It was 5pm on the day of an under-age league match. 17-year-old me looked through the kitchen cupboards and fridge, trying to put together a pre-match meal. I guess I must have read somewhere, earlier that week, that carbohydrates were the body’s preferred energy source, and decided that the more of them I could eat, the more energy I would have for that’s night match.
This led to the ‘obvious’ meal choice of two packets of microwaveable Uncle Ben’s basmati rice, with nothing else, except a touch of sweet chilli sauce, for taste.
After chomping through the bulk of the rice, I slumped in the chair, wondering how this feeling of bloated, drowsiness would eventually lead to me performing at the top of my game in 2–3 hours, but still, I trusted that this information I’d probably read was factual and that this feeling would ease off by the time I got to the game. It didn’t.
With the rice still lodged in my stomach, and still feeling no surge of energy, I sat in the changing rooms before the match, wondering what I’d done wrong. Needless to say, the game passed me by, and any energy I had was used trying to stop myself from throwing up.
I assume we all have our pre-match meal disaster story, and have tried many different combinations of meal timing and meal content.
I hope that this article can shed some light on what we should be thinking about in relation to nutrition leading up to a match.
It’s Not Just About the Pre-match Meal
If we look at the stages of preparation from a nutritional point of view, we can’t overlook the general diet in the weeks and months leading up to the game, so it is worth mentioning that even the most optimal pre-game meal is not going to make as big a difference as addressing the diet in general. Doing so will allow you to have optimised our body composition and created good habits.
Making sure the general diet is on point is crucial. As a general recommendation, I would say, basing each meal around a protein source, adding a good portion of vegetables, some source of healthy fat, and enough carbohydrates to support exercise (usually quite a bit for GAA Athletes), while adjusting overall intake of food based on goals and progress.
It’s also important to remember that the “fuelling” period for a match goes beyond that meal you have a few hours before the match. It’s important to also start thinking about the days that lead up to the match.
1-3 Days Beforehand
You may have heard that carbohydrates are the main energy source used in high-intensity activities, like a GAA match, for example, and that’s correct.
The reason for this is that carbohydrates are relatively quickly converted into fuel, and can therefore support the high energy turnover of the muscles when they are working at high intensity.
For that reason, it is important that you have enough carbohydrate stores in the muscles, when it comes to match day. The stored form of carbohydrates in the muscle is called glycogen.
In order to increase these glycogen stores, we need to eat sufficient amounts of carbohydrate-rich foods, like potatoes, rice, pasta, oats etc. When this is done in the lead up to a sporting event, it is usually called “Carb-loading”.
If you want to know more about carb-loading, go to read this article, but for now, it’s enough to know that you should likely increase your carbohydrate intake in the 1-3 days leading up to match-day, if performance is something you are interested in (I presume it is.)
Obviously your match-day food will be affected by a lot of different things, including the time of the match, whether you’re eating at home or with the team, and even how nervous you are feeling on the day.
The important thing is to control as much as you can, meaning that you should prepare ahead of time, having bought any food that you need in the days beforehand, having planned out what your meals and snacks are going to be, getting out of bed at the right time etc.
The aim with your game day eating is to top up glycogen stores, achieve adequate hydration, and generally feel energetic going into the match.
Outside of the pre-match meal, your game day meals should generally contain some carbohydrates and protein, with moderate-low amounts of fat and fibre, and no foods that you know you don’t digest well, in order to avoid any digestive troubles, and snacks should be mostly carb-based, again, topping up the glycogen stores. Hydration should also be a priority, sipping on water throughout the day, without going majorly over your usual intake.
The Pre-Match Meal
If you’ve done everything mentioned above, you’re are almost good to go in terms of getting your nutrition right for game-day. The last step is that period of a few hours before the game, right up to the starting whistle.
There are two periods worth thinking about when it comes to pre-match nutrition. The first will be the final set meal before going into the match, and the second will be the period of about an hour before the match.
1. 1-4 Hours Pre-Match
In the 1–4 hours before the match, the aim is to make sure we are topping off glycogen levels in the body. That means consuming some form of carbohydrate.
However, we don't want to be eating a carbohydrate-only meal (like I did with the big bowl of rice). Having a protein source, such as chicken, for example, and a small amount of fibre in the form of vegetables or fruit, will slow down the rate of breakdown of the carbohydrate, keeping blood sugar more stable.
