Some athletes have favorite foods they associate with being ready to compete, but LSU Agricultural Center nutritionist Dr. Beth Reames says no pre-competition meal will provide any special powers.
"But what student athletes and others eat can make a difference, both physically and psychologically," Reames says, explaining, "Every competitive and recreational athlete needs adequate fuel, fluids and nutrients to perform their best."
The nutritionist recommends the following guidelines for healthy eating and athletic performance:
• Eat a wide variety of foods based on the Food Guide Pyramid.
• Balance food intake with energy needs to promote a healthy body weight.
• Ensure proper fluid intake to maintain hydration and electrolyte balance.
• Time food and fluid intake in relation to training and competition.
• Seek expert advice on the use of supplements and ergogenic (performance-enhancing) aids.
Reames says a pre-competition meal should include foods the athlete likes but should also be part of a well-balanced program of eating. Eat foods rich in carbohydrates, because these foods are easy to digest and provide fuel during prolonged exercise. Include those higher in complex carbohydrates, such as breads, cereals, fruits and vegetables. Skim or low-fat milk and lean meats also may be eaten, she says.
"To avoid discomfort before and during competition, wait a while after eating before beginning the activity." The LSU AgCenter nutritionist says to avoid high-fat foods, because they take longer to digest. Eating very high-fiber foods before an event when you're not accustomed to eating those types can increase gas formation, discomfort and diarrhea. Stick with familiar foods and eat them in moderate amounts.
The individual needs of the athlete should be emphasized. Some athletes prefer to eat a substantial meal 2 to 4 hours before exercise or competition, while others perform better if they consume small or even liquid meals. Athletes should be sure they know what works best by trying new foods and beverages during practice sessions, not the day of the competition.
"Include liquids with the meal, because hydration is essential for top athletic performance," Reames notes, advising to include two or three cups of fluid with the meal.
Dehydration impairs performance by causing cramps, weakness and headache. Untreated, dehydration can cause heat stroke. Heat illness is one of the most preventable sports injuries. It's a problem that can sideline an athlete for the game or even end a career.
"Comfort is most important when an athlete is considering a pre-competition meal," Reames says, explaining, "It is not the time to experiment with new foods or change eating patterns."
The sale of performance-enhancing (ergogenic) aids, supplements, herbal preparations and diet aids has increased greatly in the past few years. Reames says these products alone have little, if any, effect on achievement of top performance.
Sports nutrition experts advise using nutritional ergogenic aids with caution, and only after careful evaluation of the product for safety, especially for children and youth.
Much research is needed on performance-enhancing aids including their efficacy, safety, dosage, side effects, interactions with medications and foods, and how they affect medical conditions, according to Reames.
For information on related family and consumer topics, visit the FCS Web site at http://www.lsuagcenter.com/Inst/
Extension/Departments/fcs/ For local information and educational programs, contact an extension agent in your parish LSU AgCenter office.