Nutrition for Cricket: Carbohydrate intake recommendations for cricketers
Cricket is often (wrongly!) perceived as low-intensity, but the reality is that crucial actions such as running between wickets, bowling, throwing, and catching are all high-intensity and explosive in nature. Hours of play put a significant demand on the body, making proper fuelling essential for maintaining performance. Carbohydrates or “Carbs” play a vital role in prolonged exercise performance, and although evidence in cricket is limited, recommendations can be drawn from team and endurance sport research.
What is meant by the term carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are often misunderstood as being limited to certain foods like pasta, rice, potatoes, and bread – however, this is not accurate! Instead, carbohydrates refer to compounds containing glucose (sugar) or those that can be directly broken down into sugar . Foods vary in their carbohydrate, protein, and fat content, which are macronutrients needed in larger quantities in our diet compared to micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) . Instead of strict categorisation of a food as being a “carbohydrate”, consider foods as being rich in one or more of these macronutrients. For example, pasta is not a "carbohydrate," but a carbohydrate-rich food.
Carbohydrates provide 4 calories per gram, protein 4 calories per gram, and fats 9 calories per gram. We will focus on carbohydrates in this article, while fats and protein will be discussed separately.
Examples of carbohydrate-rich foods include cereal, bread, pasta, oats, rice, legumes, fruits, starchy vegetables, energy gels, cereal bars, sweets, sports drinks, bagels, pitta and wraps.
Carbohydrate-containing foods can be classified into simple and complex carbohydrates . Simple carbohydrates are quickly broken down, providing a quick burst of energy and causing a fast spike in blood sugar levels. Simple carbohydrate-containing foods include sweets, fizzy drinks, fruit juice, energy gels and bars, sports drinks and honey. Complex carbohydrates are slowly digested, leading to a more gradual and sustained rise in blood sugar. Foods with complex carbohydrates include high-fibre fruits, vegetables, lentils, whole-wheat bread, barley, quinoa, bran cereal, oatmeal and brown rice.
By understanding this, we can strategically time our consumption of different foods to improve cricket performance. Read on to learn more!
One final piece of scientific background – glycogen……
Last bit of science before I get onto actual recommendations (I promise!)
Carbohydrates are stored in the body as glycogen in muscles and the liver . This glycogen is broken down into sugar, which serves as a vital energy source for high-intensity exercise . To improve high-intensity exercise performance, maximising muscle and liver glycogen stores is the goal! When glycogen stores are depleted during prolonged intermittent exercise, consuming simple, fast-digesting carbohydrates can supply additional energy directly to muscle cells .
General day-to-day fuelling and carbohydrate consumption
It's crucial to fuel properly not only for competition but also for training and daily activities.
For recreational cricket players, aiming for 2-5 g of carbohydrate per kg of body weight per day is recommended, while serious players with more intense training (multiple matches plus S&C sessions per week) should target 4-7 g of carbohydrate per kg of body weight per day .
Multiply your body weight by the chosen number in the range to determine your daily carb intake. For example, a 75 kg premier division cricketer might aim for ~450g of carbohydrates per day if they choose 6 g per kg of body weight.
Note that body composition is also important for cricket performance and with large periods of sitting around, energy demands can vary, so be careful not to over consume carbs as well! You can also substantially drop your carb intake during the off-season when you do not have as many games.
I recommend tracking for a few days and seeing what works for you in terms of carbohydrate intake. Once you’ve tracked for a few days, you can eyeball things – it’s easy to get obsessive over a few calories here and there when it is not necessary!
In terms of timing and type of carbohydrates – think about eating a high proportion of you carbohydrates around your net or S&C sessions , :
- Eat foods rich in complex carbohydrates ~2 hours before
- Eat sugary, simple carbohydrates just before/during
- Eat carbohydrate and protein rich foods after sessions to promote recovery and restoration of the all-important glycogen stores before the next session
Game-day fuelling for cricket
Fuelling for a cricket game day is a different ball game – as match play is generally more intense and longer.
Carbohydrate recommendations day’s before a cricket game
The 48 hour period before games is the “carb loading” phase where we eat a high-carbohydrate diet in order to maximise glycogen stores. The day before is the most important, but carb intake two days before can also help.
Carb loading recommendations for cricket players vary depending on the level, format or role in the team :
- For recreational players, aim for 3-6 g of carbohydrate per kg of body weight per day in the 48 hours before games.
- Higher-level cricketers should target 5-8 g of carbohydrate per kg of body weight per day during the same period
*Note that 8 g/kg/day would represent an intense scenario like professional red-ball or one-day game.
