Perform your best with these energy-boosting tips.
By Lauren Peetz, MS, CSCS
Jill and Becky are both seasoned competitors and have similar cheer abilities, but at their last competition, they had two very different experiences. Jill felt great when she left the floor: She hit all of her skills and had no problem keeping her energy up throughout the routine. Becky, on the other hand, left the floor wondering what had just happened. Although she felt mentally prepared going in, she touched down on a tumbling pass that she never missed, had a hard time basing her stunt and felt as if she had simply run out of steam about halfway through the routine.
So what could have made these two athletes give such very different performances on the floor? First, let’s look at how both girls fueled their bodies leading up to the competition.
Jill didn’t miss any meals all week because she knew she needed extra energy to get through school and practice. She brought nutritious snacks for between meals and regularly drank extra water.
Becky ate breakfast only once that week and didn’t have anything between lunch and practice—except for soda and maybe some chips from the vending machine. Becky also decided to try a low-carb diet that some of her friends had suggested, and cut out all breads, pastas and fruits for the week.
The morning of the competition, Jill ate oatmeal, whole-wheat toast and an egg and drank plenty of water. Becky grabbed a glass of juice on her way out the door.
Is it any surprise that Jill had a great performance, while Becky just couldn’t pull it off? Jill had stored energy in her body to sustain her through the rigorous demands of the routine. She had eaten energy-providing meals and kept herself hydrated, while Becky’s low-carb choices left her with no energy and a disappointing performance. Although they may sound like two extreme examples, you probably know people like these two girls. Maybe you’re even one of them.
Chances are you’ve been bombarded with so much information—or more likely misinformation—about low-carb diets, that they probably sound great. You may have even considered trying one. One word: Don’t! “Because of their activity level, athletes need carbohydrates more than the average person,” says Leah Thomas, the nutrition director for the Georgia Tech Athletic Association.
The Lowdown on Carbs
To make good choices, you should understand the difference between simple and complex carbs. Simple carbs, such as soft drinks, candy and other high-sugar foods, are digested and absorbed more quickly than complex ones, and as a result, don’t provide you with prolonged energy. Complex carbs, such as grains, nuts, beans and vegetables, take longer to break down, providing you with energy for a longer period of time after they’re eaten. Whole-grain breads and pastas are better choices than their more processed white counterparts, but be sure to read the labels. Just because something says “wheat,” it’s not necessarily any better than “white.” The label should say “whole grain” or “whole wheat.” The good news is that you don’t have to avoid bread and pasta. Both are great choices for you as an athlete!
Proper hydration is also extremely important for muscle function, strength and endurance. Water is the largest component of your body, and even a slight loss of fluid can harm your performance. Thirst is actually a sign of dehydration, a condition you want to avoid in the first place by drinking fluids before, during and after practice. And water is not the only way to hydrate; sports drinks are beneficial for longer days and sweaty workouts, to maintain electrolyte balance while maintaining hydration. Just check the label for high sugar content. On competition day, one sports drink is enough if you’re drinking water throughout the course of the day.
Competition Day Nutrition
How often are you provided with healthy options at the competitions you attend? Let’s face it, your choices probably include soda, pizza, nachos, cotton candy and ice cream. Your best bet is going to be to bring your own stash of snacks for what is usually a very long day. Keep your body competition ready by dropping junk food for:
- Cut-up veggies
- Cold pasta salad with chicken
- Brown rice with grilled chicken breast
- Turkey sandwich on whole-wheat bread
- Peanut butter sandwich
- Whole-grain cereal
- Dry-roasted almonds
- Low-sugar granola bars
- Water or sports drinks
Your list of things to avoid should include high-sugar foods, sodas and candy. Foods high in fat and otherwise greasy foods are also poor choices—they may make you feel nauseated. So-called “energy drinks” and anything promoted as a “fat-burner” or weight-loss agent should also be avoided.
Eating right on the day of the competition must go hand-in-hand with proper nutrition every day. The carbs from the food you eat days prior to competing will be broken down and stored in your liver and muscles. This energy, stored as what is called glycogen, will be used later when the body needs it. Fats also play a role in providing energy, while protein is crucial to building and repairing muscle tissue. As an athlete, you must find the proper balance. But be warned: Once you’ve experienced your body working at its potential, you will never want to go back to nachos and cotton candy ever again!