Tournament Nutrition for Children.
All the hard work has been done, you have trained hard and the team has been chosen. Now the most important thing to focus on is probably diet. What should you eat in the days leading up to a important competition, what you will take with you and how will you best sustain the performance required to win.
I have heard many horror stories from children of frozen school sandwiches and weird crisp flavours and equally from teachers and coaches about parents turning up with sacks full of chocolate, sweets and energy drinks ahead of the first game. Either of these ‘nutritional strategies’ can totally scupper overall tournament performance by the end of the day. There is a lot of research looking at nutrition and a teams performance over a series of events or matches. This is what they find…
The days running up to a big competition
Studies have shown that ideally you should begin preparation for an important competition at least a week before, lowering training and adjusting diet. Initially this will be to reduce the amount you eat, as you are no longer training as hard but in the last two days there is strong evidence that it is beneficial to build up the amount of carbohydrates in your diet. Eating good size portions of pasta, rice or potatoes with a small amount of protein and lots of vegetables has been shown to build up stores of muscle glycogen, giving the muscles as much stored fuel as possible and improving overall performance.
In the last 24hrs, if you have an early match or event, having a snack immediately before you go to bed can boost glycogen stores and available energy. Something light like a granola bar, some yoghurt, cereal or a small sandwich is ideal and it is also important to make sure you have had enough to drink. If you are staying away from home it is worth self-catering or if eating out, sticking to familiar foods. The last 24hrs before a competition is not the time to try new things and its sensible to avoid is eating fatty or spicy foods, anything fried, heavily processed or creamy oily sauces as fat slows down your digestion and food may sit on your stomach until morning, causing indigestion and a poor nights sleep.
Recent research has looked at adding high fat or high protein meals during the build up to big competitions, particularly endurance events and there is some evidence that this does improve fat utilisation. To date the evidence that this improves performance is inconclusive.
For most tournaments and athletic meets the pre-match meal will be breakfast. With an early start time, it is best to eat foods that are high in carbohydrate, fruit, bagels, toast, waffles, porridge oats, cereals and pancakes are all good choices possibly eaten with low fat yoghurt or milk. Be careful about the amount of butter you use and wholemeal is best. For a later start scrambled, boiled or poached eggs are great (see eggs for performance) and eaten with toast or a bagel it will give you good energy as well as being more satisfying. Avoid foods like danish pastries, croissant, donuts, muffins, crumpets or fried sausage and bacon because of the fat and be very very careful with ready prepared meals, as they can have far more fat than you are expecting. The exact time of your start will determine how much you can eat and what you can get away with.
It is best to eat nothing but a small amount of easily digested carbohydrate in the last hour before competition. In the last 60minutes there is some evidence that eating a mix of sugars in beneficial i.e. a glucose/fructose or maltodextrin/fructose mix.
During the match
This depends a little on the sport and how long an event lasts, whether there are unlimited substitutions and if the game is played in halves or quarters. My piece ‘Team Sport Analysis – how far do you run? Gives an idea of the distances you might cover in team sports.
A lot of research has been done on match nutrition and match performance and the very well publicised headline is that drinking an isotonic sports drink during sport will boost performance. In fact the results of the research are not that straightforward. The facts as I see them are :-
- Dehydration or overheating effects performance
- People drink more if the drink tastes nice & if it is cold
- Carbohydrate taken during sport slow the use of muscle glycogen stores and can be beneficial for intense exercise longer than 1hr.
- For exercise under 1hr simple carbohydrate is unlikely to boost performance and during a tournament may cause lower energy in subsequent matches.
- You don’t need to drink the carbohydrate. Swooshing it around your mouth is enough.
- Salt included in a sports drink or food can make you drink more.
- If you are perfectly hydrated before you play sport an isotonic drink will be absorbed better than plain water. If you are dehydrated plain water will be absorbed better than an isotonic drink.
So water may be all you need but you may like to use a branded sports drink, to make your own ‘sports’ drink or have a bottle of dilute fruit juice, (the orangey coloured liquid seen in many professional sports bottles is dilute pineapple juice). Over the course of a tournament it may be best to start with water and use either a home made or shop bought isotonic drink in the later games. Freezing some drinks bottles works very well for the later games as they will remain very cold. For more information about sports drinks see my piece written last year.
It’s up to you but I know one thing for certain, old plastic sports bottles filled with school tap water and left in the sun will not be drunk even if children are thirsty. It’s also worth noting that as children have a far greater surface area than adults and also lower sweat rates, they are much more susceptible to over heating which radically effects performance. Resting active players occasionally during matches has been shown to improve their movement and performance over a tournament.
HALF-TIME Drinking is the most important thing to do at half time, particularly if there are no breaks or substitutions during the half. The traditional half time snack was an orange segment and research now shows this was a pretty good strategy. Other good half time snacks are melon, grapes dried fruit, seed and nuts. Later in the tournament jelly cubes, haribos or jelly babies may be beneficial but need to be used with caution in early matches and a handful is enough rather than a packet.
Depending on the length of each match and the time between matches, this may be the most important time to get the nutrition right. At the end of a hard match, glycogen stores may be depleted and need to be replenished. Research has shown that eating/drinking some carbohydrate with a little protein (4:1 Carb:Protein) in the 20-30 minutes after exercise is the most effective way to rapidly replenish muscle glycogen stores. What you can eat will depend on when your next match is. Chocolate milk is one of the best things for recovery (see Milk the new sports drink). A combination of soft fruit, yoghurt tubes/drinks, boiled potatoes, cheese strings, peanut butter sandwiches, cold pasta, carrots and dried fruit, seeds & nuts are also good options if the gap between matches is quite small. See also my book review for Biju Thomas and Allan Lim’s brilliant book Feed Zone Portables. You may also get some ideas from the Ashes Cricket Tour recipe book which I wrote about in November.
If you have several hours between matches you should still concentrate on recovery within the first hour but you can also have a larger meal. This is best to be based on carbohydrates but with a little protein and possibly vegetables. A baked potato or light pasta meal is good. It is always best to have the food with you rather than assume that you will be able to buy something suitable there but I know this can be difficult especially if the weather is particularly hot or cold. If multiple games are played the same strategy should be used each time. Recovery, Rehydrate, Refuel.
Between match days
For dinner between match days focus on pasta and rice dishes that include leans meats such as chicken, turkey and fish. Beef and pork are reasonable selections but be sure to order these with high carbohydrates (baked potato, bread or rice). If you are eating out, Italian and Mexican restaurants will often have pasta dishes, pizza, burritos, enchiladas and rice dishes all served with chicken or shrimp and plenty of vegetables. American and Asian restaurants have great choices as well. Make sure that you avoid anything fried or greasy like french fries, fried chicken or chicken fried steak (also some pizzas can be quite greasy). Fatty meats such as ribs, sausage, and pepperoni should be avoided. Also do not include creamy sauces and condiments such as alfredo or pesto sauces, guacamole and most gravies.
Remember sleep is very important.
Im often asked about ergonomic aids and am currently writing a piece specifically about their use.
As the tournaments and athletics meets you are competing in vary so widely, as do the ages and training of the children involved, I have attempted to keep the advice above as general as possible. For more detailed advice please call or email and I can give more detailed guidance.