Sports Nutrition    

by Dante Dettamanti, BS, MS

Preparing for a Game - What Should I Eat?

Dietary advice to athletes has changed over the years. In the past it was hit or miss based on purely speculation and experimentation.  Science has given us a better understanding of nutrition during training and nutrition prior to competition. We now know that what you eat, and when you eat it, can make a big difference to how you perform. Most athletes have similar nutritional requirements in order to provide the necessary nutrients that will supply the energy necessary for muscle contraction. 

Swimmers and water polo players have a slight advantage over other athletes that compete on land;  because they are horizontal in the water,  and their bodies and stomachs do not bounce up and down as they would in sports that require running. While this may change the timing and content of your meal, the energy requirements for many team sports remains the same; unless you are competing in extreme sports like ultra-marathons or pure strength events like weight lifting.

Besides the type of event you are competing in, there are other factors that we have to consider when deciding when and what to eat.  How hard have you been training prior to the competition, the time of day of the event,  multiple events or games in one day,  how much time before your event,  and what kinds of foods can your stomach handle without getting upset?


It is important to consider the intensity and length of your training prior to your event.  If you have been going two workouts a day, or very intense single 2-3 hour workouts for the week leading up to the event; then there is a good chance that you have depleted your glycogen stores, the storage form of carbohydrates necessary for muscle contraction.  If this is the case, and you have a very important game or games coming up, then it is up to the coach to give you a few days rest so that you can replenish the carbohydrates in your body.

The training sessions prior to a big game should be tapered down with less intensity and length. How much to rest is a coach’s decision based on how hard the team has been working, and how tired the players are in practice. At the same time, the players should increase the amount of good carbohydrates from grains, cereals, breads, potatoes,  rice, pasta, fruit, fruit smoothies, sports drinks, etc for the two or three days prior to the event. The combination of resting and eating and drinking more carbs should give the player the energy necessary to perform in the game. At the very least, the athlete should be rested the day before the event, and at the same time consume extra high-carbohydrate foods.


Two or three hours is usually enough time for the stomach to empty before the event. Most low-fat, light meals will empty within two hours. Almost all meals will empty from the stomach within three to four hours. How close to the event is up to you, but consider the following:


What the water polo player eats between games depends a lot on how much time there is between the first game and the second game of the day. Most tournament rules specify a minimum time between games; but that could be as little as 1 1/2 to 2 hours. This is not a lot of time to get some high energy food into your system. A key is to eat something immediately after the game. If that is not possible because you have to travel  to a restaurant,  than the coach should make sure to have some kind of sport drink, high carbohydrate  energy bar, Fig Newtons,  bananas, etc available for right after the game. Studies have shown that the 20-30 minutes after exercise is when the body is most readily able to accept carbohydrates into the body. The more carbs you can quickly get into your system, the better prepared you will be for the next game. This is true even if you have a much longer time between games.

If there is only a short time between games, then it is important to eat something that digests quickly, like a low fat liquid smoothie, low fat energy bar, fruit, etc. Fat takes a longer time to digest and should be avoided when there is not a lot of time in-between games. Protein is OK, but it usually is associated with fat (many meats) and does not provide the necessary energy that carbohydrates will provide.  Fats and protein also take up room in your stomach that should be filled with important carbohydrate foods. It is also important to hydrate with liquids right after the game. Avoid carbonated drinks because they make you feel bloated and can interfere with the digestion of other foods in your stomach.

If you have a longer time between games (4-5 hours), then you can eat a normal meal an hour or two after the game. This doesn’t mean that you can stuff yourself with high fat foods like pizza, hamburgers and fries. Nor can you stuff yourself with a lot of very high sugar and high calorie donuts, candy, cakes etc. You still have to eat a high carbohydrate meal, but make it a “good” carbohydrate meal.  Remember to have a little something (carbs) immediately after the first game, when your body is most efficient at taking in carbohydrates.  You can eat a larger meal later on and still have time for everything to digest before your next game.


Eating after the last game of the day should also be done as close as possible after the game. As mentioned above, this is a key factor in expediting recovery and assisting in muscle tissue repair. If you are playing in a two-day tournament, then you must prepare for the second day of competition by eating your dinner as soon as possible after the last game of the first day. The same holds true if you have an early morning game again on the second day. Have a late night snack to help you in case you don’t have time for breakfast the next morning.

The idea of eating your evening meal as soon as possible after you compete, should also be followed during daily practice sessions. Because you are burning off a lot of stored carbohydrates every day in practice, you need to restore them as efficiently as possible so that you don’t become depleted at the end of the week. Eating right after exercise will store more needed carbohydrates than if you wait for several hours after exercising. If you are not hungry right after practice or a game, have a high carbohydrate snack or sport drink that will provide something during that critical 20-30 minutes after exercise. You can eat your main meal later on in the evening.

[Click Dante's photo to learn more about his water polo experiences
and Click the water polo ball to learn more about Dante's books.]