Jan 29, 2015
Before the Snap

The science behind pregame meals has become much more precise in recent years. Come gametime, those following the correct diet are reaping the rewards.

By Abigail Funk

Abigail Funk is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning. She can be reached at: [email protected].

“I can remember back to high school when we had team spaghetti dinners the night before a game–that was our pregame meal,” reminisces Rob Skinner, MS, RD, LD, CSCS. “We thought we were carb-loading for a game that was a day away.”

Both Skinner, now Director of Sports Nutrition at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and the concept of a pregame meal have come a long way since then. Coaches and athletes alike are learning that pregame nutrition can have a huge impact on performance, but a correctly scheduled and proportioned diet must be followed in order to see results.

“There are only so many things you can legally do to enhance your performance, and using food to your advantage is one of them,” says Lisa Dorfman, MS, RD, CSSD, LMHC, Sports Nutritionist at the University of Miami. “The control you can have over food is empowering, and it doesn’t require much other than focusing on it.”


Unfortunately, there is not one specific menu for the perfect pregame meal. Factors such as the type of sport, time of game, and individual athlete preferences play a big role in coming up with the best plan. Overall, however, the prescription is fairly simple: a high-carbohydrate meal that provides the right amount of calories for the athlete’s activity. They should be neither hungry nor overly full.

“The goal is to top off energy and fluid stores,” Skinner says. “You don’t want the athlete focused on anything other than the event, so it’s critical that they are not thinking about their stomach. A lot of athletes have told me in the past that all they could think about during the game was how hungry they were or how upset their stomach was. That was probably due to not eating right beforehand, and it took their focus off the game.”

The right pregame meal will charge an athlete’s batteries, both physically and mentally. “The pregame meal is an energy source for the entire system,” says Dorfman. “If an athlete is playing on an un-fed system, they won’t have the energy to access glycogen and fat stores for optimal physical performance. The meal also raises blood-sugar levels to improve brain function.”

Most nutritionists suggest that carbohydrates be the star of the pregame meal, taking up one-half to two-thirds of the plate. Carbs are important because they add glucose to the bloodstream quickly, making energy available to the athlete during the contest.

“Somewhere around 65 to 70 percent of athletes’ pregame calories need to come from carbohydrates,” says Randy Bird, MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS, Sports Nutritionist at the University of Kansas. “This ensures they’re going into the match with glycogen stores as full as they can possibly be.”

“Good carbohydrate choices are simple foods that are also nutrient-dense,” says Dorfman. “This includes enriched white bread, plain crackers, fruits and vegetables, and cereal without added fiber. These work well because they are easily digested and their energy is made available for use more quickly.”

“I add fruit to every pregame meal, too,” Bird says. “Fruits have natural sugar, and that’s the kind of sugar I want our athletes to eat. All the carbs they’re consuming will be converted to glucose in the blood stream, and fruit is an even quicker route.”

Some protein is essential for muscle and tissue repair, and because there is usually some fat in protein-rich foods, it will also make athletes feel full. But athletes need to be sure their pregame protein source isn’t too fatty since fats can make them feel sluggish or even nauseous. Bird says having a lean protein source like one chicken breast or a small cut of a lean meat like a sirloin or strip steak works well.

Amy Bragg, RD, LD, CSSD, Director of Performance Nutrition at Texas A&M University, agrees that pregame meals must be low in fat. “Fat stays in the stomach for six to eight hours, so if you’re eating fat at a pregame meal four hours before a game, your body isn’t going to get that fuel until after the game is over,” she explains. “Eating that type of food–fried foods, lots of salad dressing, gravies–will cause blood to be pulled to the stomach to do the work of digestion. That blood is then not available to deliver oxygen and nutrients to muscles and fuel performance.”

Dorfman suggests steering clear of some other foods as well. “Complex fatty foods like trail mix, peanut butter, dairy, or high-fiber foods can’t be broken down and digested by athletes’ bodies an hour before a game,” she says.

To avoid foods high in fat, grilled, broiled, and steamed choices are great. Dorfman calls it a “clean diet,” which means nothing breaded, deep fried, or with lots of sauce. She also says that if her athletes are going to eat any added fats, they should come from a natural source like olive oil.

Fluid intake should also be a big focus of pregame nutrition. “When athletes are eating pregame meals, they also had better be drinking,” says Jen Ketterly, MS, RD, Sports Nutritionist and Coordinator of Nutrition Programs at the University of North Carolina. “The kidneys are going to take about an hour to an hour and a half to process that fluid, and you want it to hit the athlete’s system when they’re ready to take the court or field. Prehydration is critical and I think both athletes and coaches tend to ignore its importance.”

