HEMA Tournament Nutrition and Hydration Guide

Preface

Hey, I’m Chuck, a certified personal trainer, nutrition coach and HEMAist training in Liechtenauer longsword. I’ve written this guide after receiving a few questions about my personal nutrition/fitness regime specific to my practice of HEMA.

Your nutritional needs for a HEMA tournament are going to be specifically geared toward stockpiling and replenishing your energy levels before the tournament and throughout the day of the tournament.

I consider this a “living” document, so as you provide me with any feedback or questions, I’ll make sure that this gets updated so that it can be a resource that is constantly revised and improved upon.

Nutrition specific terminology will be used for the duration of the article, so I’ve included a dictionary of terms at the very end.

So if you don’t know what protein is or what carbs are, head over there first. 😉

If you encounter a term you aren’t familiar with, please let me know, (email me at chuck@hemastrong.com or post in the comments) and I’ll add it to the dictionary.

If you are participating in Ringen/Abrazare with pre-defined weight classes, and need to drop weight specifically for the weigh-in, you would be considered a special case with needs beyond the scope of this document. Get in touch with me if you need help with that.

Lastly, if you don’t care about the specifics and want the TL;DR, just jump ahead to the “Putting It All Together” section after you read the disclaimer.

Disclaimer

I’m not a medical doctor and this isn’t specific medical advice. It’s intended for someone considered metabolically healthy. By reading and/or using the information presented here, you are agreeing to the full disclaimer presented here.

Tournament Hydration Needs

The only thing that should impact your performance at a tournament is your fencing and your ability to fence under pressure, not your hydration or your nutrition

If you are only using water to rehydrate, then you may be sacrificing your performance and your recovery.

This is especially the case if you are participating in longsword with it’s heavier protective gear requirements. If you are anything like me, you sweat buckets. Heck, I don’t even sweat too much normally in the gym, but once I put my gear on, I feel like I’m soaking wet in a very short amount of time. With the combination of sweating that much and short bursts of intense fencing, our needs are different compared to someone exercising recreationally.

It’s possible that you are already doing many of the things that I recommend, which is great. If you aren’t though, then this guide is for you. I’ve created it as I want to share some strategies and ideas based on my experience in working with clients as a certified nutrition coach, as well as the strategies that I personally use.

The Basics of Dehydration

We don’t normally notice that we are thirsty until we’ve already lost about 1-2% of our body water, and unfortunately our performance has already started to suffer. Beyond 2%, we can start to experience a headache, fatigue, low blood pressure, dizziness, nausea, rapid heart rate, etc.

It’s not easy to differentiate between dehydration symptoms and what you simply might feel from the adrenaline rush from your matches, so I urge you to consider taking proactive measures for your hydration needs.

In general, we sweat out around .5-2L of fluid (fluid being water and electrolytes) per hour of activity. While replenishing that fluid is crucial, drinking too much at once can be detrimental. Sip, don’t chug!

We can run into one of two problems as a result of our sweating depending on how we try to rehydrate (or not): dehydration (not enough water relative to our electrolyte balance), and hyponatremia (too much water relative to our electrolyte balance).

Dehydration Effects

Water Loss Effect
.5% Increased strain on heart
1% Reduced aerobic endurance
3% Reduced muscular endurance
4% Reduced muscle strength/reduced motor skills/heat cramps
5% Heat exhaustion/cramping/fatigue/reduced mental capacity
6% Physical exhaustion/heat stroke/coma
10-20% Death

(Berardi, 2016)

You might be thinking “I’ll just drinking when I’m thirsty.” Yes, your body does regulate thirst so that you take in more fluid when it’s needed, but it’s important to note that there is a “lag time” between losing fluid and becoming thirsty. If your athletic performance matters, then you are better off being proactive.

Just drink water, right?

Nope.

Ever noticed that you have a slight headache after long sparring sessions, despite drinking water regularly? It may be more than just having taken a few headshots. Even if you haven’t felt like that, to ensure full and adequate hydration, water alone may not be enough. This is especially true in a tournament situation.

As a HEMAist, you should hydrate with more than just water and expect that you may need more fluid that anticipated, ESPECIALLY in a tournament setting.

We may also at risk for hyponatremia (too much water, not enough electrolytes) mostly in situations where we have a need for faster rehydration but are only drinking water to do so.

I would specifically recommend an electrolyte solution in place of plain water during a tournament situation, a sports drink (Gatorade or Powerade) or something like Pedialyte. For those of you that aren’t parents, Pedialyte is used to rapidly rehydrate infants, children, and drunks. It’s also really expensive compared to Gatorade/Powerade powder.

