Editor’s note: Few things can be more confusing or frustrating than feeding youth volleyball players. Major college programs have trainers who take care of it all, from pre-match to in-match to post-match meals and snacks. But, for example, making sure club girls players have enough in the tank can be maddening. In this piece, Dr. Chris Koutures offers some solid suggestions that will make players better and give parents and coaches some invaluable and much-needed information:

Are you ready to serve up some solid food and fluid choices to keep you at the top of your game?

The fast-paced and intense nature of volleyball requires bursts of maximal activity for up to several hours per match or practice. To help meet the physical and mental demands of a volleyball player, let’s look at some practical options for pre-activity, during matches/practice, and for post-activity.

Most of the choices are based on whole foods (which are packed with multiple key vitamins and energy sources) that are readily available, easy to transport to the gym, taste pretty good, and aren’t overly costly. Many of the food and fluids you will read about are stocked in the coolers and cabinets of the USA Volleyball training center, so if you want to play like the best, plan to eat and drink like the best!

Nutrition-hydration-Nicole Branagh-Brittany Howard
Nicole Branagh and Brittany Howard hydrate during a time-out at the FIVB/p1440 Las Vegas event/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Fluid choices
What is the best pre-game or pre-practice fluid choice?
The Winner: Water just ahead of flavored sports beverages.
Why: Water provides an inexpensive, readily accessible and low-calorie option. Cold water is better absorbed. For players who prefer something with taste, then flavored sports beverages are a sensible option. Now, do be cautious about routine drinking of flavored sports beverages due to concerns over excessive sugar intake leading to higher risk of dental cavities and increasing body weight.
So how much should you drink before volleyball?
If possible, drink 16-20 ounces of fluid at least four hours before match or practice
Do drink 8-12 ounces of fluid 10-15 minutes before match or practice

How about the best in-practice or in-match fluid choice?
The Winner: It kind of depends
Why: For most practice or matches that last under an hour, water is a very sensible choice. For volleyball activities that go over an hour, water is still solid, but there is an increased role for flavored sports beverages. These beverages have carbohydrate and electrolytes to help replace sugar and salt losses. For “salty sweaters” (white salt rings on uniforms, sweat has distinct salt taste), flavored sports beverages can replace salt losses. Regardless of what you chose to drink, use individual bottles to avoid passing or receiving unwanted illnesses due to shared fluid containers.

How much should you drink during volleyball?
Drink 3-8 ounces of water every 15- 20 minutes while playing less than 60 minutes depending on tolerance
Drink 3-8 ounces of water or sports beverage (5-8 percent carbohydrate with electrolytes) every 15-20 minutes depending on tolerance when exercising greater than 60 minutes
Depending on tolerance means use thirst as a guide. Athletes shoulder never be forced to drink set amounts of fluid

So once you’re done playing what is the best fluid choice for after a practice or match?
The Winner: This also kind of depends.
Why: Well, you actually cannot go wrong with water or measured amounts (again to reduce extra intake sugar and calories) of flavored sports beverages. These are common options if there is limited time (less than two hours) between matches during a tournament. Looking for 8-12 ounces of water or flavored sport beverage right after finishing activity. Now, for an ultimate goal of targeting immediate (first 30 minutes after exercise) muscle recovery, then let’s look at some additional choices.
Chocolate milk: Not only provides adequate fluid for rehydration, but also scientifically supported amounts of carbohydrate and protein that help with muscle repair and recovery. Chocolate milk delivers calcium and Vitamin D which are important for bone health (especially for indoor volleyball players who may have reduced Vitamin D due to limited sun exposure). Almond, rice or soy-based chocolate milk can be used for those who don’t tolerate or are allergic to cow-based milk. For tournament days with short rest periods between matches, chocolate milk may be helpful as long as stomachs can digest it. The goal is an 8-12 ounce serving within 30 minutes after finishing activity.
Tart cherry juice: Also provides necessary fluid intake with unique anti-inflammatory benefits that may reduce both immediate and delayed muscle soreness and stiffness. Tart cherry juice might actually reduce need for non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (like ibuprofen) after exercise. Recommended amounts are 8-12 ounces (or one ounce of concentrated tart cherry juice) twice a day. For a particular demanding training block or tournament, can consider starting tart cherry juice twice a day for 4-5 days beforehand and even continuing for 2-3 days afterward to help with recovery.

