Where to Stop and What to Eat: The Importance of Pre-Tournament Breakfasts

A typical hotel continental breakfast.I know elite ultimate players who swear by McDonald’s Bacon, Egg, and Cheese Biscuit as their pre-tournament breakfast, I know some who go out of their way to hit up a Waffle House, and I know others who will eat anything you put in front of them. Many factors make pre-tournament breakfast less than optimal: a lack of time to eat, the proximity to game time, and the availability (or lack thereof) of the foods you normally eat for breakfast.

Add in international tournaments – Japan, Italy, Colombia – and the nutrition equation becomes even more unpredictable.

What a player can and wants to eat for breakfast is highly individual. Some players find that a big breakfast (or even a moderately-sized one) can cause digestive distress, while others actually perform better with a large breakfast.

But we know that, first and foremost, eating something is key. You’ve been fasting for 7 to 9 hours, which means that glycogen (the unused form of carbohydrates that we store after eating a meal) has been partially depleted overnight. Eating breakfast helps restore glycogen, which will not only fuel you through your first games but also boost mental sharpness and concentration throughout the day.

What to Eat — The Basics

An ideal pre-tournament breakfast should consist mainly of carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are broken down more easily than fats or proteins, and they’re your muscles’ preferred source of fuel.

But don’t shun fats and proteins entirely. Although they take more energy to digest, they boost satiety and cut off hunger-stimulating hormones, making you feel fuller – and more energized – for longer. Plus, eating protein before a workout helps kickstart recovery.

Choose a combination of complex and simple carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates, which are broken down and digested faster than complex carbohydrates, provide immediate energy, while complex carbohydrates provide lasting energy and help maintain steady blood sugar levels. Complex carbohydrates are generally higher in fiber and can be found in whole grain cereals, pancakes, and bread; oatmeal, brown rice, and beans.

Healthier simple carbohydrates include fruits, juices, yogurt, and milk. With regard to fats, aim for healthy mono- or polyunsaturated fats, like nuts and nut butters, seeds, avocados, eggs, and fatty fish. Avoid saturated fats and greasy foods, which are turned into energy far less efficiently than carbs and often lead to feelings of sluggishness.

Prepare and Experiment

How much – that is, how many calories – you should eat for breakfast depends on how long you have until game time. If you have two to three hours, aim to eat 500-700 calories of mostly carbohydrates and some protein and fat. If you have less time, you can break up your breakfast into two meals; eat around 400 calories one to two hours before game time, and then top that off with a 100-200 calorie snack of fast-digesting (or simple) carbohydrates, like a banana with peanut butter, 30 minutes before playing.

The amount of calories you should consume also depends on your gender and muscle mass. Men generally need more calories than women because they have more muscle mass. Because it takes energy to maintain muscle mass at rest, those with more muscle mass require more calories.

Even your role on your team affects how many calories you should take in. Theoretically, a cutter should take in more calories than a handler because he covers larger distances—but because caloric needs are highly individual, it’s important to judge how many calories you need based off of how you feel.

If you regularly have morning practices, experiment with how much and what types of food you eat (tournament time is not the time to try out new foods!). Try playing around with the overall calorie content of your breakfast or splitting it up into two mini breakfasts. You can also try different ratios of carbohydrates to protein and fat; some people perform better with more protein, or vice versa.

You’ll eventually find an ideal breakfast that propels you through practice and, in the future, at a tournament. Come tournament time, set yourself up for success by either packing those specific foods (think single size oatmeal packets, single serving nut butter packets, and fruit) or hitting a grocery store the night before a tournament.

If you don’t have the time, tools, or food to prepare your ideal breakfast, here are some sample meals, along with their nutritional breakdown, that you can easily find pre-tournament. Most ultimate players probably don’t have a lot of experience with calorie counting, so it’s important to develop a sense of mindfulness when you eat your breakfast.

Mindful eating refers to the act of being present and aware when you’re eating. instead of wolfing down your meal, eat slowly and listen to your body to determine when you’ve had enough to eat. Aim to feel satiated and energized, not uncomfortably full; no matter how many calories you eat, this point is probably the ideal range for you.

Breakfast 1: At the Hotel

A continental breakfast will usually offer a spread of eggs, meat (sausage or bacon), potatoes, bread, cereal, oatmeal, pastries, and fruit. Pass on the greasy meats and sugary pastries and opt for a simple breakfast of eggs and toast with peanut butter and a banana.

½ cup scrambled eggs (about two eggs), two slices whole grain toast, 1 tablespoon peanut butter, 1 banana

567 calories, 63 g carbs, 10 g fiber, 24 g fat, 25 g protein

Breakfast 2: At Starbucks

Ignore the pastry case – most cookies, breads, muffins, and scones pack upwards of 10 grams of saturated fat and 20 grams of sugar. Starbucks’ spinach, feta and egg white wrap combines protein with carbs, while the steel cut oatmeal adds complex carbs for lasting energy.

Spinach and Feta Breakfast Wrap + Steel-Cut Oatmeal with Blueberries

430 calories, 62 g carbs, 14 g fiber, 24 g protein, 12 g fat

Breakfast 3: At McDonald’s

Sometimes you might have no other choice than to go to McDonald’s before a tournament. If you end up here or at any other fast food joints, order scrambled eggs and an English muffin a la carte (most restaurants will let you do this). Grab a banana at the fields to add some fast-digesting carbs.

Scrambled Eggs + English muffin + Banana

445 calories, 59 g carbs, 5 g fiber, 14 g fat, 21 g protein

Breakfast 4: At the Fields

Options are limited at the fields, but any food is better than nothing. Top a whole wheat bagel with peanut butter and add in a banana for some fast-digesting carbs.

Whole wheat bagel + 2 tablespoons peanut butter + banana

580 calories, 86 g carbs, 10 g fiber, 20 g fat, 20 g protein

  1. Kate Schlag
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    Kate is a Registered Dietitian and holds a Masters in Public Health with a concentration in nutrition from the University of California, Berkeley. As an RD, she is looking forward to a career in sports nutrition and nutrition communications. She started playing ultimate with USC’s Hellions of Troy and now plays for San Francisco Polar Bears.

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