“I have a set routine for home games. But when we play on the road, my diet goes out the window,” complained Sarah, a former UNH student athlete. “We never know what we’ll get to eat when we’re traveling. A lot of times I feel lousy during away games. My performance is not what it should be.”
Sarah’s frustrating dilemma is common for many athletes when they take their game on the road. It is very challenging to construct a nutrition plan that supports athletic performance while traveling. The solution is to know the types of foods that are beneficial and know where to get them while traveling.
Research evidence about what to eat before a game is unambiguous: the best snacks and meals have 60 to 75 percent of their dietary calories as carbohydrates. There are two important explanations for this:
1) Most athletes would benefit from enlarging their bodies’ carbohydrate stores (called glycogen) in preparation for a competition. Athletes fatigue when their carbohydrate stores are exhausted. This has a crippling effect on performance.
2) Dietary carbohydrates are easy to digest, whereas dietary fat and protein are difficult to digest and can lead to stomach distress – an obvious problem before or during a game. Therefore, a good performance nutrition plan will emphasize foods rich in carbohydrates.
The primary challenge of nutrition planning while on the road is that most restaurants offer foods that are relatively high in fat and protein, and are correspondingly low in carbohydrates. This is because fat and protein contribute most of the appetizing flavors that attract paying customers. Also, fatty foods require less skill to cook properly – they are less likely to be undercooked or overcooked. Overcoming this challenge requires creativity and discipline.
One solution is to accept nothing less than foods that contain at least 60 percent of their calories as carbohydrates. This is much easier accomplished at home than while traveling. Most chain restaurants publish their foods’ nutrition information. You will find that very few foods make the cut. Even pasta dishes at restaurants usually have less than 60 percent of their calories as carbohydrates. More oils are used in restaurant food preparation than would probably be used at home.
Another solution is to select an entrée that is relatively high in carbohydrates and low in fat, and then augment the carbohydrate content of the meal with carbohydrate-rich side dishes. Your goal is to do the best you can in selecting an entrée that is carbohydrate-rich, knowing it will almost certainly have less than 50 percent of its calories as carbohydrates. Then add the essential carbohydrate-rich side dishes. Starchy foods are best. Excellent choices include breads, potatoes, corn, rice, pasta, and baked beans.
Restaurants serving breakfast foods are good places to eat carbohydrate-rich meals. Pancakes and waffles are a good foundation. Breakfast cereals, granola, oatmeal, and grits are other great choices. Bagels, muffins, and toast make excellent side dishes. Avoid anything fried.
Restaurants serving lunch and dinner foods occasionally have a low-fat soup or sandwich option. Low-fat sub sandwiches are excellent choices. Most hot entrées, however, will usually require carbohydrate-rich side dishes to round out the meal. Limit your intake of meat, fried foods, salads, and nuts before games. Also, avoid the temptation to splurge on exotic foods and desserts, at least until after the game is over.
There is a little more flexibility in the evening meals (following games or the night before a game), but they still need to be rich in carbohydrates in order to support athletic recovery and preparation for tomorrow’s athletic activity. The starchy foods in this meal would ideally also be rich in fiber. Excellent choices include sweet potatoes, beans, and whole grain bread, pasta, and rice. It is also a good idea to include a small salad and/or a serving of vegetables (like carrots, broccoli, beans, or peas) in the last meal before going to bed. This meal may also contain a small serving (no larger than a small cell phone) of lean meat, chicken, fish, beans, or eggs. It is best to limit the fat content by avoiding fried foods.
Another important solution to the challenge of finding carbohydrate-rich foods on the go is to bring foods from home. Sandwiches and cold pasta or potato salads serve nicely as entrées for a picnic lunch. Snacks can be purchased in grocery stores along the way. Bagels are an excellent snack anytime before a game. Crackers and pretzels are very good alternatives. Granola bars and breakfast bars can also be good if they are carbohydrate-rich. Avoid protein bars and any kind of nuts.
Some athletes find it difficult to eat prior to important games because of a sensitive stomach. This feeling can become exaggerated when traveling. Not eating carbohydrate-rich foods before a game disadvantages a player. Every effort should be made to avoid this handicap by eating something. Very slowly nibbling on bagels or crackers has worked for some people.
Most starchy foods in America are based on wheat products, which is also true of most starchy foods at restaurants. This can pose a special challenge to anyone with a gluten allergy. Solutions include corn-based foods, including grits and corn tortillas, and potato-based foods, especially baked, mashed or sweet potatoes. While not ideal, acceptable alternatives might be fried or scalloped potatoes. Rice-based foods might be suitable if the allergic sensitivity is not too great, but are probably not worth the risk before an important game since rice is sometimes processed in the same facility as wheat products and there is risk of cross-contamination.
The best fluid for hydration before a game is water. Sports drinks and other sugary beverages are not advisable. Sports drinks were designed for consumption during training and competition, and should be avoided the rest of the time. A good plan is to be well-hydrated 90 minutes before the game. Then, stop drinking fluids until you begin playing to avoid a full bladder at game time. Drink about 1 cup of fluids every 15-20 minutes of play to replace sweat losses.
It is a challenge to eat on the road in a manner that supports optimal health and athletic performance. Preferred snacks and meals are those that are rich in starchy carbohydrates and low in fat, which can be very difficult to find in restaurants. The solution is to plan ahead. Bring with you whichever foods and snacks are appropriate. Investigate the location of restaurants that offer a sufficient variety of carbohydrate-rich food options. Include starchy side dishes with every meal. This performance nutrition plan will enable you to compete at your full potential when traveling.
Originally published in March/April 2011