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Athlete Nutrition: The Best Foods to Eat Before a Game and When to Eat Them

Make sure you're fueling up correctly for the championship with these top options for your game-day diet.

You’ve worked hard in the gym, you’ve been eating right, and you’ve been killing it in practice all week—now it’s time to get into the game.

But just because you've been fueling up correctly and training at your best doesn't mean you can just eat whatever you want on game day. No matter what sport you’re playing, your body needs to have the proper nutrients and energy to power you through any competition—especially the big ones.

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“As an athlete—professional or amateur—nutrition is a full time gig,” says Ryan Turner, R.D., C.S.S.D., C.D.N., sports dietitian at New York University and Top Balance Nutrition in New York City. “Pre-game nutrition should be viewed as supplemental to the fueling you do throughout the rest of the day. Depending on your sport, you should be able to enter the game with enough stored energy for a full 60 minutes.”

Two big points of focus when it gets close to game time? Carbs and water. “Depending on how much time you have before you step into the game, this is a great time to ‘top off’ your energy stores,” says Turner.

But what's really the best way to get your nutrients? And when exactly should you chow down before a game so you don't get a stomach cramp? Here's Turner's play-by-play timeline for optimal pre-game nutrition. Don't eat everything on the list before the game, of course—it's intended as a guide to food choices depending on how much time you have and how hungry you are.

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2 or More Hours Before Game Time

“Eat a bigger meal with plenty of fluids, especially water,” says Turner. “An athlete’s plate should be half full of starch, a quarter protein, and a quarter non-starchy vegetables. With more than 2 hours before game time, I suggest having a more substantial meal. You have more time to digest and relax. I always suggest Mexican food or a sandwich—but without high-fat dips and spreads like guacamole, sour cream, or mayo.”

Meal Options

6-8 oz. of lean protein - Grilled chicken, turkey, or fish
1.5 cups of high-fiber rice/pasta
At least 2 cups of vegetables

1-2 Hours Before Game Time/Between Events

“Starch-based meals should be the focus, says Turner. “Foods like lower fiber rice, pasta, and breads are good options.” But don't pig out—you want enough food to give you energy, but not so much that you feel that burrito bowl sloshing around in your guts during the first quarter of the game.

Meal Options

Sandwich with turkey and low-fat cheese
Burrito bowl with white rice, chicken, and tomato, but hold the guacamole and sour cream

Quicker Options

Lärabars (made with fruits and nuts)
RxBars (egg whites, fruits, and nuts)
String cheese
Greek yogurt

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60 Minutes Before Game Time

“Focus on quick-digesting snacks,” says Turner. “Foods like peanut butter, nuts, fruits, and low-fat greek yogurt can be tolerated with closer to 60 minutes before game time. Fruits can be incredibly helpful in regards to hydration at this point, including watermelon, cantaloupe, oranges, and grapes.” 

Here are some of the options that Turner recommends when you’ve got one hour between practices/games/events:

Peanut butter and jelly sandwich 
Bagel with butter
Low-fiber cereal bars (Turner recommends Honey Nut Cheerio cereal bars or a Nutrigrain bar)
8-16 oz of sports drink
Peanut butter protein balls (Try out this recipe for protein balls that you can use to fuel up before game time)
Low-fat Greek Yogurt with cereal on top
Quick Oats cooked with low fat milk or water

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30 Minutes Before Game Time

“There are a number of food options recommended to top off your energy,” says Turner. “Rapidly digesting foods that leave the stomach quickly are good when you have 30 minutes or less before your event or game is going to start. You should focus on quick-digesting carbohydrates and hydration.”

But be careful with what you pick, because if you eat the wrong thing, you could hinder yourself once you get out onto the field or onto the court: “Foods high in protein, fat, and fiber—including vegetables, fruits, and whole grains—will digest a lot slower than low-fiber carbohydrates, and should be avoided with less than 30 minutes before a game,” says Turner. 

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While this may be an obvious one for most athletes, the importance of hydrating cannot be overstated, especially when it comes to performance. If you don’t have enough water before you get on the field, you’ll put yourself at an increased risk for injury, plus you could suffer from muscle cramps and fatigue. 

“Water is necessary for performance, says Turner. “If an athlete loses more than 2% of their body weight from sweat, decision making and reaction time is slowed, perceived exertion is increased, and lean muscle is compromised. The average person loses 2.4 pounds from sweat per hour—it’s important to hydrate throughout the day and well before competition so you aren’t overloading your stomach.”

Sports Drink - 8 oz. serving

“Sports drinks and watered down juices can be helpful for energy,” says Turner. “Although they are not necessary before a game if you’ve eaten appropriate meals leading up to it. Too much at once, or a drink too concentrated in sugar can upset the stomach and cause cramping.”

Quick Options

Cereal with lowfat milk
Sports energy chew (2-3 pieces)

“Low-fiber carbohydrates like pretzels, saltines, and bagels are great choices to top off energy with less than 30 minutes to go before a game,” says Turner. “It’s true that some active people still may have trouble tolerating these, so if you’re one of those people, small amounts of sports energy chew or even Swedish fish can be eaten instead.”

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