Food as Fuel
Q&A with Performance Dietitian, Adena Neglia, MS, RDN, CDN
As the Winter Olympics kick off this month, we thought there was no better time to reach out to our dietitian, Adena Neglia, MS, RDN, CDN, and pick her brain on how high performing athletes prepare and/or approach nutrition surrounding big competition days. Adena, who is no stranger to high-performing athletes, was a competitive ice skater, is part of Mount Sinai’s Performance 360 team, and works with the professional teams in the NBA, WNBA, and NHL.
See below for tips on how Adena approaches food and hydration with her high-performance athletes before and after a game or event.
What to eat before
You want to be getting your nutrition in check in the days and weeks leading up to a game – not just on game day! By experimenting and figuring out what meals and snacks digest best and provide you with sustainable energy on practice days, you can avoid energy crashes, gastrointestinal upset, and hunger on game days (you don’t want any surprises). Everyone is different, but it is best to eat a full meal 2-4 hours before the game. If you eat a large meal right before the game, your body will be too busy digesting the meal and your muscles won’t get the attention or energy they need to play. The meal should consist of complex carbohydrates, lean protein, and some color (vegetables).
- Complex Carbohydrates (1/2 plate): Complex carbohydrates such as oatmeal, whole wheat bread, brown rice, and whole wheat pasta are the best options because they are digested more slowly than simple carbohydrates (think white rice and white bread). This means they will provide steady energy over the next few hours and you’ll be less likely to “crash” or get hungry during the game.
- Lean protein (1/4 plate): You want to choose lean proteins such as chicken, fish and turkey. Protein will help keep you satiated and contribute to your overall requirements for the day.
- Vegetables (1/4 plate): Vegetables provide vitamins, minerals, and contribute to your overall fluid intake.
An example of a pre-game meal could be:
- Brown rice + grilled salmon + sautéed broccoli
- Whole wheat pasta + turkey meatballs + spinach
- 2 slices whole wheat toast + 2 egg scramble with peppers and mushrooms + 1 cup fruit
If you are eating about an hour before game time, focus on foods that are easily digestible such as fruit, granola bars, yogurt with fruit or a turkey sandwich on white bread. You’ll want to limit foods high in fat or fiber as they will take longer to digest.
It is also extremely important to stay hydrated in the days leading up to the event and the day of. Drink water throughout the day and plan on saving the sports drinks for half time.
What to eat after
After the game, you’ll want to consume a combination of carbohydrates and protein to refuel your body and repair your muscles. Eating within 30-60 minutes will support optimal recovery. If you aren’t eating a meal right away, a chocolate milk or whey protein shake with a banana are two great post-workout options (they both contain a great ratio of carbohydrates to protein). Otherwise, aim for a nice balanced meal – similar to pre-game.
- Rice bowl with chicken and vegetables
- Turkey wrap with lettuce and tomato
- Tuna with crackers and apple slices
You’ll also want to limit fat around this meal (think cheese, red meat, guacamole, mayonnaise, etc.) because they take longer to digest and can slow down the recovery process.
In addition, hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!
Best way to hydrate
Water is the best way to hydrate, but sports drinks can be useful if you are exercising >60+ minutes (or sooner if you are exercising outside in hot temperatures). Sports drinks supply fluids, carbohydrates, and electrolytes. The average athlete loses 1-3 L of sweat per hour, and with that sweat, we lose electrolytes. Not replacing them can impair performance. Gatorade or Skratch are good sports drink options.
Fruits and vegetables also contribute to your overall fluid intake. Be sure to be hydrating throughout the entire day, not just at game time.
Note: Coconut water is not a good option. It is very low in sodium which is one of the more important minerals to replace when you’re sweating.
Are energy bars good for you?
Energy bars can be a helpful tool, especially if you don’t have access to fresh food before or after workouts. If you are an active person, it can also be an easy way to keep your calories and energy levels up. If you’re eating bars around your workouts, you don’t want them to exceed 5 grams of fat, 5 grams of fiber or 10 grams of protein. This will slow down digestion and may cause gastrointestinal upset. Also, be sure to look for high quality ingredients such as rolled oats, chia seeds, dried fruit, etc.
If you are having these bars as “snacks” between meals, be sure that they are within your energy needs. As long as you have 2 hours to digest, a bar higher in fat, protein or fiber is OK to have.
Around Workouts: ProBar Fuel, Health Warrior Chia Bar, Larabar, Kashi Crunchy Bars
In Between meals: Raw Revolution, Bumble Bar, Rise Bar, KIND bar, Go Macro, Oatmega
For more individualized advice, members can contact a Personal Health Navigator to schedule a virtual visit with Adena or our other dietitians. You can chat in the app or call 646.819.5100.
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