Nutrition for Travelling Athletes
Travelling away from home for training and competition is standard practice for most elite and recreational athletes. Unfortunately, the disruptions and distractions of a new environment, changes in schedule and exposure to different foods can significantly affect usual eating habits. Major nutritional challenges faced by athletes while travelling include:
- achieving carbohydrate and protein requirements
- meeting daily vitamin and mineral requirements
- balancing energy intake
- maintaining adequate hydration
- food safety
It is essential that strategies are put in place to minimise the impact of travel on an athlete's food intake. Whether an athlete is travelling overseas or on a long local bus trip, the key to successful eating while on the move is planning and preparation.
A general plan consisting of where, when and what the athlete is planning to eat on each day should be constructed around the anticipated daily schedule. It is important to keep foods and meal times as similar as possible to the usual daily routine at home.
Research the Destination
Food patterns at the destination should be investigated as thoroughly as possible before leaving home:
- Are all important foods available?
- Is the accommodation self-catering or will it be necessary to rely on restaurants or takeaways?
- What are the hygiene and food safety risks?
The internet, travel agencies, embassies, competition organisers or other athletes who have travelled to the destination before can be used to gain information.
Choose Your Catering Style
Cooking skills, budget and access to shops will determine the meals that can be served. The availability of food at local shops, the cooking and storage facilities and available utensils need to be investigated before leaving home. Ideally, the menu should be planned in advance. Cookbooks such as the AIS Survival series can be used as a guide. These books contain special menus for 1-7 days and the corresponding required ingredients. Useful items to pack when self catering include a can opener, chopping knife, extra utensils and storage containers for leftovers. For some locations, power cord adaptors, an in-cup heater and an electric kettle may also be useful.
Athletes often stay in hotels where all meals are provided in the hotel restaurant. On other occasions, athletes or teams may choose to cater for their own breakfasts and lunch and use a restaurant for the evening meal. Where possible, restaurants should be investigated before leaving home. The meal options, cooking styles, opening hours and hygiene of the establishment should be considered. It is useful to book restaurants ahead of time as many businesses are unable to cater for specific requests or large groups at short notice. Discussing the proposed menu with restaurant staff in advance will minimise problems at mealtime. This is particularly important when athletes have special dietary needs (e.g. vegetarian, food intolerances).
Meals that focus on carbohydrate choices such as rice, noodles and pasta are a good place to start. Add lean sources of protein such as lean meat, fish, chicken, beans or tofu and include plenty of vegetables. Avoid dishes that are deep fried or battered. Buffet style eating can be a good option as it allows athletes a range of choices. It is quicker than waiting for individual meals to arrive and is cost effective. One of the pitfalls of buffet eating is that it is easy to over indulge. This can be avoided by planning meals in advance and leaving the buffet when full. If using the same restaurant for more than a few days, vary the menu from day to day rather than within a meal to avoid boredom. If possible, avoid being solely reliant on restaurant/fast food options. They can be time consuming, expensive and a nutritional challenge.
Snacks are an important component of eating and recovery nutrition plans for most athletes, however access to quality snacks can be difficult when travelling. It pays to take a supply of portable, non-perishable snack foods that are unlikely to be available at the destination. It may be useful to send a package of supplies ahead to decrease baggage. Remember to check with customs/quarantine regarding foods that are restricted from crossing certain borders or entering certain countries.
Useful Food Items To Take
- cereal bars
- breakfast cereal
- canned snack pack fruits
- dried fruit
- instant noodles
- jam, honey, peanut butter, Vegemite
- powdered sports drink
- powdered liquid meal supplements
- powdered milk
- concentrated fruit juice
- baked beans and spaghetti
Hotels usually only cater for 3 meals/day. Arrange for snacks such as yoghurt, fruit and cereal bars to be placed out at meals so that athletes can take them for snacks later in the day. Alternatively, arrange for a communal area to be stocked with snacks (i.e. the manager's or “team” room).
Travelling by Air
Meals and Snacks
Athletes are not used to forced inactivity therefore hours spent on a plane may lead to boredom. It is important that athletes avoid over-eating to relieve boredom. Taking other activities on board, drinking water regularly and chewing sugar-free gum can decrease the temptation to snack excessively on long flights. Alternatively, athletes with high-energy needs may struggle to meet their needs if they rely solely on in-flight catering. This may cause the athlete to arrive at the competition destination with reduced fuel stores. Several strategies can be taken to minimise these risks to performance:
- Find out if special meals (e.g. sports, low-fat, vegetarian) are available on the flight.
- Enquire about the in-flight menu and timing of the meal service in advance.On long flights, try to adopt a similar meal and sleep pattern to that anticipated at your destination. This may help to reduce the effects of jet lag.
- Athletes with reduced energy needs should pay particular attention to meals and snacks provided during the flight. It is not necessary to eat everything offered. It may be better to take your own snacks rather than be tempted by all the extra tid bits offered in flight.
