Tuesday Tips: How Ultimate’s New One Game Format Impacts Your Nutrition, Presented By Five Ultimate

What you should eat when prepping for a tournament isn't the same when you only have a single game in a day.

Denver Johnny Bravo at the 2014 USA Ultimate National Championships. Photo: Christina Schmidt -- UltiPhotos.com
Denver Johnny Bravo at the 2014 USA Ultimate National Championships. Photo: Christina Schmidt — UltiPhotos.com

This article is presented by Five Ultimate; all opinions are those of the author. Please support the brands that make Ultiworld possible and shop at Five Ultimate!

Ultimate-related nutrition advice usually revolves around fueling for and recovering from four-game-per-day tournaments, which, as every rookie at her first tournament knows, is a skill mastered through trial and error. But with the success of pro leagues, NexGen and All-Star tours, showcase games, and tournaments at which finals and even semis are isolated on the final days of a multi-day event, more and more competitive players have the opportunity to play just one game a day — often at night.

For most of us who come from high school sports, eating for night games is nothing new — except that now we’re doing it during and after full-time jobs and with less resilient, adult bodies. Most of my guidelines for fueling for a night game are similar to eating before a tournament and still align with my favorite sports nutrition principle: there is no perfect diet that works for everyone.

Don’t Skip Breakfast

Even though you may not be using the calories and macronutrients you consume at breakfast immediately in a game, eating a healthy breakfast sets the tone for the day. Without breakfast, you’ll likely start your day feeling lethargic and slow; ameliorating that feeling and trying to play catchup with a huge and heavy lunch will have the same effect (or worse).

While I’m generally skeptical of short-term sports nutrition studies that offer one-size-fits-all conclusions, one recent study found that cyclists who skipped breakfast–and still consumed 200 extra calories at lunch–performed more poorly during their night workout. The researchers suggested that the cyclists who ate breakfast were able to push themselves harder because they had more energy stored for muscular activity.1

If you’re a regular breakfast-eater, stick with what you regularly eat; if you tend to skip breakfast during the workweek, aim to eat what you’d eat at a tournament (hopefully by now you’ve figured out your best options). If you’re at a tournament and don’t have games until the afternoon or night, stick with what you know: if you have the time and resources to make your at-home favorite breakfast, go for it. If not, stick with the breakfast that’s gotten you to semis and finals (whether that’s a huge hotel breakfast or a banana and peanut butter at the fields–we can work on that later!).

Here’s what I don’t recommend: seeking out the local specialties for a long brunch. If you haven’t practiced or played in a tournament after eating a corned beef hash or country biscuit breakfast with grits, don’t try it out before finals!

Do No Damage

The eight or more hours you have between waking up and starting warmups can be looked at in two ways: eight hours to fuel your body with the right nutrients to improve your performance, or eight hours — and countless ways — to slow your body and mess with your digestive system.

If you’re at work, it might be the plate of donuts in your afternoon meeting; at a tournament, it might be the bags of sour patch kids lying around your hotel room. While the sugar might give you a short burst of energy, you’ll quickly feel lethargic. Or it might be the fast food meal you grab on the way to the game because you’re short on time. Even if you’re getting a good combination of carbs and protein, the high amount of fat found in restaurant and fast food meals takes hours to digest, redirecting blood flow away from your muscles to your stomach.

There are a lot of ways that food (or a complete lack of it) can impede your performance later in the day. The best way to avoid this is by eating the foods that you’ve already vetted and know work for you. That combination of foods will be different for everyone, which means you’ll have to take responsibility for feeding yourself (especially at a tournament or on the road). Whole Foods Market or other natural food grocery stores are a great option for a pre-game lunch, as they provide tons of prepared meal options, hot and cold food bars, and individual foods so you can mix and match your way to your perfect lunch or dinner.

