If you don’t understand what to eat and when, it can mean the difference between delivering your BEST performance or getting sidelined with a stomach ache. A player’s worst nightmare is being stuck in the restroom midway through the big game! So what are the rules on eating before competition?

Understanding Digestion

It all starts with understanding how food is digested during exercise. If you’re exercising really hard, there is less blood flowing to your stomach – during strenuous exercise, this is about twenty percent. Thus, your body is more concerned about having blood flowing to your working muscles so you can exercise. As a result, your body cannot effectively digest a lot of food or foods that digest slowly.

To prevent stomach problems and perform at your peak potential, you need to balance what to eat in relation to how much time you have before activity. The easiest rule of thumb is that the number of food items should equal approximately the number of hours before intense practice or competition. 

Here is a general guide, but learn how your body responds to when and how much you eat. 

1 hour = 1-2 food items

2 hours = 2-3 food items

3 hours = 3-4 food items

4 hours = 4 food items

The Rule of Thumb…in action

Let’s say you have about one hour before practice or competition; the guideline says 1-2 food items. What would be a good choice? Go with easy to digest carbohydrates like whole grain crackers, applesauce, yogurt, or an energy bar that’s HIGHER in carbs and LOWER in protein, fat, and fiber. Get the facts on energy bars here >>

Keep in mind the individual: some athletes can only handle liquids at this point and might choose juices or sports beverages. It’s not the time for a grilled chicken sandwich. While this is a healthy choice in general, the protein won’t break down quickly enough into the energy needed in such a short window of time.

With two hours before activity, you have a little more time for your food to digest. Focus on eating healthy carbohydrates for optimal energy, but you can also include some protein foods since you have more time for the protein to digest and break down. For example, have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a piece of fruit. Have a chicken sandwich with a small amount of chicken and some yogurt or an energy bar. 

Keep in mind that before activity, you always want to consume more healthy carbohydrates than protein. Some athletes make the mistake of eating large amounts of protein prior to exercise, which can make you feel sluggish as your body tries to digest all that protein. Smaller amounts of protein will curb your appetite and help maintain energy levels. 

Three Hours before activity provides even more time to allow your stomach to digest the food. So opt for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, some pretzels and a bowl of fruit. Or you could have pasta with a little bit of chicken on it, some rolls and maybe a small yogurt with fruit.

With four hours before activity, you can clearly handle more food because your stomach has significantly more time for digestion. Go with a larger source of protein but still focus on the foods that provide energy. One example is a peanut butter sandwich, pretzels, a bowl of fruit, and an energy bar. Another is chicken and rice, a roll, yogurt with fruit, and an energy bar.

For more ideas see: The Energy Bag and Energy Bar FAQ

Pre-game Meals of the Pros

Note:  What works for the pros, may not work for you. Experiment to find what works for you and your energy needs.

  • LeBron James, Miami Heat: salmon, grilled pineapple
  • Derek Jeter, NY Yankees: pancakes, omelet
  • Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos: 2 pieces grilled chicken, pasta with marinara, plain baked potato, side of broccoli, Gatorade
  • Ray Allen, former Boston Celtics player: baked chicken, steamed brown rice, asparagus, bottle water with slice of lemon 
  • Paul Pierce, former Boston Celtics player: PBJ sandwich

Foods to Avoid Before Activity

No surprise – no matter how much time you have before training or competition, some foods are just completely off-limits. The days of the pre-game huge greasy steaks are over! Same with those high-protein or high-fiber bars.

You’re aim is to eat energy foods high in nutrient-rich carbs along with a little protein to help sustain that energy and curb your appetite.

Tracy Owens

About Tracy Owens

Tracy Owens (MPH, RD, CSSD, LDN) is a Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD). She has worked in private practice, providing clinical and sports nutrition for over 20 years. Her two sons and two daughters have played AAU baseball, USSSA baseball, Legion baseball, Challenge, United, Premier, Elite and ECNL soccer at Capital Area Soccer League (CASL), USTA tennis, summer swim teams, and high school football, swimming, baseball and soccer. Two of her children played Division 1 soccer at North Carolina State University.

Change Your Nutrition and Change Your Game!