Archived Feature - Fueling Success: Proper Tournament Day Nutrition

by Matt Krumrie, Special to USA Wrestling

In 2013, the Zimmerman (Minnesota) Youth Wrestling Club stopped selling soda at its tournaments. It was a logical decision, says Head Coach Derrick Montplaisir.

"We can't make money selling soda to kids we are asking to avoid drinking soda," Montplaisir explains. It was a small, but nonetheless symbolically important step in emphasizing how proper nutrition, especially during tournaments, can give wrestlers the extra edge needed to succeed.

Doug Schwab, wrestling for the University of Iowa, lost the 141-pound 2001 NCAA championship match to Michael Lightner of Oklahoma, 5–4. Schwab had done everything right in terms of mental and physical preparation, but because he didn't eat right during the three-day tournament, he was not able to achieve peak performance during that finals match, says his brother, Mark Schwab, now an assistant coach at Northern Iowa, where Doug is the head coach.

"I observed Doug warm-up for a very long time prior to his match," says Mark. "I could tell from watching his match that he was faded. I later found out he only had two bananas on the day of his NCAA Championship match and that was at roughly 2 p.m., five hours before he was to wrestle. I also found out he wouldn't eat anything many days until two or three in the afternoon while training rigorously. He wasn't fueling his body properly. But once he made those adjustments it made a significant difference for him down the road." Significant indeed. Schwab went on to have a successful international wrestling career and competed in the 2008 Olympics for the United States at 145 pounds.

Montplaisir acknowledges he should spend more time discussing proper tournament day nutrition with his wrestlers. The problem, he says, is when discussions about nutrition and eating right end up becoming discussions about weight management. "There are some wrestlers that would benefit from coaches spending more time on nutrition," he notes. "Wrestling is a hard sport. Getting nutrition confused with weighing less too early can make it even harder. Coaches need to talk about healthy food being the building blocks for muscles. "

That's why discussing the importance of eating right should be done in a positive way, to reinforce that fueling for success is as equally important as perfecting an inside trip or visualizing success before the big match. That's what Mark Schwab says they try to do at Northern Iowa.

"We have given our athletes a general nutrition plan, but I have found that you have to stress your points again and again," Schwab. "Simplicity and consistency are crucial. We try to promote a lifestyle over a diet, phrasing it like this seems to resonate and not sound so restrictive." In other words, eating right during a training period loses many of its benefits if suddenly, during the day or days of the tournament, the wrestler decides to hit the concession stand and slam down bags of junk food, cookies, and hot dogs.

"I like to compare a wrestler’s body to a finely tuned muscle car," says Steve Preston, a strength and conditioning coach who created the Ultimate Wrestling Strength, strength and conditioning program for wrestlers and MMA athletes. "You need power from the rear axle and you need tires, as well as fuel. I like to have wrestlers think of food as fuel for the body. You have to have it to keep going. Putting better fuel in the tank always helps get more miles off a single tank, it burns more efficiently."

This can be achieved by eating the right amounts of lean protein, complex carbohydrates, and fibrous carbohydrates, adds Preston, who suggests wrestlers follow these tips in terms of tournament preparation:

· A meal full of complex carbohydrates the night before a tournament, along with just a bit of protein will help load glycogen in your muscle cells to ensure competitors will have energy deep into the tournament. This also helps keep blood sugar stable during a match. Good examples of these foods are grapes, apples, oranges, and trail mix. Those are also good foods to eat throughout a tournament. They are not filling and provide needed energy.

· When refueling in the evening during a multi-day tournament, try to eat clean foods. These are nutrient dense foods that supply your body with the vitamins and minerals with the least amount of calories and include a good mix of proteins such as free-range whole eggs, almonds, grass fed beef, avocados, free range chicken and almond butter, and carbohydrates such as Ezekiel bread and sweet potatoes.

· Post-match nutrition is vital for recovery and to prevent burnout. Chocolate milk and rice cakes are good choices.

· Don't cut the carbohydrates because it's what all the trendy diets say. "Without a liberal amount of carbohydrates, you will burn out and possibly get injured," says Preston.

· Don’t forget about post-tournament nutrition. Chicken with white rice, or a protein shake and rice cakes are helpful. This should be consumed within an hour of the tournament—on the way home, for example, if it’s a long ride.

Keep in mind that some foods can have a negative long-term effect on performance, so it’s best to avoid soda, cookies, candy, caffeinated energy drinks, chips and heavily processed foods. This is, however, easier said than done when it comes to a hectic day at a youth wrestling tournament, acknowledges Montplaisir. "The easiest way to get a child eating healthy food is for the parents to provide healthy food and responsible portions," he says. "Youth wrestlers are not the people with the checkbook or debit card at the supermarket checkout line. Coaches need to find a way to get parents on board with proper nutrition if they want to help."

The reality is that kids occasionally make poor nutrition choices, but when that happens, emphasize moderation, says Schwab. "Soda tastes good, but often doesn’t quench your thirst and is a high-sugar, high-calorie drink," he says. "Energy drinks are artificial energy. They may give you a boost, but often take you lower than where you started. It’s about making solid decisions. Emphasize the importance of water throughout a tournament at all times. Then, find a balance of beneficial fuel and fuel for taste,” Schwab says. “It will pay off in the end.”

With proper tournament nutrition, you’re more likely to win those matches late in the third period that require more energy. "If you are fueling with junk you won't have that advantage,” Preston points out. “Teammates should help each other stick with their meal plan because eating is always the toughest thing to stick with. Sticking to a meal plan, especially for a young wrestler, is very tough. Education and team support is paramount."

Additional Tournament Time Nutrition Tips

· Understand the importance of water. Water keeps you dehydrated and keeps your entire body running properly. Eating right and fueling for success during a tournament requires drinking plenty of water.

· Wrestlers who use an electrolyte replacement while rehydrating after weigh-ins should also include carbohydrate-rich snacks such as bagels, graham crackers, pretzels, granola bars, bananas, yogurt, or pudding cups.

· Shortly after a match, wrestlers should include a recovery meal that incorporates carbohydrates, proteins, and fluids. A couple of good choices include low-fat chocolate milk and nutrition shakes free from supplements. Rice cakes are also a good option.

· When it comes to tournaments, use preseason tournaments to prepare for postseason tournaments, says Schwab. "It’s worth the time to experiment and take notes early in the season. Once an athlete finds what works, they have a reliable system and only small adjustments may be needed for entire career."

· Create healthy habits. Eating right doesn’t need to be viewed as punishment. Make it enjoyable and focus on the benefits, not the negatives.

Note: This archived feature first appeared in USA Wrestling's newsletter in February 2014.