Don’t Skip Your Recovery

It’s easy to stop caring about nutrition after you’ve played your last or only game for the weekend — you’re busy celebrating (or mourning) with your team over a few beers. But failing to take in the right nutrients following even one game means that you’re neglecting the muscles that just powered you to victory. Any game, no matter its importance, should be treated like practice or a workout. Muscles and bodies get stronger and fitter when they’re exposed to stress (a game, practice, a track workout) and then adapt to that stress through recovery, which is aided by rest, nutrition, and hydration.

Since you haven’t expended as many calories as you would in a full tournament, you don’t need to eat a huge dinner. As long as you’ve eaten sufficient calories throughout the day, how much you eat after your game should be dictated by how hungry you feel and how much you ate before the game. If it’s a late game, even 200-300 calories of high quality protein and carbohydrates is a good start.

As far as alcohol goes, I have bad news: beer really isn’t a recovery drink. Alcohol spurs dehydration; it interferes with muscle protein synthesis, hindering recovery; it interferes with glucose metabolism; and it even increases bleeding and swelling around sites of injury or inflammation, impeding recovery from injuries. It also inhibits phosphofructokinase, an enzyme that fuels fast-twitch muscle fibers, limiting their adaptations for up to three days.

If you must drink, do it after eating a healthy snack.

Figure Out Your Timing

The amount of food your body can process before a game can vary a lot from player to player. The Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Association (CPSDA) and American Dietetic Association’s Sports, Cardiovascular, and Wellness Nutrition group both recommend consuming a larger meal 3-4 hours before game time; smaller snacks and meals can be eaten an hour to thirty minutes before. The absorption and digestion of carbohydrates, your main energy source, depends on two major factors: the type of carbohydrate and what it’s eaten with.

Simple, high-glycemic carbohydrates (white bread, pasta, candy, those giant Costco muffins) are absorbed faster and can spike your blood glucose levels in as little as 15 minutes; complex, low-glycemic carbohydrates (beans, legumes, vegetables, fruits, whole grains) are absorbed and released more slowly (learn more about glycemic index here). In addition, eating protein and fat along with carbohydrates slows their absorption and digestion.

For you, this means that you should aim to eat a meal high in complex carbohydrates, moderate protein, and some fat 3-4 hours to game time. As game time gets closer, switch to faster-digesting carbohydrates like a banana. If your body can handle it — and you’ve done it with success before — you can add in some protein and fat.

Here are some sample night game snacks and meals for different scenarios or when you’re forced to go to a restaurant you (and I) wouldn’t otherwise choose. These are just examples and are by no means exhaustive. I’m also basing them off of the options you’ll probably have in locations like Texas, Ohio, Minnesota, or Canada, or places where I know teams have eaten before finals/night games in the past.

These choices are based off of the premise that you’ve adequately fueled yourself throughout the day with breakfast, lunch, water, and some snacks. The size and amount of calories you consume should depend on how hungry you are and how much food your body can process before running.

When you’re driving from work to the game and have no time to stop: Banana + peanut or almond butter (200 calories, 32g carbs, 4g protein, 8g fat)

From your office breakroom: Plain Greek yogurt + ¼ cup muesli + ½ cup blueberries (270 calories, 43g carbs, 23g protein, 3g fat)

At Whole Foods: Turkey sandwich (415 calories, 47g carbs, 41g protein, 3g fat)

As with any build-your-own sandwich counter, the calorie and fat content of your sandwich can vary significantly. A sandwich with cheese, avocado, bacon, double meat, and mayo will be a lot heavier than one packed with vegetables.

At a hot and cold food bar: Quinoa salad + grilled chicken + fruit salad (390 calories, 45g carbs, 31g protein, 11g fat)

At IHOP: 2x2x2: two pancakes, two eggs, two strips of bacon: (640 calories, 43g carbs, 32g protein, 38g fat)

  1. Clayton DJ, Barutcu A, Machin C, et al. Effect of breakfast omission on energy intake and evening exercise performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2015; [Epub ahead of print]. 

  1. Kate Schlag

    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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