Just five things you can do to markedly improve your nutritional approach for competitions both nationally and internationally. Without having to get 2 personal trainers, obtain 3 PhD's in dietetics and a swear jar. To be completely clear, I'm not going to be quoting any particular body of research here.
I'm speaking purely from personal experience with my own dietary tweaks over the years. I've been in competitive sport since I was 5 years old and I've tried many, many different things. The diet your parents give you, the diet where you're 20 and you can eat anything you want without penalty, and everything in-between.
I've gone from meat head galore all the way to 100% plant based, plus a more conservative 80-90% plant based. Of which there have been many different iterations therein. Let's say I'm lucky I like literally anything (Except baby sweetcorn, I loath that stuff.) and I don't have any food allergies.
So I know something about eating to feel good and perform well. Everyone will have slightly different preferences of course, though I'd like to point you in the right direction. What are we trying to accomplish with our 5 top tips? Because nutrition is an extremely broad topic, I want to be ultra specific in what we're addressing.
"How do I eat to feel the best, perform the best, with the best energy levels which remains sustained throughout the day?"
We're not talking about the myriad of different dietary protocols or emotive opinions. Or whether or not onions repel vampires. We're identifying some hurdles and providing beautifully simple solutions when travelling for competitions.
With nationals, it's much easier. Internationals are slightly different and a little trickier with the extra travel time and airports and what have you.
It is worth the little extra effort with the limitations you find at the overseas events. I drew a fairly blunt conclusion to the nutritional setting of international events in particular.
It's a nutritional **** show.
There. I said it.
I still remember the moment I saw the breakfast bar in Greece 2016. The food on offer was almost identical to that of Estonia 2011, 5 years before. A huge variety of cured meats were on offer, many slices of cheese, bread, some cute little desserts served in plastic cups, a small bowl of fruit amongst over 80 people, lettuce and tomatoes they called a salad. Plus. Many, many eggs.
The problem? Here's the overview of issues I see in the selection above. (I'm sure there's other differences from place to place.)
Tomato and lettuce - It's good, but it isn't exactly calorific or substantial.
Cured meats - Really effective for minimising hunger. Though slightly dehydrating and very poor for energy.
Eggs & cheese - Much the same.
Banana/Apple/Pear - Awesome, but again. There isn't really enough of it. You'll feel good but hungry.
Desserts - What in the name are desserts doing in a breakfast setting around 80+ athletes who have just weighed in?
Bread - As far as carbs goes, this stuff is like a fire cracker. WHOOSH. All gone.
It's hard to know without eating each food above in isolation. Go ahead and try it. Make some notes. You'll notice I promise.
If you're having energy slumps after you eat - Incessant yawning and a slight heaviness - Consider what you ate, or didn't eat. There's a great big gaping hole in the nutritional profile of the breakfast bar. The stuff which their main role is to energise you wholly. Plus remain sustained over the course of a day. Let me talk about what's conspicuous in its absence, nutrient dense, whole food carbohydrates.
People really underestimate this stuff as a prime fuel source. I'm not saying it's all you should eat. I am saying you're missing out on feeling really good energy/focus wise. Without these carbohydrate sources as the centre piece of your diet during a week which asks a lot from you physically. You're open to being that much more beaten up than is otherwise necessary.
No pasta or bread? It's really not good enough. It is refined and stripped of its nutrients. Thus leading to those annoying energy slumps when your sugar levels crash. It's not just that either, too much animal products are disadvantageous for breakfast and lunch on physically demanding days.
Why? They require a lot more bodily resources to digest. Which saps your peak energy and mental clarity. So my advice is don't base the meal around animal products. They can perhaps complement your meal. 5-25% of the plate. I prefer 0%. Far be it from me to say how crass it is to eat a huge lump of steak on a competition day.
omeone fuelling-north-of-300-international-athleteschose the menu. Someone had to choose a menu with The nosh at the competition venue on offer everyday (It didn't change) wasn't great either. Thing is, s in mind. Gotta be good, right?
The moment I saw it?
Let's just say I feel it's an area we can improve upon. I'm not saying it was Domino's Pizza. Or something out of Oliver Twist. It was normal food. It just wasn't what you'd call optimal fuel. I caught wind of the menu at the most recent international. Pasta with tomato sauce.
It's frustrating because like many of you, I aim to prioritise a very particular element I wish to gain from the food I eat during a week of competition and living life in the fast lane.
How I feel, how I perform.
Once the competition is over, let your hair down, do whatever you want and enjoy yourself. Without going over board of course. With that, we segue into the tips.
#1 - Refrain from eating absolute rubbish after the weigh in.
