Everyone knows that the body needs energy to train and perform optimally, but it is still not completely clear what the right food for training is. In combat sports it is pretty simple: the energy comes mainly from carbohydrates.
Energy for the body can come from carbohydrates, fats and proteins. Protein is the least favorite to use, because it is used to build muscles. Using it basically means that the muscles are broken to provide energy. Usually this is nothing to be worried about, as long as you have sufficient amounts of carbohydrates in the body, the use of protein is very limited. This leaves us with the other two energy sources: Carbohydrates and fat.
To understand the difference between these two energy sources we can compare them to paper (carbohydrates) and lumber (fat). Setting paper on fire happens quickly and the flame is high. Lumber, on the other, takes much longer to start burning and doesn’t make as big flames as paper when it is first lit. When you go on a camp and want to stay warm all night long, you use lumber: it burns longer than paper. Carbohydrates burn much faster than fat, which is exactly what combat sport athletes need: a lot of energy in a short period of time.
What type of carbohydrates?
The question of whether it’s better to eat “slow” carbohydrates (complex carbohydrates) or “fast” carbohydrates (sugar) before training has nothing to do with the speed the body uses the energy from carbohydrates. Once digested and absorbed, all carbohydrates are equal. The terms “slow” and “fast” carbohydrates refer to the digestion and absorption speed. The question of which type is better to take before training largely depends on the time of intake. The closer to training, the “faster” your carbohydrates will need to be, if you want them available for training.
After a carbohydrate-rich meal, the body processes the carbohydrates and stores them in two ways: some of the carbohydrates are stored in the muscle as glycogen and some circle around in the blood as glucose. Starting with full glycogen stores will allow you to train harder for longer. The reason is pretty simple: The more paper you have in your campfire, the longer you can keep the high flames. Another way to increase the ability to train harder for longer, is to fuel the body with additional carbohydrates during the training, by drinking sports drink for example. You can compare it with constantly adding extra paper to the fire. Only carbohydrates can replenish the glycogen stores, which is why a low carbohydrate diet doesn’t fit a fighter.
My favorite pre-workout meals:
A sandwich with jam. This used to be my breakfast before a strong morning training. Bread with jam is fairly easy to digest and I didn’t have to wake up hours in advance to eat it, as it needs only about an hour to digest. The good thing is that you can vary a lot with the flavors of the jam and even use honey or syrup.
Oatmeal with honey and nuts. When morning training was not too early and I had more time to eat breakfast, I preferred oatmeal with honey and nuts. Oatmeal contains a lot of fiber which makes this meal slower to digest. For me, 2 hours where enough to digest this meal, but other athletes might need a little bit longer. The benefit of oatmeal as opposed to bread with jam is that it contains a lot more valuable nutrients.
Shrimps / chicken in curry sauce with rice. When I was still training in Belgium the timing of evening training was a little bit difficult. It always started just late enough to force me to have dinner before training. I had to choose something pretty easy to digest if I didn’t want to have dinner at 16h30. Shrimps with curry sauce and pasta 2 hours before training was one of my favorite options. I usually didn’t eat vegetables with this dish, but I always compensated for this at lunch.
[You can see a recipe here]
Peperkoek or honey cake. When I moved to Israel most evening trainings started at 16h30, which is a lot more convenient for planning your diet. I usually ate a normal high carbohydrate meal for lunch and about one hour before training I loved to eat peperkoek, if I had some. Peperkoek is a typical snack in the Netherlands and Belgium which looks like a sweet cake. Unfortunately it’s hard to find elsewhere. A piece of honey cake has the exact same effect.
[More reading about honey cakes]