Just like nutrition plays a significant role in athletic performance, it also plays a big role in academic performance.
During school and university examination periods, the approach to nutrition should not be too dissimilar from that of an athlete’s sporting events.
Below are five tips for athletes on how to approach nutrition during exam periods.
1. Eat regular meals and snacks
Carbohydrates are not just fuel for your working muscles during exercise, they are also fuel for your brain. Just like eating carbohydrates around training and competition fuels your best athletic performance, you should also aim to include a nutritious carbohydrate at each meal during exam periods to ensure that your brain is optimally fuelled. Some examples include rolled oats, grainy bread, starchy vegetables and fruit.
While you may take some time away from your sport to focus on study, minimising deconditioning during this period will aid a smooth transition back following your exams. Maintaining a high-protein diet can help to reduce any muscle loss, so you should aim to include a source of protein in each meal and snack. Examples of protein sources include meat, chicken, fish*, eggs, yoghurt, cheese, milk, tofu, nuts, seeds & legumes.
Hot tip: Fattier fish like salmon and mackerel are rich in omega-3, a nutrient that is great for the brain
2. Avoid excessive intake of nutrient-poor/energy-dense foods
Dietitians are not the food police. We believe in a balanced approach to nutrition that optimises health and performance, while also fostering a healthy relationship with food and your body. This might include the odd piece of chocolate or bowl of ice-cream.
However, a disproportionate intake of less nutritious food options can lead to spikes and crashes in energy levels, making it difficult to concentrate for prolonged periods of time. It can also negatively impact mood and exacerbate stress.
The message here is not to completely avoid certain foods. The message is for nutritious foods like fruit, vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains to make up the majority of your diet, with the occasional discretionary food to only be eaten in moderation (but guilt-free!).
3. Monitor your hydration status
Dehydration has a massive impact on performance, both physically and mentally. Just 2% dehydration can negatively impact your ability to think clearly and make effective decisions.
The best way to continually check your hydration status is by looking at your urine colour. Essentially, the darker it is, the more dehydrated you are – aim for straw-coloured.
Water is always going to be a healthy option. Keep a water bottle on your study desk so that it’s always available and serving as a reminder to keep drinking.
4. Avoid excessive intake of caffeinated drinks (such as coffee)
Hydration is important, but relying on caffeinated drinks for rehydration is a flawed approach.
While caffeine may acutely increase alertness, this alertness does not continue to increase with increasing caffeine intake i.e. more coffee does not = more alertness.
Excessive intake of caffeine can result in adverse side effects including tremors and anxiety, both of which can have negative impacts on performance in the books and training.
Having caffeine too late in the day can also impact ability to sleep, and inadequate sleep comes with its own undesirable consequences.
5. Get enough sleep
Just like you wouldn’t stay up all night before a sporting event (we hope!), the same should apply for exams. Sleep is crucial for optimal performance in all aspects of life.
Including a source of dairy before bed can aid sleep. For example, a glass of milk, tub of Greek yoghurt or cottage cheese on crackers could be great supper options if you feel a bit peckish after dinner.