"Nutrition is your fuel, just like gas in a car," MacArthur said. "If you don't have fuel, you won't have the energy to compete."
Here, MacArthur offers advice on fueling your body for high-octane performance:
Basic and balanced
Athletes benefit from the same basic principles of good nutrition that apply to everyone, MacArthur said -- namely, a balanced diet rich in whole-grain carbohydrates, lean proteins, healthy fats, dairy, fruits and vegetables.
Such time-tested diets aren't flashy (or surprising), but unlike the latest fad diets, they have good evidence to back them up, according to MacArthur. And while products such as sports drinks and protein powders can be beneficial, they're less important overall than a balanced diet.
"Focusing on the basic principles of good nutrition is the best way to go," MacArthur said.
Timing is everything
While a balanced diet is pivotal, some food choices are better than others at different times during an activity. Athletes of any age, skill level or sport can benefit from some strategic snack planning.
"Timing is really important," MacArthur said.
• Pregame: About three to four hours before physical activity, eat something high in carbs and protein to fuel your body for the long haul, MacArthur advised. But avoid foods high in fiber and fat, which can cause stomach upset and make you feel sluggish on the field. If you need a snack less than three hours before game time, choose something light and easy to digest, such as a banana or a sports drink.
• In-game: If you're an endurance athlete or if your game goes on for longer than 90 minutes, you should refuel with easy-to-digest carbohydrates. Grab an orange or a sports drink or gel to keep your energy from fading.
• Postgame: After exerting yourself, replace the calories you burned with a balance of carbohydrates and lean proteins.
"Milk is a great option for postgame refueling," MacArthur said.
Don't forget to drink
Staying hydrated is also critical for athletes, especially when working out in hot weather. Severe dehydration can have serious consequences, including problems regulating body temperature, which can lead to heat stroke and even death.
"But," as MacArthur noted, "even mild dehydration can negatively impact athletic performance," causing problems, such as fatigue, cramps, reduced strength and reduced endurance capacity.
To play at your peak, start drinking water several hours before physical activity and keep it up during exercise and afterward, too.
"Usually, water is adequate -- especially for kids," MacArthur said. "But if you're exercising more than 60 minutes, sports drinks can be beneficial."
Helping you play your best
The Inova Sports Medicine team is dedicated to helping athletes at all levels play their best. Nutrition is one important piece of that puzzle.