Fueled for Competition

by Lisa Dorfman, MS, RD, CSSD, LMHC, FAND


While nutrition is important around the clock, it takes on added significance before and during a tough workout or a competition. Fortunately, research has zeroed in on the best foods to consume prior to exerting energy.

Before: The primary goal of pre-competition or workout meals is to provide fuel that will last but not interfere with your gut or focus. Foods high in fats or fiber like cheesy casseroles, fried chicken or pizza can take longer to digest than items like grilled skinless chicken, baked potatoes, plain brown rice, or whole grain pastas. Too much fiber from vegetables and whole grains can cause gas, cramping, and bloating. The number one rule is to focus on carbs and keep them simple.

During: Depending on the length of the contest or workout, an athlete may need extra fuel during a break in the action. Exercising less than one hour doesn’t require much beyond water. Anything over one hour doesn’t require something to keep you going, but not so much that your gut will ache.

A sports drink, coconut water, some slices of fruit, or sports fuel gel will work. The rule of thumb is to consume no more than 60 grams of carbohydrates an hour to avoid gut distress. That’s the equivalent of 12 ounces of coconut water with a medium sized banana or 16 ounces of a sports drink with a single-serving bag of baked chips.

If you are leaning toward packaged fuel (sports drinks, gels, blocks, blasts, and bars), look for options that are high in carbs, low in protein and fat, and designed for getting energy to the blood, brain, and muscles quickly. That means they should contain a blend of sugars (carbohydrates), about 25-30 grams per serving, as well as electrolytes (needed for healthy muscle contraction), and preferably antioxidants (for the protection of body cells and prevention of catabolism). Watch out for added caffeine or herbs as they might affect your energy levels, gut, or even your heart depending on the amount and your sensitivity towards them.

It’s important to make sure you try any of these products in practice before using them in competition. Sometimes the taste, amount, or sugar sources can upset your system. Too many carbohydrates in these products combined per hour can cause gas and cramping, so test out what works for you.

Best Pre-Event Meals

One hour or less before competition: consume approximately 100 calories, choosing from the following:

  • Fresh fruit such as a banana or orange slices
  • Half of most sports energy bars
  • Half of a plain whole grain bagel or English muffin
  • 8 plain whole grain crackers
  • Small box of dry low-fiber cereal
  • 8-12 oz. of a natural sports or endurance sports drink
  • Half of a plain baked potato

Two to three hours before competition: consume 300-400 calories, choosing from the following:

  • Half of a turkey sandwich with baked chips
  • Half of a whole grain bagel with fruit jam and 1 banana
  • 2 whole grain waffles with natural maple syrup and berries
  • 1 baked sweet potato with no fat Greek or Icelandic yogurt dollop
  • 32 fluid ounces of a natural sports drink or 32-ounce endurance drink with added protein
  • 1 fruit smoothie with berries, banana, and scoop of NSF/Informed Choice-approved whey protein
  • 1 sports energy bar, 1 cup sports drink, 1 cup water

Three to four hours before competition: consume approximately 700 calories, choosing from the following:

  • Scrambled egg and 4 egg whites with whole grain toast, fruit jam, and banana
  • Whole grain bagel with nut butter, fruit jam, banana, and coconut water
  • 6-inch turkey sub on whole wheat roll with lettuce, tomato, and apple, and baked chips
  • 3-ounce grilled chicken breast with baked potato, dill-spiked yogurt dollop, whole grain roll
  • 2 cups whole grain pasta, 2 meatballs, whole grain roll, glass of almond milk


Lisa Dorfman is a Licensed Nutritionist (LD/N), Licensed/Board Certified Professional Counselor (LMHC), Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD), Certifield USAT&F/USA Triathlon Coach, and a Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.  She serves as a consultant to youth, collegiate, Olympic and professional athletes.

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