There are some even more expensive options out there like DripDrop; however, I’ve never tried it personally, and I’d rather buy the cheap Gatorade stuff to save money so that I can then buy more swords.

I’d also recommend adding some protein powder (whey, if you can tolerate it) to your rehydration drink. This ensures that you will repair your muscles quickly and not break them down to use for energy during your matches. It also kick starts the recovery process.

I’ll cover this more in a future article, but I also try to ensure that I get 5g of creatine every day. In the meantime, if you are curious about creatine, this amazing resource will get you started:
https://examine.com/supplements/Creatine/

The below links are *not* affiliate links, they are simply what I buy for myself.
Gatorade Powder:
https://www.amazon.com/Gatorade-Thirst-Quencher-Powder-Glacier/dp/B0052HV6EU

Protein Powder:
http://us.myprotein.com/sports-nutrition/impact-whey-isolate/10852482.html

Creatine:
https://www.amazon.com/NOW-Foods-Creatine-Powder-Pounds/dp/B0013OXD38/

Make sure that you use enough water for your mixture! If you don’t use enough water with the Gatorade/protein mix, the digestion process will be slowed down and you won’t get the nutrients as quickly. This can actually add to dehydration rather than rehydrate you, as you’ll be pulling water into the digestive system to dilute the mixture, as more concentrated mixes absorb slower and can also cause digestive upset (the LAST thing you want while fighting!).

You can also just buy an electrolyte mix like Mio if your protein powder already has some added sugars, but the sugar/carbs are part of the hydration strategy.

Don’t mess around when it comes to dehydration. We can’t train or adapt to be better at avoiding dehydration. We simply have to replenish the fluids that we lose, and as martial artists, we must expect that our needs may be different.

What about drinking alcohol?

If you are drinking with your friends the night BEFORE you compete, there are some special considerations. Why, though? Recall the symptoms of dehydration: a headache, fatigue, nausea, dizziness, etc.

If you noticed that dehydration symptoms sound like a hangover, that’s exactly it. Alcohol suppresses the hormones that regulate body water balance. What happens is: you drink, alcohol changes the hormones related to urination and thirst, and then you pee out more liquid than you are taking in, but your thirst levels don’t go up so you get dehydrated.

Make sure that you are drinking water while you drink alcohol, and I’d recommend drinking something with electrolytes before bed.

How much fluid do we normally need?

There is a simple way that you can figure out a starting point for how much fluid your body generally needs outside of tournament/training hydration. This will help you to ensure that you aren’t coming into a tournament/training setting already dehydrated.

For those using imperial system
For every pound you weigh, ingest .45 oz to .6 oz of water.
Example: If you weigh 220 lbs, 99-132 oz of water per day.

For those using the metric system
For every kilogram you weigh, ingest 30-40 mL of water.
Example: If you weigh 100 kg, that’s 3-4L of water per day.

Don’t over think this too much, just use these numbers to get a baseline.

Tournament Nutrition Needs

In general, what and how you eat every day is most important. Just like you would spar and drill often and consistently to practice and excel at your art, consistent good nutrition all of the time will give you the greatest benefit.

But for the focus of competition day nutrition, there are three goals: 1.) do what you’ve practiced, 2.) give your body the energy it needs to thrive so that only your fencing matters, and 3.) avoid foods that make you uncomfortable.

Do The Thing You’ve Practiced

Just like when fencing at a tournament, you don’t want to try out techniques that you haven’t drilled or practiced before, the same goes for your nutrition. Don’t leave things to chance, and don’t try anything new nutrition wise. Instead, prepare, rehearse, anticipate so that you can control the controllable variables.

Give Your Body The Energy It Needs

In order to give your body the energy that it needs, I’d recommend eating small, easily digested foods frequently, throughout the day, rather than big and infrequent meals. These should be mixed meals that contain foods that you are used to eating. Mixed meals mean that they contain proteins, some fats, and most importantly, quality carbs. You’d want your meals high in carbohydrates but also the right, slower digesting, carbs to ensure that you have a steady supply of energy that can be sustained for competition. Eating carbs that are faster digesting are great for once the competition has started, though. The combination of Gatorade, protein powder, and some additional fast digesting carbs like yellow bananas or some raisins is an easy and cheap way to get that taken care of. This way, you’ll be both hydrated and have plenty of energy. Don’t start drinking your rehydration drinks at least until you’ve started warming up and sweating!

Examples of Fast and Slow Digesting Carbs

Slower digesting carbs: Oatmeal, apples, oranges, green bananas, potatoes, whole grain/rye bread.

