Eating right is important to good health, but it is also crucial in athletic performance. Giving your body the proper fuel in the midst of a big game will ensure that you don't hit a wall at halftime and that you will perform to your greatest ability.
Carbohydrates and Athletic Performance
Carbohydrates are necessary for athletes because they supply their main source of energy for exercise and competition. Without an adequate supply of carbohydrates to your body, your performance can be severely limited. Studies have shown that eating adequate carbohydrates and moderate protein 12-18 hours before a competitive sporting event can help to improve strength, endurance and overall athleticism.
Glycogen, the body's main source of energy, is stored in the muscles and liver, and released as needed during periods of activity. Carbohydrate loading is a strategy used historically by runners to maximize glycogen stores in preparation for a long run or race. While glycogen is the body's most easily accessible form of energy, it is not the only source. During extended bouts of activity, the body burns both glycogen and fat, the latter not being as efficient. This means that the body has to work harder to convert it into fuel, causing athletes to "hit a wall" when glycogen is depleted.
Carbohydrate-loading can be useful for many types of prolonged, high-intensity exercise such as hiking, swimming, or even a crazy 90-minute spin class. Carbing up may even be useful before weight lifting sessions - increasing power output and time before exhaustion. So, for weightlifters and endurance athletes alike, careful planning is central to successful carbohydrate loading.
The pre-race pasta dinner was designed to top off carbohydrate stores for a long event. However, you don't have to overdo your plate of spaghetti to get your extra edge. Instead, focus on getting adequate amounts of carbohydrates as well as protein and healthy fats for a well-balanced pre-race meal.
When fueling the night before a competition, make sure to choose familiar foods that you enjoy, and aim for about 60-65% carbohydrate in your meal. Good, filling options include things like pasta, rice, potatoes, bread or fruit. You will also want about 15-25% protein and 20-30% healthy fats. The key is to simply increase the ratio of carbohydrates to proteins and fats, not to increase total caloric intake.
Overall, carbohydrate loading the night before a major game can help ensure that your body is at its peak and ready for competition, if done correctly. However, it's important to remember to also keep proper nutrition throughout the entire season or training regimen. A few nights of good eating will not make up for weeks of poor nutrition. Properly fueling your body throughout the season, in addition to the nights leading up to a big game, will keep your body performing at its peak.
Sarah Dreifke is a freelance writer based in DeKalb, IL with a passion for nutrition education and the prevention of chronic disease. She holds a Bachelor of Science in both Dietetics and Life Sciences Communication from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Currently, she is working towards a combined Master's Degree in Nutrition and Dietetics as well as a dietetic internship at Northern Illinois University.