It was 5pm on the day of an underage league match. 17-year-old me looked through the kitchen cupboard 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 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 in a random blog article, 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.
“What meal should I eat before a match?”
Although this is definitely a valid question, it’s usually asked by someone who thinks that the pre-match meal has more impact on their subsequent match performance than the previous meals of that week, or their nutrition in general.
However, there are a few other factors that may be just as important, if not more important than that one meal a couple of hours before the big match.
1. The lead-up to game day
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 I thought it worth mentioning that even the most optimal pre-game meal, is not going to make any difference to someone whose diet is terrible the rest of the time.
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.
More specific recommendations can be found on my website. (Start here)
2. The 2–3 days beforehand
The 2–3 days leading up to the game, presuming the rest of the diet is close to optimal, is about making sure that the glycogen levels in the body are as full as possible. Glycogen is stored when carbohydrates are consumed and broken down, and is the preferred energy source in the body during high intensity activity (such as during a GAA match).
The idea of eating more carbohydrates in the days leading up to a match is based on a concept known as carb-loading, and has been shown to be effective in increasing athletic performance. Various methods have been shown to be effective, such as a period of 3–4 days of low-carb intake followed by 2–3 days of high-carb intake, as well as another method of 2–3 days of high-carb intake with no previous low-carb days, but there doesn’t seem to be much difference in effectiveness between the methods, so as a general rule, we can say that simply increasing the carbohydrate consumed during the 2–3 days leading up to competition will probably be beneficial.
This is especially likely since GAA athletes tend to consume lower levels of carbohydrates than is optimal for the energy demands of the sport.
3. The day of the game
On the day of the game, There are two matters to consider. Although we should have sufficient glycogen stores built up from the previous few days, it is important that we ensure the glycogen levels are topped up, with consumption of some carbohydrate on game day. Another factor to consider, and it may seem a bit insignificant, is the idea of making sure your digestive system isn’t a factor on the big day.
By this I mean that we don’t want to be going out onto the field feeling like our stomach is full, nor do we want to be seeing our pre-match meal for a second time! On the other side, we don't want to be hungry either.
In Lyle McDonald’s book, “Applied Nutrition For Mixed Sports”, He talks about the 4 stages of around-workout nutrition :
1–4 hours before
0–30 minutes before
0–2 hours after competition
The last two (during and after competition) are for another day, but I will go into the first two phases, which are relevant to this article.
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 just 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, 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 might be chicken with rice and spinach, Oats and whey protein with a banana, Potato and turkey mince with a handful of berries, etc.
In the 0–30 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 lessening the effects of fatigue.
This can be done through some form of fast-acting carbohydrates, such as dextrose, glucose or maltodextrin powder mixed with water, or perhaps an isotonic sports drink, if the budget allows for this.
We may also take this chance to get on board some extra amino acids, by using a BCAA (Branch-chained amino acids) supplement, as having them in the body during exercise can help with the recovery process from competition, as well as potentially helping to stop the breakdown of muscle tissue during the activity. (The topic of BCAAs is a hotly contested topic in the nutrition world, so this point isn't one that I will hold out on giving any definitive guidelines on.)
Sipping on this pre-workout drink can actually help with hydration as well, particularly by adding a pinch of good quality sea salt to the mix, since this helps replace some of the electrolytes lost through sweat. (These electrolytes 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 liquid, consisting of 20–40grams of fast-acting carbohydrates (sugars), 5–10g of BCAA (maybe), 1/2 teaspoon of sea salt, and some flavouring, can be advantageous to consume, in the 0–30 minute period before the match.
Again, I want to re-iterate that none of this will have the desired effect if the diet as a whole is not looked after.
However, the research has shown that the above recommendations can contribute to the targets of pre-competition: Improving performance, decreasing fatigue, reducing muscle damage, supporting training adaptations, and improving recovery.
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