Faster digesting carbs: kid’s cereal, raisins, yellow/brown bananas, rice, rice cakes, pancakes, candy.

As mentioned above, we would want some fat intake with our pre-competition meals, but not much. It’s a less readily available energy source and can slow digestion beyond what would be ideal for our purposes. Since fat is more energy dense, limiting it does leave room for more carbs, resulting in more energy available for use.

To paraphrase a mentor and friend of mine:

“When we use carbs as an energy source, they yield 2-5x more energy than fat. With fat, you can’t access it as energy as quickly. Fat is a bigger pool of energy, but you can only drain it with a straw. When using carbs as an energy source, the pool is smaller, but you can drain it with a firehose.” – Alan Aragon (“Are Low-Carb Diets Ruining Your Performance?” Fell, 2016)

This is especially important as fencing is characterized as anaerobic, meaning short bursts of intense activity, and thus it is best fueled by carbs.

I’ll provide some examples of what I’d eat personally under the section “Putting It All Together”.

Avoid Foods That Don’t Agree With You

In general, athletes and martial artists tend to be hyper-stimulated on a competition day, and this changes your tolerance for larger meals or meals that take much longer to digest. Ideally, you would want to eat foods that make you feel good, don’t cause stomach upset, and make you feel light on your feet rather than feeling “heavy”. This goes back to the idea of not doing anything new, as you shouldn’t be figuring out what these food choices are the morning of the competition.

In the end, what matters is that you feel full of energy and avoid discomfort. Given that you are going to be burning through your food as fuel on competition day, you don’t need to overanalyze food choices.

Putting it All Together

The Vor/Initial Tempo/Before

Let’s start with the most important thing: caffeine. Caffeine motivates you for physical activity, enhances your performance, and your pain tolerance. Oh yeah, and it’s required in some form if you aren’t a morning person and your pool starts 9 am. You may have heard bad advice/the myth that caffeine dehydrates you. This was based on a ~90-year-old observational study that found that those who drink coffee pee more. That’s it. Get your caffeine in, but as was mentioned before, don’t change anything from your normal routine. If you are hyper-stimulated prior to competition, you may need less than normal, but figure that out through trial and error.

OK, so now you are awake on competition day, have had some caffeine and hopefully have begun to feel human. If you are hungover, I hope you got some Pedialyte!

It’s time to eat!

Ideally, you want to leave 1-2 hours between eating and competition as this will allow your food to properly digest and leave the body free to concentrate on physical performance with adequate energy.

If you are going to be waking up 1-2 hours before competition, you’d want to eat as early as you can. If you have 4+ hours or more, I’d recommend a mixed meal upon waking and then another meal 1-2 hours before competition.

Indes/Mezzo Tempo/In Between

Once you start warming up, you can sip from your rehydration mixture. The ideal rehydration mixture would be 30-45g carb + 15-20g protein + electrolytes (sodium & potassium) in 600 ml/20 oz water every hour during activity. That’s it! This will supply you with steady and easily useable energy while ensuring that you are adequately hydrated. If you feel hungry, yellow bananas (assuming that you can tolerate them) are an easily portable and great snack.

Nach/Contra Tempo/After

Once you’ve finished for the day, have this same rehydration mix afterward as well. From there, it’s as simple has having a meal (that includes 1-2 cups of water) within 1-2 hours of completing competition.

Chuck’s Example Meals

Here is an example of my eating and hydration for the last tournament that I participated in, the 2017 DC HEMA Open. I was only competing in open longsword so it’s a short example.

My pool Competition was set to start at 1 pm. I woke up at 7 am and went to breakfast by 7:30 am after some water and coffee.

I had eggs, turkey sausage, a biscuit, some nonfat greek yogurt and oatmeal with 2 cups of water, 1 cup of coffee. I’m used to larger meals and I felt great afterward.

I got to the competition area by 11 am and started to free spar to get warmed up. A little bit before noon, I had some peanut butter (using PB2/PB Fit which is a lower fat version) and banana sandwiches, and some more water.

Since things were running a bit behind, I did some free sparring with my instructor to stay warmed up, and after started sipping from my Gatorade/protein powder mix.

And that’s it! Right after competing (it was a short day for me with a smaller pool and I didn’t make it to the elimination round), I had a banana and a bit more Gatorade/protein powder before heading off to dinner a few hours later.

Oh, and I wanted to mention, that since it’s generally harder to eat lots of vegetables while traveling, I also bring a greens powder with me.

