To my surprise, my husband came home from his last hockey practice requesting a team eating plan for the end of the year hockey tournament. I would often provide quick tips as he ran out the door but this time he was looking for something structured. I’ve learned over the years that nutrition advice often falls upon deaf ears unless it is requested. This is often the case when parents and coaches try to encourage healthy eating on tournament weekends. It can be interpreted as restrictive and “no-fun” depending on how you deliver the information.
After all, most of us engage in sports primarily for fun. If you tell your athletes fries, pop and chocolate are strictly prohibited, not only will the advice be hard to follow, you may also create a few rebels. In the case of my husband’s team, there was one player affectionately known as the “anti-heidi”. He jokingly decided to do everything opposite of my recommendations. Keep in mind there will always be, on every team, the athletes that can perform at a high level with little regard to what they eat. Call them natural athletes, or just plain lucky. The question I always ask is - “If you can play that well without proper fuelling, imagine how well you could perform if you put some effort into your eating”. There is no doubt that eating habits affect athletic performance. The better you fuel your body, the more energy your muscles can store, the faster you recover and therefore the harder you can work. You don’t have to be a serious athlete to reap the benefits of proper “fuelling”. Regardless of your sport, there are a few simple strategies you can use on a tournament weekend to improve performance and still leave room for some “fun” foods.
Start off by planning ahead. Find out when and where games are scheduled. Call in advance to ask what type of food will be available on site and in the surrounding area. In most cases, there will be little selection. Typically the foods you find at sporting events are the opposite of what you should be eating. Chips, pop, candy and hotdogs have little place in the athletes pre-exercise diet. These foods will leave you feeling tired and sluggish. Save these treats to celebrate the end of the tournament. The best plan of action for eating before and after competition is to pack your own snacks. Healthy eating has to be convenient if you want a team to become engaged. I sent my husband out the door to his tournament with a box of seedless oranges, dried apricots, almonds, sports bars, sport drink and lots of water. “Keep drinking!” I said. “And if you have to pull off the highway more often for bathroom breaks then consider it a chance to stretch your legs.”
If he had known about a refrigerator in his hotel room I would have also sent a box of cereal, milk, yogourt and sandwich meat. In reality, I knew the one page team eating plan I prepared would be of great interest to some team members but it would more often end up folded and lost in their pockets. My most valuable contribution was most likely the box of low fat, high carbohydrate, easy to digest foods that my husband faithfully shared with his teammates immediately after each game. Packing your own portable foods for a tournament is the best strategy to stay fuelled and energized. And how did they perform? Secretly I’ll take a little credit for their reported “fast recovery” and a “great team performance” while still having “fun” at the mid-tournament banquet.
Heidi Smith is a Registered Dietitian. She is the author of “Nutrition for the Long Run – a handbook for active individuals”. More tips can be found at www.heidismithnutrition.com.