- It is advisable to pack extra snacks in carry-on luggage. Food available for sale at airports tends to be expensive and it can be difficult to find nutritious options. It is always useful to have some supplies in case of unexpected delays.
The risk of becoming dehydrated on long flights is high as the pressurised cabins cause increased fluid losses from the skin and lungs. Symptoms of dehydration may include headaches or slight constipation. It is inadequate to rely on cabin service for fluid as the serve sizes of drinks is very small. Athletes should take their own supply of bottled water onto the flight to supplement the water, juice and soft drink provided in the air. Sports drinks are also a useful choice as they provide a small amount of sodium that helps promote thirst (therefore encourages a greater fluid intake), and decreases urine losses. Aim to drink approximately 1 cup per hour during the flight. Caffeine-containing fluids such as tea, coffee and cola drinks may cause increased urine production, but can still contribute to a positive fluid balance in athletes (especially in those who regularly drink caffeinated drinks). Alcohol should be avoided on flights.
Food Safety at the Destination
Gastrointestinal problems are common when travelling to foreign destinations. These can occur in both developing countries and 'safe' destinations. Adopting good personal hygiene and food safety practices will help to decrease the risk of infection and illness.
If the local water is unsafe to drink:
- Drink only bottled water or drinks from sealed containers.
- Avoid ice in drinks.
- Clean teeth with bottled water.
- Avoid salad vegetables unless washed in bottled or boiled water.
- Only eat fruit if it can be peeled.
In 'high risk' areas:
- Eat only from reputable hotels or well known franchises.
- Avoid street stalls and markets.
- Be wary of fish and shellfish.
- Only consume food that is steaming hot or has been refrigerated adequately.
At all destinations:
- Avoid sharing cups, bottles or utensils as infections and illness can be transmitted this way.
If vomiting or diarrhoea does occur, it is important to replace lost fluids and electrolytes. Oral rehydration solutions (such as GastrolyteTM or HydralyteTM) and a safe water supply should be used. A bland diet consisting of dry toast, crackers, biscuits and rice may help. Avoid alcohol, fatty foods and dairy foods until the diarrhoea has ceased.
Food at the Competition Venue
Unfortunately, most sporting venues provide food choices such as deep fried snack foods, crisps and chocolate. Nutritious options are often hard to find. Athletes should carry pre and post exercise snacks and drinks to the venue to ensure that appropriate choices are readily available. Sandwiches, cereal bars, fruit, juice, liquid meal supplements and bottled or powdered sports drinks are ideal. Check that the venue has accessible water outlets and that the water is safe to drink. Carry your own bottled water if the water supply is in doubt.
The following case study outlines the strategy an AIS sports dietitian used to assist a volleyball team survive an international trip. The team travelled to India for 3 weeks. It was the first overseas trip for many of the athletes.
Strategy 1: Assess Travel Itinerary and Competition Schedule
The team schedule, accommodation, dining options and goals were discussed with coaching staff.
- Players were to train or compete daily.
- 3 meals per day were to be provided by hotel restaurants.
Coaching staff and senior players who had competed in India previously were consulted regarding anticipated food availability, quality, safety and potential problems. The hotels were contacted and arrangements made regarding the menus for the duration of their stay.
Strategy 2: Identify Potential Nutrition Issues
- Possible avoidance of local food due to unfamiliarity and dislike of spicy food.
- Dehydration (high temperatures and humidity).
- Limited recovery time between sessions.
- Availability of recovery foods and fluids.
- Side effects of plane travel (first training session scheduled for the day of arrival).
- High risk of gastrointestinal disturbances.
Strategy 3: Education Prior to Travel
Activities were planned prior to travel to help avoid potential problems and to ensure appropriate nutritional strategies were followed.
- An Indian cooking night was organised for team members to increase awareness of Indian foods.
- The team was educated on hydration strategies and hygiene issues. Bottled water was known to be readily available in India.
- The team was educated on issues regarding plane travel. Each athlete was provided with a small pack containing snacks, water and sports drink for use on the flight.
- The team was supplied with a range of portable foods to supplement the player's eating plans and cater for recovery needs. Useful utensils were also provided. Team provisions included:
- cereal bars
- powdered milk
- instant noodles
- small tins of baked beans and spaghetti
- powdered liquid meal supplement
- powdered sports drink
- powdered oral rehydration solution
- electric kettle
- power adaptor plug
- can opener
Players and coaches commented that the preparation and education prior to travelling was of great benefit. This was the first trip to India where no one became sick. This was attributed to the education players received prior to departure and the provision of safe snack choices. The athletes had confidence that they could adhere to good nutritional strategies while in a foreign environment. This helped the team perform to their full potential.
Written by: AIS Sports Nutrition, AIS © Australian Sports Commission.
Updated in 2009.