Nutrition not only plays a significant role in athletic performance, it also plays a big role in academic performance.
In the same way you want to plan your nutrition for competition and performance, you should also plan your nutrition intake to perform in your exams. With a lot of our athletes completing both HSC or uni exams at the moment, it’s a good chance to practice how you plan and prepare for an event.
Below are seven ways athletes can approach their exams similar to how they would approach competition.
1. Balance energy with regular meals and snacks
Avoid over or under eating because of a change in training times or if you are more busy with study and training. A change in routine over the exam period may make it harder to know what to eat when. A constant will be the need for a regular intake of balanced meals to stabilise energy levels by eating approximately every three hours.
This will include balanced snacks to maintain muscle mass with the inclusion of protein and a wholegrain carbohydrate for slow release energy. 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.
2. Avoid excessive intake of nutrient-poor/energy-dense foods for a pick me up
Take breaks when you need to and don’t feel you need to eat to justify a break or create a distraction from your study. While you might think a sugar hit or easy convenience and processed foods is what you need to get you through long hours, if it leaves you feeling tired, fatigued, irritable, moody or stressed then it may not be the best choice.
A regular 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. Giving the body nutrient poor food when there is a real need for nourishment and fuel will mean you are missing an opportunity to feel, fuel and perform better.
3. Monitor your hydration status
Dehydration has a massive impact on performance, both physically and mentally. Dehydration can lead to dry eyes and fatigue and can negatively impact your ability to think clearly and make effective decisions.
The best way to monitor your own hydration status is by looking at your urine colour. If on waking or toward the end of the day urine colour is quite dark it can imply dehydration and you might need to increase your intake of fluids. Keep a bottle of water on your desk when studying so it’s always assessable and serving as a reminder to keep drinking.
Also, if you are going into a long exam make sure you take an adequately sized water bottle to last the whole duration of the exam.
4. Avoid excessive intake of caffeinated drinks and energy drinks
While caffeine may acutely increase alertness and have a role in some performance plans, the timing and amount has to be considered, as it should with study. Having more caffeine won’t necessarily mean you will become more alert and drinking excessive amounts of caffeinated drinks like coffee, cola and energy drinks can result in adverse side effects including tremors and anxiety, both of which can have negative impacts on performance in the books and at training.
Having caffeine too late in the day can also impact ability to sleep which will further impact concentration. If you find you feel you need more caffeine to ‘wake up’ it might be worth looking at your energy levels over the day and eating habits to ensure you have enough total energy available or to consider if you are getting enough sleep and get to the root of the problem rather than trying to spot fix with a stimulant.
Maintain your habitual caffeine habits and try not to change this on the days leading in to the exam.
5. Get enough sleep
Don’t underestimate the impact of sleep on performance and concentration. Just like you would before an event, being well rested and recovered will help energy levels and focus.
When you are tired it can disrupt your blood glucose levels making you feel drained or hungry and not able to concentrate as well on your exam.
6. Work backwards from your start time to plan your meals
You might need to modify your regular meal times to fit in with your exams, you don’t want to go to an exam hungry because you have missed a meal. Just like on competition day know when you need to be ‘on’ and work back from that so you are well fuelled and prepared to start. So that if you have an exam over lunch time you might need an earlier lunch rather than waiting till after and getting over hungry.
If it’s a morning exam you might need to get up a little earlier to make time to have breakfast before you head off. Allow an hour or two before you are due to stat the exam so you can digest without rushing and not feel uncomfortable.
7. Pre exam meal quality
Avoid a food coma right before an exam. While you may not want to be hungry during the exam, limit very large meals, fatty and heavy foods right before the exam as the blood flow will go to your stomach and away from your head and may make you sleepy an exhausted.
Much like competition day eat something familiar and balanced so you know how it sits and digests and if it will keep you sustained for the exam period.