We used to think of food as being physical fuel, to power our bodies sufficiently for the workout ahead. While this is still 100% true, the power of food goes beyond this. It can play a crucial role in our mental clarity – helping us make the right decisions on the court at the right time and amazingly in recovery and injury prevention.
In the field of nutrition, new research is emerging all of the time and it’s worth saying that every player is different. Our bodies all work in different ways, what fuels one player before a training session or match might not work for you. It’s all about trial and error, if you find a meal that you feel fuels you well before a hard training session or a match, stick to it. If you’re up for experimenting with what food fuels you go for it, our top bit of advice here would be to be selective with when you try new foods, before a big match or netball trial isn’t the time to experiment!
This blog is intended as a gentle guide, and we’ll only be skimming the surface in terms of what to eat before a workout, looking at the different food groups and how they help your body and well as some tips on how to manage your food intake before a training session or match. It is aimed at netballers, taking part in one to two hours of high-intensity exercise every day.
For further reading and recipe inspiration we can recommend The British Nutrition Foundation and The Happy Kitchen cookbook.
The main role of carbohydrates in physical activity is to provide energy. And netball athletes take note, if your diet does not contain enough carbohydrate, it is likely that your performance and recovery will be impaired, as carbohydrate is the key fuel for the brain and for muscles during exercise.
The amount of carbohydrate you need will depend on the type, duration and intensity of the netball activity you’re doing that day. As a general rule, if you’re taking part in netball training and matches for between one and three hours a day you should be looking to consume 6 – 10g of carbohydrates per kg of body weight per day.
Good sources of carbohydrates to eat before a workout are:
The wholegrain options listed above are our preferred sources of carbohydrate as they have a lower GI (Glycaemic Index) compared to their white counterparts. This means they release sugar more slowly into the bloodstream preventing the sharp fluctuations in blood sugar that can make us tired. So, for hour-long netball matches and longer training sessions, think wholegrain when you think of fuel.
Protein is a must for any netball athlete expecting their body to perform at a high intensity over and over again. Protein boosts glycogen storage, reduces muscle soreness and helps to promote muscle repair. We’re fans of consuming a portion of protein at every mealtime and also recommend spreading out protein intake throughout the day. Not only is protein crucial in muscle repair, but the building blocks of protein are amino acids and they are important for our brain function by helping us make neurotransmitters. Put simply, a neurotransmitter is a chemical messenger that carries, boosts, and balances signals between neurons (also known as nerve cells) and target cells throughout the body. These target cells may be in glands, muscles, or other neurons. Billions of neurotransmitter molecules work constantly to keep our brains functioning, managing everything from our breathing to our heartbeat to our learning and concentration levels. And when you think of the physical and mental skills required during a netball match, neurotransmitters are a crucial part of a netballer’s toolkit. If you enter the final quarter with a sharp mind and body your dieting is working for you.
For netball athletes, again doing one to three hours of intense exercise a day, the amount of protein consumed should be around 1.2 – 2.0g of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. As with most foods, the timing of consumption is important with protein. Between 30 minutes and two hours after training or a match, it is recommended to consume 15-25g of protein alongside some carbohydrate. Although they may be useful for convenient protein intakes around exercise, protein supplements can’t provide all the different components found in protein-rich foods so a ‘food first’ approach is always our preferred way to take in protein. Eating protein after exercise helps the body to recover which in the long run helps to prevent injury.
Good sources of protein to eat before and after a workout are:
Chicken (free range)
Almonds (great for your kit bag)
In small amounts, fats are our friends. Our brain is made up of about 60% fat – so put simply, the brain needs some fats and it’s important to consume the right types. The main ones to remember are the Omegas, and the most important one in the family being Omega-3, closely followed by Omega 6 and 9. The fats to avoid are saturated fat and trans fat – essentially any fats that are man-made. Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid and studies have found that it can work to reduce inflammatory reactions meaning consuming more Omega-3 could help you in recovery from injury and in injury prevention!
Good sources of fat to eat before a workout are:
Oily fish (mackerel, herring, sardines, fresh tuna)
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, this is only a gentle guide and should serve as an introduction to your food and exercise research. As a general rule, we try to make sure that our plate is made up of a good mix of carbohydrate, protein, fat – give a third of your plate to each food group with a slight preference for carbohydrates given the intensity and power needed by an athlete during a 60-minute netball match.
In addition to eating healthy we also stick to three other rules during the day of a big training session or netball match:
This might seem obvious, but most of us don’t drink enough water during the day, busy work and school schedules not allowing regular fluid intake. Drinking enough water throughout the day helps maintain mental clarity and allows the body to function smoothly. A rough guide for netball athletes is to drink between 1.5 and 2 litres every day, this is best consumed steadily throughout the day. The easiest way to tell if you’re dehydrated is to check the colour of your urine – it should be pale, almost clear and not dark yellow. Dehydration can lead to headaches and poor concentration – two things you definitely don’t want to be suffering from as whistle blows for the first centre pass.
Give your body time to digest
This is super important for all netball players. Netball is a high-intensity sport, then throw in changes of direction as well and jumping and leaping. All these movements put huge pressure on your body and the last thing your body needs to be doing as it’s leaping up and down and from side to side is digesting food. Aim to eat at least two hours before a netball match to give your body time to digest properly. We appreciate this isn’t always possible however so if a busy schedule means you have an hour or less, stick to eating little and often that day and make sure your “final” meal is a lighter one and a mix of carbohydrates, protein and some fats.
By boosting your energy levels through regular meals you’ll have more strength to exercise. For example, if you had a netball match in the evening, see it as three opportunities to get your nutrition right during the day by balancing the quantity of carbohydrates, protein and fat you consume at mealtimes. If you leave fueling your workout until the last meal before your match it’s likely you’ll feel sluggish and full which is far from ideal when your teammates need you to be firing on all cylinders.
You do you
There’s a lot of advice on social media and the internet about what you “should” eat and it can be overwhelming. Balance is everything. If you’re getting a good mix of the food groups mentioned above, eating colourful plates, and eating healthy snacks you’re on the right track. That’s not to say certain foods are off-limits, here at Elite Netball Academy we also enjoy eating chocolate, the odd packet of sweets and bacon sandwiches! You’ve got to enjoy what you’re eating and hey, some jelly babies at half time during a match will always go down well with your teammates.
Food is important, it fuels our bodies, our minds and should be enjoyable too. Netball is a high-energy sport and we want you to be at your very best in every training session and during every match so if you pay attention to what you’re putting in, you’ll get more out. In our monthly email newsletter, we share our favourite recipes – if you’ve got a recipe you’d like us to share get in touch with us!
You might also be interested in reading Marking Your Mental Health.