Summary

  • Using only water to hydrate for a long day of tournaments may not fully rehydrate you and degrade your performance.
  • Sipping at a mixture of electrolytes, sugar/carbs, and protein will optimally rehydrate you.
  • Alcohol dehydrates you by making you go to the bathroom more but without increasing your thirst, so
  • make sure you drink enough water while drinking to avoid a hangover.
  • Don’t try anything new food-wise on tournament day.
  • A good sized mixed meal (protein, some fat, higher carb) 1-2 hours before competing will give you
  • sustained energy throughout a competition.
  • During a competition, the rehydration mixture combined with fast digesting carbs like yellow bananas and/or raisins will ensure that you are hydrated and have sufficient energy.
  • Caffeine is good. But you knew this already.

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FAQ

  1. If I’m on a diet to lose weight, how would that impact tournament nutrition or would it not matter?

    When it comes to tournament performance, I wouldn’t worry about meeting your lower calorie goal that day. In fact, I’d say that you may want to take a diet break leading up to the tournament and even the day after. This is to ensure that you have enough energy going into the tournament and that you are able to recover quickly.

    At worst, if you just add 2 servings of protein and 2 servings of Gatorade powder, it is ~360 calories tops added to your regular diet. If you really don’t want to add the calories, you may want to consider a lower calorie electrolyte drink (Powerade Zero) and a separate protein shake.

  2. Rather than relying on sports drinks, can’t you just supplement your water intake with electrolyte containing foods, like salted almonds, peanuts, fruits et cetera or a vitamin. Personally I don’t like sports drinks due to the added sugar (which I find cloying when thirsty), food dyes et cetera. So when working out or fighting intensely would food derived electrolytes be enough to keep a proper balance? What are your thoughts on this?

    Great question! I wouldn’t say sports drinks are a necessity, but a modern convenience for a specific purpose. You could certainly eat electrolyte-rich foods, but the rapid rehydration may not be as rapid due to the digestion rates, especially if they are coming from higher fat foods like nuts or legumes. I mentioned it an earlier comment, but a more natural version that would also serve the same purposes without added sugars or dyes would be fresh fruit juice, sea salt, and cream of tartar.

Dictionary of Terms

  • Electrolytes are minerals such as sodium potassium, chloride, calcium, and magnesium. Every single process in our body depends on electrolytes and we get them in our food and drinks. We lose them by sweating and in our urine, so if we are sweating a lot we need to replace both fluids and electrolytes.
  • Protein is literally the building blocks of our muscle. Protein from our diet allows us to not only build more muscle but protein is also required for recovery from exercise as well as to ensure that you don’t break down your existing muscle for energy. Examples: lean cuts of chicken/turkey, egg whites, shellfish, protein powder, canned tuna, lean fish.
  • Carbs or carbohydrates are the preferred fuel source for your brain and body. Our bodies store carbs in our muscles and in our liver. Examples: Oats, fruit, cereal, rice, bread, corn, potatoes, Skittles.
  • Fats make things taste great, but are also required for many of our body’s hormones, to support our joint health, and our brain also requires a minimal level of diet fat to survive. Examples: Butter, avocado, olive oil, coconut oil, basically any oil that you can safely eat.
  • Dehydration is when you use or lose more fluid than you take in.
  • Hyponatremia is when the amount of sodium/salt in your blood is abnormally low. Drinking too much water to recover from athletic activity can cause hyponatremia.
  • Creatine is a naturally occurring compound that our bodies make in our liver and kidneys, and we also get in our diets. It’s used in our bodies to produce energy from stored nutrients. If we supplement creatine beyond what we get from our diet, more energy becomes available for high-intensity, short burst activity (like fencing).
  • A mixed meal is a meal that contains some proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. This means that it’s a meal that is going to be slower to digest than a meal that is “unbalanced”. This is where foods that are mixed sources of protein/fat/carbs come into play. Protein + Fat Example: whole eggs, fatty cuts of meat, bacon, cheese. Protein + Carb Example: Skim milk, fat-free dairy, beans, pasta. Carb and Fat Example: ice cream, baked goods, chocolate, pretty much anything that is amazingly delicious (haha). Protein + Carb + Fat Example: Nuts, seeds, nut butters, protein bars, pizza, restaurant salads.
  • Anaerobic exercise is short duration, high-intensity exercise that uses a different energy system in our body than long duration aerobic exercise (like distance running, etc).

References

Berardi, J., Ph.D. (2016). The Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition (3rd ed.). Precision Nutrition.

Fell, J. (2017, January 19). Are Low-Carb Diets Ruining Your Performance? Retrieved February 03, 2017, from http://www.askmen.com/sports/foodcourt/why-low-carb-diets-suck.html