Road Food: Feeding Your Athletes During Travel

April 10, 2018

By: Heidi Strickler, RDN, CD

Both local road travel and long-distance air travel can throw a wrench into an athlete’s eating routine and can compromise performance and overall health. Trouble sleeping, lack of refrigeration and familiar foods, time zone and climate changes, increased reliance on eating out, motion sickness, and inconsistent meal timing are just a few of the obstacles traveling athletes face. Read on for tips to optimize your athlete’s nutrition during travel.

Know Before You Go

One of the first steps is becoming familiar with your destination. This includes where you will be sleeping, eating, and competing, and any stops in between. 

  • Staying at a Hotel? Ask about fridges and microwaves in rooms; if there is a continental breakfast and what is on the menu; if there is a convenience store for snacks; and if there is a restaurant on site with an online menu.
  • Locate nearby grocery stores and restaurants. Call restaurants and make a reservation. Inquire about creating a menu for your team with select options from the main menu (see more below).
  • At the competition location: Is there fresh water available? Will there be food available that is appropriate for competing athletes? If it is outside, is there shade cover?  Are there restaurants or food vendors close by? 

Snack Smarts 

Snacks should consist of familiar and easy-to-digest foods that supply protein and carbohydrate, as well as electrolytes, vitamins, and minerals. A variety of flavors (sweet and salty) and textures (crunchy and creamy) should be offered to prevent taste burnout. Liquid fuel options like juices, sport drinks or shakes are also a good idea in the case of low appetite or upset stomach.  

Examples of food combinations with carbohydrate and protein: 

  • Breakfast cereal or granola with milk or yogurt
  • Sandwiches/wraps with protein (meat, cheese, nut butter, hummus, eggs)
  • Ready-to-drink smoothies or shakes 
  • Crackers or rice cakes with pouches of tuna, salmon, or chicken
  • Trail mix
  • Graham crackers or pretzels with peanut butter 
  • Protein bars with >10g protein 

Traveling by Road? 

If you are traveling by bus or van, your food options significantly increase. You can pack liquids, bring coolers, and stop for movement, feeding, and hydration. Make sure to have small Ziploc bags and necessary utensils. To ensure food safety, make sure your cooler is iced down well – if your cooler temp is above 40 degrees F, your food only has 2-3 hours before it will need to be thrown out.

Examples of cooler must-haves: 

  • Individual Greek yogurt
  • Individual milk – flavored, plain, and non-dairy options
  • Cheese sticks
  • Sandwich fixings (lunch meat, cheese, lettuce, condiments, tortillas/bread)
  • Pre-cut veggies 
  • Individual hummus
  • Fruit and/or squeezable fruit pouches
  • Carbohydrate-based sports drinks

Traveling by Air?

If you are travelling by plane, your options are more limited. Foods should be shelf-stable, in individual servings, and easy to eat. No liquids, spreads, or gels over three ounces.

Examples of airplane-compliant snacks: 

  • Low fiber snack bars (<10g protein) and protein bars (>10g protein)
  • Rice cakes, whole grain crackers, pretzels
  • Individual spreads (hummus, nut butter, jam, honey, cream cheese)
  • Tuna pouches
  • Beef or turkey jerky
  • Trail mix
  • Fruit (apples, clementines, bananas)
  • Pre-cut hardy veggies (carrots, celery, snap peas)
  • “Just-add water” foods (Instant oatmeal and noodles, breakfast cereal/powdered milk, NSF certified powdered drink mixes).  
Jet Lag hampers athletic performance and athletic well being:
Studies show that people typically lose 3-10 ounces of body water per hour of flight. This is a major contributor to the sluggish feelings associated with jet lag (headaches, lethargy, muscle cramps, "cloudy headedness”, difficulty focusing etc.). 
One Solution:
NASA studied the negative effects of long distance travel (12 hours).    The result of those studies is a product called The Right Stuff® - electrolyte, liquid concentrate, drink additive.  Optimized by NASA, it is an excellent aid against those negative jet lag effects.  People, especially on transcontinental and intercontinental flights lasting longer than 3-4 hours, find that the NASA-developed formula is a serious aid in lessening the symptoms.  


To Cater In, or Eat Out? 

Once at your destination, your question becomes how and when to best utilize your food options. These include sit-down restaurants, fast-casual eateries, catering/take out, or DIY meals with foods from a grocer. There is no right or wrong approach; however, it is recommended to avoid all-you-can-eat buffets and unfamiliar ethnic foods . The pre-game meal should be high in carbohydrate, moderate in protein, and low in fat and fiber. Fruit juice, low-fat milk, and water are great beverage choices, and dietary needs should be accommodated. 

Examples of Catered Meals: 

Pasta bar – breadsticks, salad, cooked veggies, lean proteins – offer a couple light sauces. 

Burrito Bar – rice, lean protein, beans, cheese, veggies, lettuce, avocado, salsa

Stir Fry Bar – noodles, rice, lean protein, veggies. 

Breakfast Bar – toast/bagels/English muffins, oatmeal, scrambled eggs, lean meat, pancakes/waffles, nut butter, butter, syrup, jam, fruit. 

Examples of Key Menu Items when Eating Out:

Breakfast: omelet with toast/potatoes; pancakes; oatmeal; breakfast sandwich on toast; yogurt parfait. 

Lunch/Dinner: sandwich with chips, fruit or salad; noodles with light sauce and protein; gluten-free carbohydrate such as rice/potatoes (for those with Celiac) with lean protein; at least one vegetarian and one vegan protein choice, such as legumes, hummus, tofu, tempeh, and nut butter. Dairy and eggs are good vegetarian choices, but are not vegan.  




Don’t Forget Hydration 

Climate-controlled cars and airplanes can be responsible for in increase fluid losses. Athletes should always carry a water bottle with them during travel; each should have their own reusable bottle with their name on it, and they should know how many bottles they personally need to drink daily. A good rule of thumb for travel is 8 ounces/hour spent in a car or airplane. It is also a good idea to provide electrolytes; companies offer them them in a variety of forms including liquid concentrate, powders, effervescent tablets or tablets/caplets.

In addition to water, hydrating beverages include electrolyte drinks, sports (carbohydrate) drinks, low-fat milk, fruit juice, and herbal tea. High-water foods such as fruits, vegetables, and soups can also help with hydration and electrolyte replacement. 

In summary, managing nutrition for your athletes during travel might seem daunting at first. Take it one step at a time, and you will see that a little planning up front pays dividends down the road (pun intended). 

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