The NATA’s position paper, “Fluid Replacement for Athletes,” says athletes should consume approximately 17 to 20 fluid ounces of water or a sports drink two to three hours before exercise and seven to 10 additional fluid ounces 10 to 20 minutes prior to exercise. “Athletes can also kill two birds with one stone by drinking their calories closer to competition,” Dorfman says. “Sports drinks can have upwards of 40 grams of carbs. Some athletes really can’t tolerate food before an event, making sports drinks a great option.”


Of course, not all contests start at the same time and not all pregame meals can happen on a convenient schedule. So some thought needs to go into timing.

For an afternoon or evening game, Skinner prefers to have his athletes consume a full meal about four hours before competition. “That allows for a meal that can include some fat and protein, which will make them feel full throughout the contest,” he says. “However, when the meal has to occur closer to the competition, smaller, more easily digestible intake is better.”

Dorfman has a specific formula for how much to eat based on how many hours there are until competition. “One hour before a game, for every kilogram of body weight you need a gram of carbohydrates,” she says. “Pounds divided by 2.2 equals kilograms, so I tell my athletes to just take their weight and divide it by two–that’s how many grams of carbs they need. If it is two hours before competition, they should consume two grams of carbs per kilogram of body weight. Three hours before, it’s three grams.”

She also suggests that athletes experiment with the formula, tweaking it for their personal best results. “Some can tolerate the one-gram-per-kilogram calculation an hour before a game, and others need an hour and a half,” she says.

Some nutritionists prescribe their athletes’ pregame intake up to a day and a half before the whistle blows. For example, the Texas A&M football team is on a highly regimented diet 36 hours before each game. “On Friday night, the team has dinner. Then they have a Friday night snack, brunch or breakfast on Saturday morning depending on the time of the game, and a pregame meal four hours before game time,” Bragg says. “I have full control over that 36-hour menu. I put them on a modified carb-loading meal plan in which carbohydrate content increases all the way up to 70 percent of their plate at the pregame meal.”

On the other hand, some athletes need to take more individual control of the timing of their diets. Track and field athletes competing at an all-day meet, for example, need to pace their fuel intake depending on when their race, jumps, or throws are going to happen.

“We tell our track athletes to graze,” Bragg says. “They can start the day with a nice breakfast at the hotel, but they have to plan to bring snacks–fruit, Jelly Belly sport beans, granola bars, protein bars–with them to keep their energy stores up. Our track athletes experiment to figure out what works for them and then stick with it.”

“They want a continuous stream of fuel,” adds Dorfman. “My formula is 25 to 30 grams of carbs per half hour of competition. For reference, I tell them that half a cup of orange juice has 15 grams of carbohydrates, a handful of pretzels has 15 to 20 grams, half of a bagel has somewhere around 30 grams, and a bottle of a sports drink has about 14 grams.”


Following the pregame meal plan can be difficult when athletes are traveling to away games, but it’s not impossible. Skinner preaches the importance of planning ahead. “Coaches and athletes know where they’re going well before they board the bus,” he says. “An assistant coach or captain can take an hour to look online at restaurants in the area to make an educated choice instead of stopping at the first fast-food place they see when they get there. Italian food generally has a lot of carbs, so that’s an excellent choice. A little pre-planning can go a long way.”

Ketterly agrees, adding that there are even good choices at fast-food restaurants. “All they need to do is plan a little bit,” she says. “Ham, egg, and cheese on an English muffin, a yogurt parfait, and juice is a low-fat and fairly cheap breakfast that can be ordered at a fast food restaurant.

“I tell my traveling athletes to plan a snack bag the night before,” she continues. “Apples, applesauce, canned fruit, or other pre-packaged snacks are very convenient. Granola bars, dry cereals, packaged carrot sticks, grapes, and bananas are also great options.”

Teams traveling via airplane will also need to plan ahead to curtail dehydration. “Cabin pressure dehydrates athletes,” Bird explains. “I tell our teams that for every hour they’re on the plane, they need eight ounces of fluid. It was definitely necessary when our golf, basketball, and baseball teams went to Hawai’i.”


Most teams have at least one superstitious eater. This is the athlete who once ate a basket of French fries before competition, had the performance of their career, and now feels they must eat French fries before every game. Ketterly says that as long as those French fries are accompanied by high quality carbohydrates on two thirds of the plate and some form of lean protein, she’d let the athlete go ahead and have the fries.

“If it’s going to give them a mental edge, I say go for it,” she advises. “An athlete’s mental edge is absolutely part of their performance, though it’s only going to take them so far. The good news is they don’t have to pick one or the other. We try to figure out a way to give them both a physical and mental edge. Compromising to allow the French fries as long as the other necessities are there is a good solution.”

