nutritional tips for your pre-workout meal resemble around the following points:

  • Type of meal: in general a high carb meal is preferred over a high-fat meal & a placebo meal for performance optimization. Ormsbee summarised all available studies and found that most studies either report that performance is greater or at least the same after a high carb meal compared to a high-fat meal & placebo meal 3. So, before your next competition, choose for a high carb meal.
  • Amount of carbs: an amount of 200-300 grams of carbs should be consumed. Such a level of carbs consumed 2-4 hours before training has been linked to performance increments 4.
  • Timing: a high carb meal should be eaten 2-4 hours before exercise. Such timing has been consistently linked to improvements in performance on endurance activities compared to placebo’s and no meal consumption 5. Consuming a high carb snack or meal within 60 minutes before competition does not necessarily lead to improved performance6. Most studies found (such as this, this and this) that there is no difference in performance between consuming a high carb meal vs high-fat meal vs placebo vs no meal within 60 minutes before exercise. There is only one study7 that reports a performance decline after ingestion of carbs within an hour before physical activity. Compared to the many studies that found no effect and some studies that reported a positive effect, there is no reason not to consume a high carb snack within an hour before competition. Therefore, consuming a high carb snack is advised for people who don’t like to compete sober or feel like it helps them to perform at their best. However, the most effective timing of your pre-workout meal is 2-4 hours before competing.
  • High glycemic vs low glycemic carbs: there is no conclusive evidence on this topic yet 8. For now, I would suggest though to consume mainly low glycemic index foods as some studies did find a performance benefit from low GI while no studies reported such benefit from high GI foods 9. Eating a low GI carb may give you an extra edge over other athletes.
  • Additional tips: if you find it difficult to consume the desired amount of carbs due to either nervousness or having not that big of an appetite, you could consider having liquid meals instead of solid meals. This is a frequently used strategy to ensure sufficient caloric intake without the struggle of forced eating. Moreover, one could decide to eat some more high GI carbs. These are of smaller volume and are thus easier to consume. As mentioned above, there seems to be no difference between performance after a high GI meal and a low GI meal. The key to restoring glycogen storage lies in consuming 200-300 grams of carbs. If consuming high GI meals helps you to achieve this, go for it!

Other pre-match nutritional tips

  • Sufficient water intake: dehydration (insufficient water intake) is strongly linked to performance decrements. An easy way to assure sufficient hydration is to enter a competition without thirst. As discussed in our previous article on hydration, when an athlete becomes thirsty, performance starts to drop. Drinking before being thirsty thus stimulates optimal performance. As a more specific guideline, one should drink 5 to 7 ML/KG at least 4 hours before exercise to optimize hydration status10. When you still feel thirsty after such an amount, you should drink more to prevent the negative effects of dehydration.
  • Caffeine intake: while hydration is a prerequisite to perform at your best, caffeine is considered as a supplement that will help you to perform better. The recommended dose is 3-9 mg/kg, taken 30-90 minutes before physical activity. This amounts to approximately two cups of coffee and guarantees that the caffeine concentration in your urine isn’t above the threshold set by the WADA11. The benefits of caffeine have been proven for endurance-related sports, stop and go sports (e.g. tennis, football) and sports involving sustained high power output for 1-60 minutes (e.g. rowing, track cycling). If you practice any of these types of sports, you may benefit from caffeine supplementation as the time to exhaustion increases by 10-20%, speed endurance for 1-3 minute activities is improved, perceived fatigue decreases and reaction time is improved12. If you want to read more about SCIENTIFICALLY proven supplements, check this post.

The following timeline summarises the previously mentioned points:

  • At least 4 hours before competition: drink 5 to 7 ML water/ KG body weight.
  • 2-4 hours before competition: eat a high carb meal containing 200-300 grams of carbs (preferably as much as possible low GI carbs). Ensure sufficient hydration as well.
  • 30-90 minutes before competition: if you want to give yourself an extra boost, take two cups of coffee. If you feel like you are a bit hungry, consume a small snack such as an apple. Still, ensure sufficient hydration.

Still have no clue what to eat before a competition? Don’t worry, this Sunday we will upload an additional post that guides you on high carb foods with a low glycemic index that could be consumed before competing. Some sample meals will also be presented. Be sure to check that out! For now, keep up the good work and peace out!