This protein feeding also has the advantage of amino acids being present during the training, decreasing the amount of protein (muscle tissue) being broken down to be used as fuel.
This effect may be small in the overall context, but another advantage is that this may also help the recovery process post-competition.
In this meal, we may also want to avoid hard-to-break-down foods such as fats and fibre, as we want to avoid the feeling of a full stomach during competition.
The size of the meal will vary greatly for individuals based on how soon before the match the meal is being eaten (obviously smaller the closer to match time), the size of the individual, whether or not they had meals earlier in the day, personal preference, potentially how nervous they are (nerves making it difficult for some people to eat, or even digest their food) and a few other factors.
Generally, a meal in the 1–4 hours pre-match should consist of some form of slower-digesting carbohydrates, such as rice, potato, sweet potato, oats etc, with some form of lean protein such as chicken, turkey, lean beef, dairy, whilst avoiding foods high in fat and fibre (That may mean not having a big pile of veggies in this meal.)
A few examples of pre-match meals:
Seasoned chicken with rice and spinach
Oats and whey protein with a banana
Baked potato and turkey mince with a handful of berries
Sweet potato with lean beef with rocket leaves
Pasta with chicken and a moderate amount of tomato sauce
All of these meals should be seasoned with some salt, as there will be a loss of salts during the match, and these will help with fluid balance and hydration.
Timing-wise, it will be quite different based on your individual situation, but generally, the final set meal should be between 2-4 hours pre-match, allowing adequate time for the food to be digested, but not so far away that you are hungry before or during the match.
If you have your pre-match meal 3-4 hours pre-match, it could be worth snacking on some carb-based snacks in the hour or two leading up to the match. Good examples would be rice cakes, toast, fruit (dried or fresh), and oat bars (be careful of fat content).
2. 0-60 Minutes Pre-Match
In the 0–60 minutes before the match, which may be during or after the warm-up phase, we may want to take advantage of the chance to get some extra glucose into the bloodstream, potentially topping up some glycogen stores and lessening the effects of fatigue.
This can be done through some form of fast-acting carbohydrates, such as jelly sweets, or dextrose, glucose or maltodextrin powder mixed with water, or perhaps an isotonic sports drink or gel, if the budget allows for this.
Sipping on a drink pre-match can actually help with hydration as well, particularly by adding a pinch of salt (sea salt or regular) or electrolytes to the mix, since this helps replace some of the electrolytes lost through sweat and helps regulate fluid balance and hydration. (These electrolytes/salts are contained within isotonic drinks.)
We should be mindful of how this drink will affect performance in terms of feeling nauseous, as well as creating the need to use the toilet during competition, so some experimentation is required.
In general, a drink containing 300–500g of water, 20–40 grams of fast-acting carbohydrates (sugars), 1/2 teaspoon of salt, and some flavouring, can be advantageous to consume, in the 0–30 minute period before the match (as well as throughout the match and/or at halftime). This is basically the same make up as your usual isotonic sports drink, so if you don’t want to put together your own, sipping on a sports drink in the lead up to the match, or having a glucose gel during the warm-up and and and/or at halftime can be a good strategy.
Another potential supplement to consider pre-match is caffeine. I'll direct you to an in-depth article I wrote on the topic here. Essentially, it can be beneficial to consume caffeine in pre-match or pre-training, for an extra cognitive and physiological boost.
It is important to consider timing and dosage. Caffeine generally peaks in the bloodstream about 45 minutes after consumption, so altering intake based on that can be beneficial. As well as that, it is important to consider how caffeine affects sleep. Caffeine can stick around in the bloodstream for over 5 hours, so if consuming caffeine for an evening match or training session, it's important to factor this in, and alter timing and/or dosage, knowing that poor sleep can have a major negative effect on recovery, health, hunger and general well-being.
Your Pre-Match Check-list:
Plenty of carbohydrate and water in the days leading up to the game and on game-day.
Pre-match meal containing some carbs, some protein, little fat and fibre.
Avoid hard-to-digest foods in the pre-match meal.
Eat at a time that allows you to not feel hungry or full during the match.
Consider a pre-match drink containing some quick-digesting sugars, and some salt.
Consider supplementing with caffeine 45-60 mins pre-match for a cognitive and physiological boost.
Conor O'Neill, Know Yourself Nutrition
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