Adjust your intake within the given range based on game format and intensity and be flexible. For example a bowler might drop their carbohydrate intake the day before/morning of a multi-day format game if their team is batting, but should have carbohydrate-rich snacks on hand for if they are needed earlier than expected during a collapse.
Carbohydrate recommendations on the morning of a cricket game
The recommended carbohydrate intake before a day’s play is 1-4 g per kg of body weight, consumed 1-4 hours prior to the event .
The timing, quantity, and type of carbohydrate foods and drinks should be tailored to suit the requirements of the format, standard of cricket and individual preferences. For example, recreational t20 = lower end of the range, professional four/five-day game = higher end of the range.
To minimise the risk of an upset stomach/stitch during the game, it may be best to avoid high-fat, high-protein, and high-fibre choices, particularly if eating a pre-match meal only 1-2 hours beforehand. In situations where carb consumption during the game is not possible or preferred, eating complex carbs may provide a slower, more sustained source of fuel.
This helps to “top-up” glycogen stores before the game, or, if consumed close enough to the game, can provide energy directly to the muscles.
Carbohydrate recommendations during a cricket game
Research suggests that glycogen stores will be highly depleted after 90 minutes of high-intensity intermittent exercise . Due to the more stop-start nature of cricket, it may take slightly longer than 90 minutes, but they will still eventually become depleted.
Taking on simple carbs during exercise can help to deliver sugar directly to the muscles where it is needed , when glycogen stores are depleted. Utilise the drinks breaks or have gels/drinks on the boundary. Also be sure to use breaks between sessions/innings to take on some fuel. Consuming sports drinks will also help to hit hydration targets.
Again, recommendations will differ depending upon game intensity and format :
- T20 game – consuming nothing or 20-30g of carbs between innings in the format of a gel or sports drink will be adequate.
- 40/50 over game – taking on board 15-30g of carbs at the drinks break via gels, drinks or bars plus 30-90g of CHO in whatever format you can stomach between innings.
- 4/5 day game – consume 15-30g of carbs every drinks break whilst playing via gels, drinks or bars. Plus a further 30-90g of carbs at the intervals in whatever format you can stomach.
- The more carbs you’ve taken on during the break, the lower the demand for carbs during play. So if you’ve taken on 60-90+ grams of carbs between sessions, you likely don’t need any during play/drinks breaks.
- Avoiding high-fat pastries, and cakes during breaks is recommended to prevent stomach discomfort.
- Whilst waiting to bat, consume easy-to-digest snacks containing 20-40g carbs every 1-3 hours . If there's a longer break before batting, opt for a more substantial snack.
Actually, the science really supports the classic cricket tea break, as long as you make smart choices!
Pick a number in the suggested range based on your demands. As always, these recommendations depend on your role so if you stand at slip for 50 overs, you don’t need to be smashing the carbs during games but for a boundary rider and all-rounder playing a high standard, under-fuelling could have huge consequences for performance!
Speedy refuelling after a cricket game
This advice is important if you are playing a multi-day format game or have multiple games or important sessions within a week. If you play on Saturday and aren’t playing again until the next week, you don’t need to worry as much about post-match nutrition.
We want to speed up the replenishment of…. you guessed it…. glycogen stores! We also want to promote repair of muscles, which is where protein plays a role.
Maximise recovery by consuming 1.0 - 1.2 g/kg of carbs and 0.3 g/kg of protein per hour for the first 2-4 hours after exercise . For example, a 75 kg male should aim for 75-90g of carbs and ~23g of protein per hour every hour for the first 2-4 hours after exercise. To meet these targets, you can use drinks, gels, or powders if needed. After this, resume day-to-day refuelling to meet goals.
Focus on getting that first feed in soon after play has finished. Again, aim for low fat options in the first couple of hours afterwards to speed up digestion. Ensure that in hitting these targets you do not go over daily energy needs. Avoid alcohol during this refuelling period as it can impair recovery , but if it is the last day of a game, feel free to enjoy a cold beer!
Hierarchy of importance – the 3 T’s
There is a lot of advice here, but which is the most important? This is where the 3 T’s come in . The more seriously you take your cricket, the further down the hierarchy you might consider.
- Total – the most important thing is hitting your daily carb targets to ensure adequate energy for performance.
- Timing – eating carbs around games and during key recovery periods is pretty crucial. You could hit your entire daily carb intake by eating a dominoes and garlic bread post-match, but that isn’t going to help performance during it!
- Type – consuming simple or complex carbohydrates at the right time can be beneficial, but ultimately it’s important just to eat enough carbs and choose foods that sit well with you.
If you enjoyed this article, more nutrition based articles are in the works, so watch this space!
By Sean Sage (@sagesportsci)
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