I know you're probably inches away from biting off someone's head when you're waiting for the weigh in. I also know you're highly inspired to make a beeline for whatever insane craving you've probably been harbouring on the flight over. I get it, I've been there. I hit 63kg once. I ate like a monster.
It was horrible.
I vaguely remember what I bought from the supermarket once the coaches let us run free. I was starving, dehydrated and absolutely ravenous. It was something like this.
Two packets of sandwiches.
Two different bags of Doritos.
Box of Ferrero Rocher.
Two ice creams. (It was -25 outside so, fine.)
1.5 Litre bottle of coke.
A random chocolate bar I've never seen before.
A packet of ham.
A packet of cheese. (Both to boost my two sandwiches.)
A jar of sun-dried tomatoes.
I still remember when one of my squad mates came up behind me while I was shoving this all in my chops, to let me know everyone was making a move. They'll remember it like this.
I mean, WTF? In hindsight, this smorgasbord of poor behaviour traces back to an equally poor approach to cutting my weight for the competition. Because it's one thing to have a major blow out as soon as the weigh in is done. It's entirely another issue, to continue eating nothing but rubbish and whatever-I-want-I'm-having throughout the rest of the week.
I died within 30 seconds of my sparring round. I learned.
So my tip? Allow yourself just one blow out. Then be sensible. Review your weight cutting strategies too. Though there's merit for more detail on this in another article.
#2 - If you can take your own food, do it.
It's open to interpretation on what you can/should take. You also have to consider your obstacles. National? You can take pretty much anything for healthy snacks and lunch. You can eat your best breakfast, take some prepped lunch in a tub and some fruit/energy bites to complement. It'll seem even easier since I'm about to reveal to you one of my best kept secrets for opening up the 'menu'.
Can you guess? It's called a fridge.
Fridge #1 = Take a portable cool box.
Fridge #2 - Ask the venue's restaurant/cafeteria to stash your food.
Trust me, I've never been declined. I feel it'll work for everyone up until the point that all the cool kids start doing it, and leisure centres start saying no, it's getting silly now.
Get on the wagon while it's still hot.
International? Well you've got a lot more time between prep and eat. So more chance for spoilage. Plus, there's an airport to negotiate. You know, weight limits on luggage and all that. That didn't stop me from taking breakfast equipment.
I took just enough granola for 7 mornings. I also took a Nutri-bullet cup to portion things out. I also took a cup with 7 portions of my special mix. This includes crushed walnuts, raw cacao powder, maca powder, chia seeds. <--- This stuff was the nutrient powerhouse. --> Combine that with a small bottle of honey for sweetness and viola. I had a solid breakfast happening.
I hadn't forgotten milk and fruit. I simply went to the shops after landing and purchased some non-dairy milk and blueberries. To top all that off, I could ponce up my overall calories by joining everyone else in the hotel breakfast room and just polish off some extra fruit and a coffee.
This is what I have found works well for me. I'm just bearing in mind the stuff which energises me, is dense in vitamins & minerals and flexible with travel. You're not going to have the same success travelling with a portable BBQ, 12 lumps of chicken breast and some dried herbs.
#3 - Prioritise fast and slow release carbohydrates.
You're not there to lose weight during the week of the competition. You're not really going to either. Any worry of this is completely and utterly redundant. You need energy, this is your priority, fuel it. My breakfast is an example of this. Fast release in blueberries, slow release via oats. As for lunch, until we improve the menu, it's about making the best informed decision.
The closer you can get to the stuff I mentioned above, the better. Ideally -
Less than ideal but close enough?
It's just a nutritionally devoid carbohydrate. It's never going to feel as good or as long lasting as the unrefined stuff. So as a general rule, aim for unrefined stuff. As best as you can with the options available to you of course.
#4 - Drink water.
I can't believe this one is so difficult. You need to do better. 2-3 litres per day with the majority before 5pm.
#5 - Ask more of your organisation.
We can all ask more from our respective organisations to provide better fuel sources at international events. One voice multiplied can have a profound effect. We need to ask for an improvement in the lunches on offer at international competitions.
They don't need to be stupidly expensive, complex and logistically stupid. They do need to be better than refined carbohydrates and some sauce. Taking this example, if the pasta at the most recent international event was swapped out for a huge bowl of lentils with some sweet potato, some sauce to ponce it up a bit, A piece of fruit to complement and voila. We've taken a step forward.
We're using extremely inexpensive ingredients which have one main priority. It's not about preference, taste, comfort.. it's about energy to go kick the most ass you've ever kicked. If it does suit your preferences and tastebuds? Bonus. Hey, let's do both?
It's not a lot to ask. Dinner? Do whatever you want. Your next activity is bed, so who cares?