Skinner has encountered similarly misinformed athletes. “There is such a thing as a runner who could eat a cheeseburger and then go out and run the fastest race of his career,” he says. “As a nutritionist, it’s frustrating to have to say, ‘You know what? That’s not an appropriate pregame meal.’ All you can do is give the kid your guidelines for a pregame meal and show him why a cheeseburger doesn’t meet them.

“At 16 or 18 years old he may be able to get away with it,” he continues, “but as his competition gets tougher, positive nutrition may be the performance enhancer he’ll need to make a difference.”


While the pregame meal is extremely important to performance, nutrition and hydration needs don’t end with the start of competition. After the game, athletes need to make sure they fuel to replenish glycogen stores and repair muscle tissue. Postgame, athletes’ bodies are still burning fuel, and they need to feed their systems immediately.

Bird says a good recovery ratio for replenishing glycogen stores is three to four grams of carbs per gram of protein. “Exercise can decrease appetite, and some athletes just don’t feel like eating post-competition, but they need to,” he says. “A recovery shake or chocolate milk are great options. Chocolate milk has the four-to-one ratio and there are two types of protein in milk–casein and whey. Eighty percent of the protein comes from casein, which is a slower-digesting protein athletes will get later, while the whey is available quickly and gives athletes immediate results.”

The window of opportunity to recover muscle and energy expended in competition is about 30 minutes, so a quick recovery shake is a convenient option. But recovery doesn’t end there. “One to two hours after that window, athletes need a mixed meal similar to the pregame meal,” Ketterly says. “It should include carbs, protein, and a little bit of fat. Some of our athletes think they’re good to go until 9 p.m. that night as long as they had a bar or a shake after the game, and that isn’t so.”

Both recovery and pregame nutrition have come to the front of athletes’ and coaches’ training regimens over the past decade. And since the days of Skinner’s “pregame” spaghetti dinners, nutritionists have learned a lot more. Educating your athletes about the potential effects of better nutrition is the first step toward seeing peak performance.

Sidebar: What to Choose?

The following link provides examples of foods to avoid when planning pregame meals, from The Pregame Meal Planner, authored by Robert Rober, PhD, Extension Specialist in Nutrition at the University of Illinois.

Sidebar: Sample Menus

When the Texas A&M University men’s basketball team has an evening game, Amy Bragg, RD, LD, CSSD, Director of Performance Nutrition, offers them the following food choices for the day’s breakfast and pregame meals.


Scrambled eggs Ham steaks Toast (white and whole wheat) Hash browns Oatmeal Baked cinnamon apple wedges Pancakes Cereal bar (Cheerios, Raisin Bran, Kellogg’s Granola, Corn Flakes) Fruit salad Whole bananas Ketchup, A.1. Sauce Mild salsa Peanut butter Jelly Honey packets Brown sugar, raisins, walnuts Butter chips Maple syrup Skim or 2% milk Bottled water Bottled 100% juices


Smoked turkey breast Tri-tip steaks (no gravy) Golden mashed potatoes (made with milk and little butter, no skins) Fettuccini with mixed veggies and marinara Brown sugar carrots Squash and zucchini medley Aggie rolls (dinner rolls) Fruit salad Green salad with vinaigrette and light ranch dressing Hearty chicken and rice soup Crackers Chicken breast sandwiches on wheat hoagie rolls Lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles Mustard and mayonnaise packets Ketchup, A.1. Sauce Parmesan cheese Salt and pepper Butter chips Honey packets Lemonade and water pitchers Bottled 100% juices

Sidebar: What is a CSSD?

You may have noticed a few new initials after some nutritionists’ names lately–CSSD. Offered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR), the credentialing agency for the American Dietetic Association, CSSD recognizes a Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics.

“There were already other distinctions within dietetics like renal or pediatric nutrition, but nothing related to sports nutrition,” says Amy Bragg, RD, LD, CSSD, Director of Performance Nutrition at Texas A&M University. “To have a certification that shows our expertise in a very specific area is quite valuable, and to have one for sports nutritionists alone will help our profession grow in numbers as the entities that hire us will see its importance.”

The degree is available to Registered Dieticians (RD) of at least two years, and applicants must have at least 1,500 documented hours in sports specialty practice within the past five years, as well as pass an exam that consists of 150 multiple choice questions. The first CSSD exam was given last summer and the certification is good for five years, when nutritionists may re-test to keep the distinction.

For more information on the CSSD certification, visit the CDR at: www.cdrnet.org/whatsnew/Sports.htm.

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