Nutrition for Competition

"What and When To Eat and Drink Before and During Tournaments"
(This article was printed in the USA-NKF 2003 USA Open Program)

What to Eat

Research varies widely on how diet affects conditions such as cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, and osteoporosis. But the "Big Three" - Fiber, Low Fat, and Fruits and Vegetables - have withstood the test of time. You could call them the food of champions. And they're the ones you should be fueling up with every day. In general, your diet should include at least 25 grams per day of fiber, obtained bananas through whole grains, beans, and lots of fruits and vegetables. These high-fiber foods are also low in fat, so eat up - they'll help reduce fat intake, which should be no more than 25 to 30 percent of calories. And remember what Mom told you: Eat 8 to 10 servings a day of fruits and vegetables for proper vitamin and mineral intake. Remember that taking a daily multivitamin/mineral supplement can help meet nutrient requirements, but it can't make up for a substandard diet. (Hint: One serving is about the size of a tennis ball.)

To start your day right, eat a hearty breakfast that consists of foods that are easy to digest and that in the past haven’t given you any discomfort. For example, here’s a breakfast packed with the Big Three: toasted multi-grain bagel with apricot jam, bran flakes, sliced banana, and non/or low fat milk. Or these athlete favorites: rice pudding (212 calories per serving), yogurt (114 per cup), muffins (103 each), whole-wheat toast (59 per slice), oatmeal (145 per cup), and whole grain cereal (111 per serving). This isn't the time to experiment with a new eating plan, especially if you are also naturally nervous about competition, have traveled to the event, and may be undergoing other changes from your normal routine. Some people have "iron clad" stomachs and can eat anything. Others aren’t so fortunate. Food tolerances are very individual. Know your body and keep track of foods that bother you. Don’t eat those types of foods the day of, or within 48 hours of the tournament. If you have a "queasy stomach" or problems, avoid foods that produce gas and bulk for 48 hours before competition. These include bran and other whole grain products, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, dried fruits, dried beans and nuts. At any other time these foods are healthy and should be included in your diet.

Here are some other notes: If you eat pasta before a big event you'll be in the company of most endurance athletes including 83 percent of world-class cyclists, according to one poll. Their pasta of choice is spaghetti, and 60 percent of them eat it at least three times per week. If you exercise or physically exert yourself 1 hour a day, 60 percent of your daily calories should come from carbohydrates; and if you exert yourself 2 hours per day, up it to 70 percent. To prevent the "bonk" or down (hypoglycemia), which is marked by tiredness, irritability, dizziness, nausea, confusion and sometimes fainting, don’t allow your blood glucose to become depleted. This is the substance that fuels the central nervous system. To keep your stores supplied, eat the same carbohydrate-rich foods used to produce glycogen, the fuel your muscles use. If nutritional sports science has taught us anything in the last decade, it’s the importance of consuming plenty of carbohydrates in the last 2 hours immediately after exercise. That’s when the body is most receptive to reloading the muscle glycogen that fuels endurance activity. Another more recent finding: Adding protein to the mix increases the amount of glycogen that’s stored. A good post-exercise snack that does it all is cereal with a banana and low fat milk.

When to Eat

The timing of your meals is very important. It takes approximately 3 to 4 hours for a meal to digest and it takes 12 to 24 hours to store carbohydrates in the muscles and liver in the form of glycogen. In other words, your fuel tank is filled by the spaghetti, rice, potatoes, bread, clock etc., that you eat during the 2 to 3 days leading up to the tournament. Don’t attempt to build a reserve of energy-rich carbohydrates by eating large quantities at the pre-event meal or during the event.

As explained in what to eat, a large balanced breakfast that consists of carbohydrates, protein and a small amount of fat will give you enough energy to last until after Kata competition. After Kata you can eat a carbohydrate snack and drink fluids to prepare for Kumite competition (see Table of Foods). Don’t eat solid food within 30 minutes prior to an extensive workout. It won’t digest fast enough to give you energy and some of your blood will be used for digestion rather than supplying oxygen and nutrients to your working muscle, also your stomach may become upset. If it is going to be over 3 hours before you compete again, go ahead and eat a mixed meal of proteins, carbohydrates and a small amount of fat. If possible, eat 5 small meals each day rather than 2 or 3 large ones. Small meals spread calories throughout the day, providing a continuous source of energy. When you overload your digestive system, your body can handle only some of the calories. The rest are diverted into fat stores, which are less effective for fueling exercise. And to stress the point again, following a physically demanding activity like a Kumite competition that depletes your glycogen stores, eat a high-carbohydrate meal within 2 hours to refuel your body for the next day.


If you become thirsty while competing you’ve made a big mistake! In hot weather or during constant exercise you should be drinking the better part of 2 quarts per hour. Why so much? Dehydration is one of drink the primary, but most easily avoided, contributors to fatigue. Always remember to replace fluids lost after each exercise or competition period. Water is the best fluid to drink – but orange juice, tomato juice or some sports drinks are also appropriate. Avoid sodas or sports drinks with sucrose (ordinary sugar or corn syrup). Sports drinks with polymers are acceptable. If mixing your own sports drinks, put a less-concentrated solution into the bottles. Drinks always taste sweeter the longer you exercise, and what seems pleasant initially can taste syrupy 3 hours later.

A very important aspect of food that is often forgotten is the psychological boost it gives us. Some athletes have certain foods they will always eat before competing and feel they perform better when they eat them. Peak athletic performance is as much psychological as it is physical, and no nutritionist wants to deprive an athlete of that all-important psychological boost. So, if the foods you’ve been eating aren’t listed here and you are pleased with your performance, keep eating them! If you aren’t happy however and you’ve been having gastrointestinal distress, give the foods listed in the Table of Foods a try.

To perform an excellent Kata takes strong daily practice. You wouldn’t wait until the day of the tournament to begin perfecting it. The same holds true for nutrition. What is most important is that you eat healthy day to day, not just the day of the tournament – by then it’s too late. There are no magic pills, no shortcuts to replace eating wholesome foods. Both sound nutrition and karate take time and diligence, but the rewards are many.

Table of Foods

Sample Ideas of Foods to Eat Before Competition

Orange/tomato juice*
Honeydew melon*fruit
Pita bread*
Muffins* (not bran)
Low fat milk
Low fat cottage cheese
Low fat cheese such as mozzarella
English muffins*grapes
Pancakes with fruit
Waffles with fruit
Cold cereals, unsweetened
Low fat yogurt, unsweetened

*these are also appropriate high carbohydrate snacks to take to the tournament site