Food consumed before and between athletic events can have a significant impact on an individual’s ability to perform.

Many people have their own ideas about what foods to consume around athletic events. Some of these ideas may be good. However, many foods consumed by athletes before and between events are inappropriate and may harm the athlete’s performance. Let’s outline the proper aspects of eating close to performance time.

A basic understanding of certain bodily functions can be helpful in learning the important components of a good pre-event meal.

Digestion

Athletic performance will be better if virtually no food is in the stomach or small intestines at the time the event is being performed. All food must be digested in the stomach and small intestines before being absorbed into the body and, thus, clear the gastrointestinal tract. However, the time needed for digestion varies because of factors such as the carbohydrate, fat and protein content of the meal as well as the size of the meal. For example, carbohydrates are relatively easy to digest. Carbohydrates can generally be digested and absorbed in about three to four hours.

Fat and protein, however, require a much longer time, about five to seven hours, to digest and absorb. The size of the meal also can influence the overall time needed for digestion and absorption. Large meals may require many hours to clear the gastrointestinal tract, whereas smaller meals may be digested in just a couple of hours.

Nervousness often associated with athletic events also can impair normal digestion and absorption of food.

Blood Supply

An average-size adult will have about five quarts of blood circulating throughout the body. Children have less, the amount depending on the size of the child. Following ingestion of a meal, blood will be diverted from areas of the body with low needs to the stomach and intestinal area. This extra blood helps the processes of digestion and absorption of the food that has been eaten. During exercise, large amounts of blood are diverted to the working muscles and to the skin for sweat production and cooling. In this process, blood actually is shunted away from the gastrointestinal tract. Thus, digestion and absorption of food can be impaired during exercise because the digestive system receives less blood instead of more. Therefore, it is advantageous to the athlete to have the digestive and absorptive processes virtually complete by the time exercise starts. There should be little or no food in the stomach and small intestine at the time of exercise.

Liver Carbohydrate

The liver is capable of storing a carbohydrate called glycogen. This liver carbohydrate can be released to the blood and is a major source of blood glucose (blood sugar). If the blood glucose concentration drops too low, your working muscle and brain, which rely on the glucose for energy, can be deprived of this fuel source and not function properly. This would be detrimental to the person who is exercising. The liver can store enough carbohydrate to supply the brain and resting muscles for about 12 to 15 hours. Working muscle will use up liver carbohydrate much faster. Thus, making sure liver carbohydrate stores are at maximum levels would be important for an athlete about to enter an event.

Components of a Good Pre-event Meal

Certain components of a proper pre-event meal can be important to performance. The meal should clear the gastrointestinal tract by the time the event starts. The meal should be able to enhance liver carbohydrate stores, and the meal should help support hydration in the athlete.

Basic guidelines for proper pre-event meals have been developed:

• The meal should be consumed 2 to 4 hours before the event.

• The meal should be high in carbohydrate content with small amounts of fat and protein.

• Generally, foods should be somewhat bland. Spicy, gas-producing and other irritating foods should be avoided.

• The meal should be low in dietary fiber.

• The meal should be small in size — less than 1,000 calories.

• Diluted, caffeine-free drinks should be consumed. Alcoholic beverages should be avoided.

Next week: What to eat in between events and more about pre-event meals.

Upcoming Extension Programs

• 4-H Summer Funshops have been scheduled. If your are interested in signing your 8- to 18-year-old up for one, contact the Extension office for more information.

• Veteran Farmers Conference: Saturday at Wallace State in Hanceville; if you are a veteran interested in getting into farming, please consider attending; free with breakfast and lunch included; registration required; visit https://amrvrcd.org/vfc for more information.

For more information on this topic and many others, contact the Etowah County Extension Office, 256-547-7936 or 3200 A W. Meighan Blvd., Gadsden. Amy Burgess is extension coordinator for the Etowah County Extension Office.