Sports science always has popular topics that come and go with time. If you have been in this industry for any length of time, you will see things become the “next big thing” every few years or so until the next cycle begins. Common popular topics that always surface and then disappear for awhile include core training, balance training, bodybuilding movements, plyometrics, and stuff that looks cool on Instagram.
None of these things are bad things (except maybe Instagram clickbait), they just simply fall into a category of rising and falling popularity. But, one thing that has stayed consistently popular no matter how much time passes is the age old question:
“Hey Coach! What should I be eating before a game?”
This question continues to be popular because it’s a conversation that is completely full with good science, but also with a bunch of complete crap. Old school coaches, supplement store employees, that bro at the gym, and online forums don’t make my job very easy. Although they mean well, in most cases most of the time they do not have a real education in this area and are more often than not regurgitating what an advertisement told them or what “their jacked friend” does.
For the remainder of this article, I’d like you to free yourself from the charisma of the cashier at GNC and open your mind to some real science. Although I’ll need to provide one quick disclaimer first before we dive into the nitty gritty of nutrient timing. It is incredibly important for me to point out the fact that although nutrient timing strategies can play a meaningful impact on your performance, body composition, and recovery; they are a small detail in comparison to the total amount of protein, carbohydrates, and fat you take in per day.
Meaning, your “end of the day” total counts for protein, carbohydrates, and fat are infinitely more important than when you actually have these nutrients. A typical example from baseball players who have their priorities a little backwards is a conversation such as this:
Athlete: “Absolutely Coach Garner! I make sure to have 50g whey isolate with my creatine after every single workout. I would never miss it.”
Me: “Ok that’s great, but do you know how many grams of protein you’re getting throughout the entire day?”
Athlete: “No, I have no idea.”
This is what I call majoring in the minors, and why I threw the disclaimer up first. Don’t get the cart before the horse, total daily calories and macronutrients are more meaningful towards your performance, recovery, and body composition overtime than when you choose to have certain nutrients. This has been demonstrated in the literature for decades now. When and only when you have a habitual, regular intake containing optimal amounts of the various macronutrients to meet your activity level and body transformation goal needs—then you are cleared to move forward and optimize your pre-game window strategy.
Knowing that our diet is made up from the three main macronutrients:
How much of each should we be having before games to optimize our performance?
And are there certain types of these nutrients we should be consuming?
Baseball Pre-Game Protein
You will get some camps that say pre-workout protein doesn’t matter and other camps that say it absolutely does matter. There is also evidence to support both sides of this argument.
Why is that?
Two reasons mainly:
#1: Pre-game protein won’t do much for you if your total daily protein intake isn’t being controlled (again, the disclaimer), so short term studies don’t give us much support or direction here.
#2: The benefit of pre-workout protein is largely dependent on the size and timing of the meal. If you have a very large meal, digestion and absorption times can last 6+ hours. Conversely, a smaller meal will take less time to digest and absorb (and therefore, reach your muscles sooner).
What does this all mean for you?
If you have a solid amount of protein 1-2 hrs before your game or workout, your blood amino acid levels are going to be elevated come game time or workout time and protein synthesis (muscle growth) will be stimulated at an optimal time, which is during physical activity.
Conversely, if you have a small amount of protein 3+ hours away from your physical activity, your blood amino acid levels are likely going to be quite low come time to perform and your protein synthesis rates will be low as well.
Provided you have an adequate amount of protein not too far away from the game, it will help you maximize your muscle growth/muscle retention during physical activity due to elevated muscle protein synthesis rates before starting your warm-up.
Additionally, this meal and timing will help prevent muscle protein breakdown during training, sparing your current muscle from being used as an energy substrate to fuel physical activity.
For men, this typically means 35-50g of protein 1-2 hrs before a game. (roughly 1.5-2 palm size servings of protein)
For women, this typically means 20-35g of protein 1-2 hrs before your game. (roughly 1-1.5 palm size servings of protein)
The 1-2 hrs range is there so you can customize the process based on your own individual appetite. You don’t want to be starving on the field. Some people are fine eating 2 hrs before a game, whereas others would be starving if they did that.
I recommend using animal sources of protein since they provide the ideal amino acid spectrum for gains in muscle mass and performance enhancing effects. Some examples include chicken, red meat, turkey, fish, or eggs.
Baseball Pre-Game Carbohydrates
Pre-game carbohydrates improve baseball performance, period.
Research on pre-workout carbohydrates is very clear. These carbs are more efficient at meeting the energy system-specific demands of your both your training workouts and your game day needs.
Although this carbohydrate fuel won’t directly stimulate new muscle growth, it does so indirectly as a by-product of you being able to push more weight for more reps during your training sessions. This creates an overall greater muscle-building stimulus to adapt and recover from.
Of very important note here towards a game day situation: carbohydrates are the preferred fuel source for both the nervous system and the muscular system.
This means that eating a pre-workout meal of carbohydrates can help delay fatigue within both nervous system and the muscles you’re exercising. Getting more specific with how this works, glycogen primarily fuels the sport-specific muscle cell activity while blood glucose is the preferred fuel source for the nervous system. Meaning, a properly timed carbohydrate meal can impact both the car (your muscles) and the drivers (your nervous system recruiting your muscle fibers) performance levels.
In some cases, this systemic fatigue (the driver) can occur before the actual muscles you’re training fatigue. For example, let’s say you are pitching at a high rate for an extended period of time. Your nervous system may very well fatigue and negatively affect your pitching performance before the muscles involved in the pitch actually begin to fatigue.
These are the days where you feel you “just don’t have it” or “just can’t get into it today”
The muscles aren’t sore, and yet you’re not performing at a level you know you’re capable of. A pre-workout carbohydrate meal can help delay this kind of neural fatigue and keep you “in the zone”.
