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Pre-match nutrition: how important is it?

Over the past 30 years or so, a large body of research has shown that carbohydrate is the muscles’ premium fuel during exercise. It has also shown that consuming a high carbohydrate diet in the run up to an event – and carbs during that event – significantly enhances sports performance.. It is for this reason sports scientists recommend that plenty of carbohydrate is consumed in the days leading up to a longer duration event, such as a soccer match. This approach is commonly referred to as ‘carb loading’.

 

Pre-exercise nutrition

As part of this strategy, sportsmen and women are also recommended to consume a high-carbohydrate meal in the three to four hours preceding competition. Previous research has shown this enhances performance compared to no meal or a low-carb meal – especially when the meal in question is breakfast. However, it is also important to ensure that the composition of any pre-competition meal is suitable for minimizing gut distress – in other words, limiting intakes of fibre, fat and protein to avoid stomach pains, bloating or cramps during exercise. While logical, these food-choice recommendations nevertheless impose quite strict limits on what athletes can and cannot eat in a pre-competition meal. This is not ideal, especially if athletes are competing away from home and food choice is narrow. The good news, however, is that research that emerged earlier this year suggests the precise composition of a pre-competition meal may not actually be quite as important as originally believed.

 

Soccer and pre-competition meal composition

In January, a study was published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, titled ‘Effects of high-carbohydrate versus mixed-macronutrient meals on female soccer physiology and performance’. In it, US scientists evaluated the effects of two different types of pre-match meals on collegiate soccer players. On two separate occasions, 15 players consumed two 1,000kcal meals four hours prior to two 70-minute informal games. The meal timings and calories consumed on both occasions were identical – however, the meals themselves varied in their compositions:

  • Mixed-macronutrient meal: a mixture of carbohydrate, protein and fat, more representative of the kind of meals normally eaten during the day.
  • High-carbohydrate meal – primarily carbohydrate, with minimal amounts of protein and fat (a ‘pre-competition specific meal’).

During the informal games, the players were monitored for their performances and for subjective feelings including rating of perceived exertion (RPE), ratings of fatigue and stomach comfort.

 

What they found

When the researchers compared the effect of the two different pre-game meals, they found absolutely no differences for the distance covered or the amount of highspeed running. In addition, there was no difference in terms of the players’ gut symptoms, ratings of fatigue, perceived exertion, hunger, fullness or feelings of satiety.

 

The implications

A ‘normal’ pre-match meal – when consumed around four hours prior to a match – seems to be just as effective for players’ performances as a fancy high-carbohydrate meal. This is good news for players who would prefer to consume a meal of their choice prior to a match. As a coach therefore, you can reassure your players that they can eat their preferred meal prior to a match – much better than not eating at all! Bear in mind, however, that a ‘favourite’ meal taken closer to exercise – say three or even two hours prior – may be less well tolerated, especially in players with more sensitive stomachs. This is when a high-carbohydrate, low-fat meal might be a better choice.

 

This is an abridged version of an article that first appeared in Sports Performance Bulletin in March 2021.

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