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What coaches and athletes should know about pre- and post- workouts and nutrition


Written by: Laura Hudson, ATC, LAT, CSCS

Mercy Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation Center, lhudson@mhsjvl.org

As coaches of young athletes, it’s important each athlete get the most benefit they can from a workout, whether the workout is related to strength, power, speed, agility or endurance.  The goal of each workout is to prepare each athlete for upcoming competition in hopes that he or she will end the competition as the victor. In order for athletes to reap the benefits of each specific workout, it’s imperative that coaches mentor athletes in terms of appropriate nutrition and hydration habits both before and after a workout session. In addition, it is crucial that coaches also bridge the nutrition and hydration gap when it comes to pre- and post-competition habits in order to contribute to both the performance and recovery process following the competition.

Pre-workout nutrition

In order to have the most energy to complete the desired workout, it is crucial for athletes to practice appropriate and beneficial pre-workout/practice/competition nutrition habits. The pre-exercise meal is important for two reasons. First, it prevents athletes from feeling hungry and sluggish before and during a workout or competition.  Second, it assists in maintaining optimal levels of energy in the form of blood glucose for exercising muscles during the exercise bout.  Although the energy produced by food is necessary in order to perform at a high level, it is important to remember that exercise should not be performed on a full stomach. Food that remains in the stomach during an exercise bout may cause indigestion, nausea, or even vomiting. It is best for the athlete to consume a meal 3-4 hours prior to a practice or competition.

Ideally, the pre-exercise meal should consist of primarily complex carbohydrates, moderate amounts of protein, and very low levels of fat. Carbohydrates digest rapidly within the system; while proteins and fats take longer to digest. The energy that is produced from consumption of carbohydrates can be readily available at a faster rate for the athlete to use. Consuming meals high in fat before a competition or workout may cause stomach bloating, gas, and indigestion.

Appropriate foods for athletes to consume 3-4 hours before a game or workout:

  • Whole grain cereal with non-fat milk and a piece of fruit
  • Fruit shake made with bananas, strawberries, or mango with 100 percent fruit juice and low fat yogurt
  • Bran muffin and low fat yogurt
  • Whole grain toast with small amounts of peanut butter
  • String cheese, whole grain crackers and grapes
  • Fig Newtons and 16 oz. of non-fat chocolate milk
  • Lean turkey on whole wheat bread with an apple

Tournaments and longer lasting competitions

In order to remain adequately fueled when competing in events that last all day, such as a tournament, it is important to encourage athletes to consume mini-meals and snacks throughout the day. These meals should be composed of mainly carbohydrates in order for complete digestion of the food substance to occur prior to the competition. Additionally, the consumption of carbohydrates will allow for the athlete to reap the energy benefits from the food source due to rapid digestion and absorption into the body.

Foods to consume 1-2 hours before a game:

  • Whole wheat toast with jam
  • Banana, apple, or other piece of fruit
  • Low-fat yogurt
  • Dry cereal (non-sweetened)
  • Fat free chocolate milk
  • Energy bar

Post-workout nutrition

Peak performance nutrition does not only apply to pre-workout food consumption, but to post-workout nutrition as well. The appropriate post-workout/competition meal assists in replenishing the athlete’s muscles for the next workout or competition. Blood flow to muscles increases immediately after exercise, which allows the muscle cells to absorb more glucose which ultimately maximizes glycogen synthesis within the muscle.  Muscles are the most receptive to recovery during the first 30 minutes after a workout or competition. It is important to encourage athletes to consume protein in addition to a source of carbohydrate after exercise as it provides the athlete with the amino acids required to repair the muscle damage that inevitably occurs following a workout. If muscle damage is not repaired after an event, muscle glucose uptake and muscle glycogen storage may be at risk for impairment, thus limiting an athlete’s performance during the next workout or competition. Athletes should be encouraged to consume 1-1.5 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight immediately following a workout or competition. An additional 1-1.5 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight should be consumed 2 hours after the workout has ended as well.

Examples of foods to consume 30 minutes after a workout/competition:

  • Peanut butter and banana sandwich on whole wheat bread
  • Non-fat chocolate milk
  • Fruit shake made with banana, strawberries, mango and 100% fruit juice and non-fat yogurt
  • Beans and brown rice
  • Sports beverage containing carbohydrate and protein
  • Cereal and non-fat yogurt
  • Turkey and cheese on whole wheat bread
  • Peanut butter on crackers
  • Granola bar and glass of non-fat milk
  • Pasta with lean meat spaghetti sauce
  • Graham crackers and yogurt
  • Peanut butter and apple slices

Foods to avoid for pre- and post-workout/competition meals

  • Caffeine (chocolate, latte, coffee, soda)
  • Candy
  • Doughnuts and pastries
  • Greasy foods high in fat (french fries, fried chicken, fried fish, pizza)
  • Fructose, high fructose, high fructose corn syrup
  • Highly sugared, refined cereals
  • Milkshakes and ice cream

Hydration tips

It is important to practice adequate hydration because dehydration can lead to physical and mental deficits in competition and in practice. As much as 1-2 percent loss of body weight can have a significant negative impact on athletic performance, therefore, it is important to avoid losing water weight so the athlete will not have to play “catch up” later to return to a hydrated status.

The key to avoiding dehydration is to drink approximately 14-20 oz. of fluid before playing or practicing an activity. This pre-performance hydration routine should begin two hours prior to the start of a competition or practice. In the course of the first hour, an athlete should drink the 14-20 oz. of sports drink, fruit juices or water. However, in the course of the second hour, fluid consumption should cease. If extra liquids are consumed in the hour immediately prior to the competition or practice, the kidneys will be over stimulated, causing an increase in urine production. This process actually can lead to dehydration of the athlete.

As part of the pre-competition/practice routine, athletes should consume a glass of fruit juice or sports beverage. Water is also appropriate, however, sports drinks and fruit juice contains a small percentage of carbohydrates. These carbohydrates have been shown to assist in the absorption of fluids into the system and in turn, help prevent dehydration during games/practices.  At all costs, athletes should avoid drinks such as soda and energy drinks both before and after competitions and practices. These drinks can cause intestinal cramping and have a high amount of sugar. Although they may give athletes a short-term energy boost, they also tend to increase urine production and lead to an energy drain shortly after consumption.

During competition or practice, it is important to encourage athletes to continue drinking, despite the conditions of the environment. A good rule of thumb is to encourage about 4 oz. (1/2 half cup) of liquid consumption every 15 minutes. Water is best during these fluid consumption breaks, but sports drinks are also acceptable as long as they do not contain more than 8 percent carbohydrates or 8 grams per 100 mL of fluid.

Sources: American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) www.acsm.org; Clark, Nancy, MS, RD. Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook. 4th Ed. Champagne (IL): Leisure Press; 2008; Baechle, Thomas R., and Earle, Roger W. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. 3rd Ed. Champagne (IL): Human Kinetics, 2008.

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