We’ve all heard the metaphor “you are what you eat,” but how does that relate to volleyball players? As an athlete, what you eat impacts your performance, your energy, and your overall mood. Daily food choices become the fuel that either increases stamina on the court and elevates your game, or can deplete energy, lead to underperformance and negatively impact your mood – and the mood of the team.

If you’ve ever skipped a meal, you probably noticed a drop in your energy and felt lethargic. If you had a night of junk food, you probably didn’t feel your best the next day or were even grouchy. In many ways, what and how you eat is at the center of who you are.

Here’s why. There’s a deep interconnectedness between food, athletic performance, and mental health, known as “the brain in your gut.” Research shows that the gut produces essential nutrients that your body needs during exercise to sustain performance and recover efficiently.

So how do you keep the gut healthy and happy, and your performance at peak level? While getting the right amount of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats is absolutely important – I’ve found that athletes respond better to a more intuitive, sustainable style.

Here’s a few healthy meal ideas that fall under this balanced approach.

For pre-match:

Eat foods in their most natural state whenever possible (i.e. not in a package). Packaged foods have been stripped of their nutrients while natural foods are more likely to be absorbed into the gut. For big tournament days, I like this carbohydrate-rich breakfast:

  • Oatmeal sprinkled with berries or banana
  • Slice of whole wheat toast or *bagel with nut butter and honey as a natural sweetener
  • Add a hard boiled egg(s) to make this a complete, filling breakfast

*Bagels may seem like a healthy, carbohydrate option but most have been overly processed and have little nutritional value. Go for seed-rich or everything bagels that contain heart-healthy fat and fiber, such as rye, pumpernickel, and whole-wheat.

Eat a heavier breakfast at least 2 hours before game time, and if you don’t have 2 hours, skip oatmeal and try one of these:

  • Greek yogurt with nuts/seeds
  • Two hard boiled eggs
  • Whole wheat toast and nut butter

Super pressed for time? Grab a nut and fruit bar! Look for options with less than 7g of sugar and less than 5 ingredients.

For post-match meals:

This is where protein matters, because it helps the muscles repair and body recover from the physical and mental strain of playing all day. For optimal recovery, try this protein-rich meal:

  • Rice or quinoa bowl with lean chicken, fish, or beans
  • Add greens like spinach or romaine lettuce
  • Top with a variety of colorful vegetables and hummus (extra protein!)
  • Choose a sauce to bring it all together like chunky salsa, pesto or light salad dressing

For snacks, take this same approach. Go for whole, fresh foods and if it does come from a package, pay attention to the sugar and ingredient count – less is more! Looking for other healthy snack ideas? Try these!

In sum, taking a balanced, mindful approach to fueling your body = a balanced, strong athlete. And when we feel balanced and strong, then we can perform at the highest level and continue to have fun doing it! This is true for players but also, parents and coaches! We all need energy to show up in our individual roles and be the best that we can be – and that starts with what’s on your fork.

More education for volleyball athlete development

About the Author

Aimee Huffman is a skilled health coach, yoga instructor and former D1 volleyball player with over 15 years of coaching experience at the highest level. She has a passion for working with volleyball athletes helping them change the way they train, recover and perform to move past barriers and unlock their highest potential – physically, mentally and emotionally. Click here to learn more about holistic training and one-on-one performance coaching for volleyball players.