Food choices
Let’s now take a step back and discuss some pre-activity food choices.
What foods are best before a practice or match?
Morning meal choices somewhat depend on event starting time. For early matches, especially if there is limited time or some pre-game jitters, may be more difficult to get a large meal. In those cases, some unique recommendations include:
16-20 ounces of water;
Melons, kiwi fruits, or bananas- all give a fair amount of fluids and salt along with some healthy carbohydrates to prepare for play. Most of these are fairly well tolerated on sensitive stomachs, especially bananas;
Trail mix also gives salt, carbohydrate and some protein. Just be careful with any nut allergies.

If there is more time before play (or more calm stomachs), use the above options and add the following choices:
Throw in a mix of short-acting and longer-acting carbohydrates. Fruits give that short-acting boost, while bagels (better whole wheat) can give a longer-acting fuel source.

Add some protein — peanut or almond butter on that bagel is a great combination. When travelling with USA Volleyball, I have found that jars of peanut butter can be in great demand and are treated almost like gold.

Try Greek yogurt (also gives calcium, Vitamin D and even some probiotics to help digestion and the immune system).

Hard-boiled eggs provide protein and tend to be easier on the stomach (and easier to transport) than fried or scrambled eggs.

Many players have also asked if higher amounts of carbohydrate intake (aka carbo loading) might be helpful, especially in the days leading up to a multi-day tournament. Carbo loading is intended to help mostly with endurance activities like running or biking,

Volleyball is more of short-burst sport with frequent rest breaks that doesn’t benefit as much from carbo loading. Thus, as long as players have regular intake of higher quality carbohydrate sources (including whole grain breads and pastas, quinoa), carbo loading is not essential for volleyball players.

What are some good food sources during matches or practice?
For those four- or five-set matches, especially in warmer gyms, fluids alone may not be enough to keep up high level play. Some sensible in-match options include trail mix (careful spilling in on the court) or cut up pieces of fruit. Some players might opt for gel packets or even protein bars- these can provide quick energy but may not be easily digested in the heat of play. It is strongly recommended to experiment with different amounts and types of gels and bars well before match day to avoid any unwanted game day surprises.

How can I best start my recovery after a match or practice session?
In those first 30 minutes after finishing volleyball, think about fluids and protein. A good rule of thumb for protein is 30 for 30- 30 grams of protein within 30 minutes after volleyball. This recommended protein intake is also vital after weight-training sessions.

Don’t forget that chocolate milk as a great source of fluid and protein. Additional post-volleyball choices include:

Those protein-rich foods such as peanut butter and Greek yogurt to help with muscle recovery.

Berries and cherries are also good anti-inflammatory foods that provide a good-tasting healthy post-game snack. Serving them cold or even frozen can make a hot day more tolerable. They can be used in place of tart cherry juice.

Cold serving of watermelon, apples, or oranges provide fluid, Vitamin C and certain salts needed after exercise. These are especially helpful in hot and humid conditions (don’t forget that gyms can get pretty hot and humid) and when there is limited turn-around time between practice or matches.

Hard-boiled eggs and trail mix again are easy to transport and provide boosts in protein and salt intake. Eggs also have a fair amount of iron which is needed by red blood cells carrying oxygen from lungs to working muscle.

Watch those high-sugar content foods after play. An occasional donut or cupcake as a birthday celebration treat is one thing, but regularly eating those type of foods may increase unwanted calories and take the place of better choices.

No food or fluid is going to substitute for the hard work and dedication necessary to become a high-level volleyball player. Making sensible choices before, during and after play can help build the appropriate foundation to meet the intense demands of volleyball and help you continue to build your game!

Dr. Chris Koutures is a dual board-certified pediatric and sports-medicine specialist who practices at ActiveKidMD in Anaheim Hills, Calif.
He is a team physician for USA Volleyball (including participating in the 2008 Beijing Olympics), the U.S. Figure Skating Sports Medicine Network, Cal State Fullerton athletics, Chapman University dance department, and Orange Lutheran High School. He offers a comprehensive blend of general pediatric and sport medicine care with an individualized approach to each patient and family.
Please visit activekidmd.com or follow him on Twitter @dockoutures.


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