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American Football Series: Part 4 – Game Day Nutrition

What an athlete consumes on gameday is just as important as overall diet. Nutrition can play a large role in overall athletic performance. Therefore, it’s important to pay close attention to diet, and be mindful of nutrition before, during and after a game. Continue reading to learn how nutrition plays a role at each moment and what to do to stay competitive with nutrition.


Similar to how cars need fuel so does the human body. A car cannot go far on empty, and a high-horsepower performance car can’t run optimally on the lowest octane fuel. Therefore, it’s essential to fuel up before it’s game time with optimal nutritional sources. However, many challenges exist around pre-workout nutrition. Athletes may lack time to prepare a pre-game meal/snack, may not know what to eat beforehand or believe that eating before a game can weigh them down. However, if athletes don’t have enough fuel on board, they may be at a disadvantage. If an athlete’s body lacks fuel, it can decrease high-intensity athletic performance, cause fatigue early on, and breakdown muscle and fat stores for energy. Therefore, it’s essential to fuel up prior to a game to help sustain energy, intensity and performance.

Carbohydrates are the main nutrient when it comes to energy as it’s recognized as the body’s predominant fuel source to help power the body, brain and working muscles. Carbohydrates make up a large sum of the diet at a range of about 45-65% of total daily dietary intake. Therefore, it’s critical athletes are adequately fueled up before a game. Athletes should aim to consume a balanced meal containing all three macronutrients. However, as game time approaches – portion sizes should be reduced and the focus should shift from macronutrients to carbohydrates specifically. If fueling up an hour to four hours prior, add in complex carbohydrates plus protein. If fueling up 30 to 60 minutes prior, add in simple carbohydrates. All athletes tolerate foods differently; therefore limit any new foods or dietary approaches on the day of competition to avoid any unknowns. Athletes should also limit high amounts of fiber and fat too close to games, because it may cause gastrointestinal distress. Below are some quick snack ideas -

  • Smoothie with milk, berries and honey
  • Tuna on whole grain crackers
  • Tortilla chips and hummus
  • Apples and nut butter


Each game can last several hours, which can leave players feeling physically drained. Fortunately, football players are given a break halfway through the game to rest and recover. Half time is generally limited to twelve minutes, so it’s important to use that time wisely. During this time, athletes may turn to carbohydrates to help refuel their bodies and sustain energy levels throughout a game. Carbohydrates are the body’s go-to fuel source and can be found in the body as glucose and glycogen. Glucose is the body's readily available energy source found circulating in the blood and brain whereas glycogen is the body's stored form of energy found in the liver and muscles. If glycogen stores become low or depleted, then performance may become impaired.

Generally, more carbohydrates are needed the longer the game and the higher the intensity. If activity lasts greater than sixty minutes, It recommend to add in simple carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates are a great nutritional source, because they can provide quick energy. There are several whole foods athletes can utilize including dairy, fruits and refined grains. Although dairy-products are an excellent resource, it may not be the most ideal for athletes on a hot and humid game day. Therefore, athletes may consider more refreshing sources like whole fruits (oranges, bananas, blueberries), fruit juice, fruit purees, and/or dried fruits. Refined grains are also a great quick energy carbohydrates – sources may include pretzels, crackers, plain bagel, white bread and/or cereals. Gels can also be taken advantage of for a convenient, quick energy option. Below are some quick snack ideas -

  • Chilled fruit salad (pineapple + berries)
  • Applesauce
  • Bagel + jelly


Following a game, athletes often only focus on protein. However, post-game nutrition should include a combination of protein plus carbohydrates. During a game, the body can use a mix of macronutrients for energy, but carbohydrates are generally the most predominant fuel-source used. However, as exercise duration increases, the body can switch from carbohryates to a mix of carbohydrates and fat for energy. It’s important to replenish energy to help fuel the body, brain and muscle recovery. In addition, carbohydrates are protein sparing – meaning if carbohydrate consumption is inadequate, then the body can end up using protein for energy. Once you have enough carbohydrates added, add in protein. Protein helps to support muscle recovery. This is important, because intense physical activity can potentially cause micro-damage to the muscles. The degree to which muscle breakdown occurs will depend upon the overall level of exertion and duration of the activity.

Build your post-workout nutrition with a food-first approach of carbohydrates plus protein. These nutrients can be taken in through either a shake, snack or meal. If the athlete lacks an appetite, try a protein-rich drink with a carbohydrate snack or a protein-rich shake with added carbohydrates from whole-foods. If the athlete has a good appetite, include a snack or meal. The timing is ultimately dependent upon the athlete and their schedule. Therefore, an athlete’s post-recovery nutrition may be consumed on the field the moment a game ends, in the locker room, on the ride home or when at home. The type of carbohydrate may be either simple or complex – sources include dairy, grains, fruits, and vegetables. Factor in protein once carbohydrates are built in. It’s recommended to add in about 20-40 grams of high-quality protein from sources such as meat, poultry, eggs, dairy, seafood, soy and more. Below are some quick snack ideas –

  • String cheese with pretzels
  • Greek yogurt with a sliced banana
  • Protein smoothie with oats and whole fruits


Overall individual needs will vary depending on position, intensity, and duration of activity. An athlete’s game day nutrition should focus on two main elements, carbohydrates and protein. Carbohydrates should be taken advantage of before a game to help fuel activity, during a game to sustain energy and after to replenish energy. Protein can be consumed before a game to help ‘prime’ muscles and after to help support muscle recovery. There are a wide-variety of foods to choose. What may work best for one player may not work for another. Therefore, it’s important to find what works best for you and your game. To better understand your personal needs, you should consult with a sports nutrition registered dietitian. Check out part five next on muscle recovery.