Pre-workout carbohydrates have also been shown to provide a fantastic muscle sparing effect. Meaning, it helps to protect the breakdown of your own muscle tissue during intense activity. This is mainly spearheaded by the secretion of the hormone insulin, but is also due to the fact that pre-workout carbohydrates are providing a readily available preferred fuel source, giving the body no reason to search elsewhere.
“Ok, I get it. Carbs are good, but what should I do?”
Ideally, these carbohydrates should come 1-3hrs before training in the form of real food (e.g. quinoa, oatmeal, rice, white potato, sweet potatoes, etc.).
Slowly building the meal, we are now sitting at:
For men, typically 35-50g of protein + 50-90g of carbs 1-2hrs before a game.
For women, typically 20-35g of protein + 30-60g of carbs 1-2hrs before a game.
Baseball Pre-Game Fats
Fats don’t get talked about much in regards to pre and post-game nutrition, and for some pretty good reasons in my opinion.
You will see MCT’s (medium chain triglycerides) get recommended from time to time in fitness circles as a “fast acting fat” energy source. It metabolizes much quicker than other more common fat sources, making it a more “readily available” energy source. Some even go as far as to compare it to glucose, which is downright silly.
Consequently, people like to supplement with it during low carb diets or discuss its faster metabolism to make a case for performance enhancement. In theory, a fast acting fat sounded like a great idea, but, theories don’t always play out the ways we want them to.
Here’s why I’m not on board from pretty much all angles of baseball performance.
The crowd that is generally plugging for MCT’s is the body composition and/or performance crowd, meaning they don’t necessarily care about looking at some of the clinical outcomes.
From a health perspective, there was a well-controlled study done 13 years ago by Tholstrup et al examining just 3-weeks of a diet supplemented with 70g MCT versus a more common LCT (long chain triglyceride).
The outcomes were not favorable, to say the least.
MCT intake caused a 12% increase in LDL cholesterol (AKA “bad” cholesterol), 32% higher VLDL, 12% higher ratio of LDL to HDL, 22% higher plasma total triacylglycerol, and significantly higher glucose levels.
After just 3 weeks, that’s an impressively bad outcome for your cardiovascular system. Especially since it was paired up against the LCT’s which did not significantly raise ANY of those parameters. This study is only one example of several that I’ve seen with similar outcomes.
Looking at it from a body composition perspective, St-Onge et al in 2003 compared olive oil to MCT’s and their effect on weight loss over a 4-month period. They found that the MCT group lost 1.5kg more weight than the olive oil group.
This might actually be interesting if the study wasn’t 4-months long.
Three pounds of weight loss over a 4-month period means absolutely nothing to us; that’s a drop in the ocean. Three pounds is honestly a good trip to the bathroom (maybe I’m just speaking for myself on that one), in any case, it’s nothing at all to write home about.
Put another way, this is 0.75lbs a month extra weight loss for a much more expensive, less tasty, potentially health damaging option. Exercising for 5 minutes every day would burn a similar amount of calories, which is nothing compared to the energy demands of playing baseball!
What about eating MCT’s around the workout? It’s a fast acting fat so it might be good pre-workout or intra workout, right?
“Eat fat to burn fat!”
Again, unfortunately, MCT’s just keep dropping the ball (see what I did there?).
PRE-WORKOUT: Jeukendrup and Aldred did a solid review of lots of research on pre-exercise MCT’s dating back into the early 80’s. Dosages, timing and exercise intensity all at varying levels. Not only did MCT’s not boost performance measures, it wasn’t even effective at preventing glycogen breakdown.
INTRA-WORKOUT: Another review from Jeukendrup et al on the intra-workout use of MCT’s found only 1 study of 8 with a positive result, and anybody who consumed over 50g had notable gastric upset. Pretty clear-cut answer here if you ask me. Low reward, high cost.
Long story short on pre- and intra-workout nutrition is that carb’s beat MCT’s every time, by a long shot.
At the end of the day, we have a higher priced option (as far as supplemental fats go) that seems to do no good and can also have detrimental effects on our health AND baseball performance.
Obviously, as baseball athletes, we need to be concerned with our performance. However, we also need to be concerned with our career longevity and health.
There are enough ways to get wrecked out there on the field to cut a career short. Let’s not create more potential problems off the field.
So, what can we draw from the discussion on pre-game fats? What should you do?
LCT’s aren’t a bad pre-workout option because they help stabilize blood sugar, which is important for keeping your energy levels high during a long period of activity such as baseball where you are more susceptible to having blood sugar drop. Signs of this typically include shakiness, a ravenous appetite, moodiness, and an overall ability to suck at baseball.
The only caveat here for fat intake is that it really slows down digestive processes in the gut.
If you’re going to have a moderately higher fat pre-workout meal, it needs to be eaten more like 2-3hrs pre-game. If you’re going to have a lower fat meal, you can bump that forward to 1-2 hrs just like the protein and carbohydrate recommendations.
To wrap today’s post up and bring this one in for a landing, let’s look at the big picture here and provide some real-life examples, as opposed to just numbers.
Pre-game ideal recommendations for males:
Pre-game recommendations for females:
Pre-game meal ideas for males:
- 6oz of chicken breast + 1 cup rice + 1 cup quinoa + ½ avocado
- 2 whole eggs + 1 cup egg whites + 2/3 cup oatmeal with 1 tbsp. honey in it
- 6oz wild salmon + 6oz sweet potato + 1 cup rice
Pre-game meal ideas for females:
- 4oz lean meat + 1 cup rice + 1 tsp. olive oil drizzled on top of meal
- 1 whole egg + ½ cup egg whites + ½ cup oatmeal with 1 tbsp. honey in it
- 4oz ground turkey + 6oz sweet potato