Essential Nutrition Habits for Volleyball Players

What to Eat and When to Eat It to Be Your Best at Game Time

Match between two women's volleyball teams with spectators in the stands.


Volleyball, unlike endurance sports, has a stop-and-go pace. This is a good thing in terms of nutrition because there are ample opportunities to eat and drink during a match to keep yourself going. Regardless of how great you are at volleyball, your energy level and your ability to stay strong all match long will be the keys to a great performance.

Whether you are playing a match or an entire tournament day, you must keep your body properly nourished and hydrated to play your best. Since a volleyball match can vary widely in length depending on the number of sets required to win, you must be prepared to go the distance at all times. A three-set match could end in an hour, but a five-set match can last up to three hours. Make sure you are prepared for any eventuality.

Anticipate Your Nutritional Needs

The idea of sports nutrition is to anticipate your needs for the foreseeable future and to provide your body with the correct nutrients to respond to the demands you'll require of it. If you get behind in your energy stores, it will take your body a while to recover and get back on track. The game waits for no one, so your poor nutrition can cost your team the game. Make sure you understand what your body needs to perform at the highest level.

Keep in mind that everyone is different and therefore, has different nutrition needs. Pay attention to your body and its response to the food you eat. Did you feel good at the start of the game and then have an energy crash? Did you eat too early and find yourself hungry when the first whistle blew? Does eating before a match give you a stomach cramp or a stitch in your side? Adjust your intake accordingly and find the combination that works best for you.

Game Day Nutrition

On the day of a match, be sure to eat breakfast, lunch, and a couple of snacks during the day. Stick with lean meats, vegetables, and carbohydrates like bread, pasta, and fruit. Stay away from foods high in processed sugar, and avoid any new foods you have not tried before on game days.

The most important meal of the day is your pre-game meal. This is what your body will primarily draw from during a match, so choose your foods wisely. Most experts agree that the pre-game meal should be eaten 2-3 hours before your match. If you're not sure what your ideal time is for pre-game, try eating two and a half hours before the match and then vary the time slightly for the subsequent matches, paying close attention to how your body responds.

Since volleyball requires a lot of quick movement and bursts of strength over a long period of time, it is necessary to provide your body with a good amount of carbohydrates such as fruits, veggies, whole grain cereals, bread, pasta, and low-fat dairy. Supplement your carbo-load with protein (lean meats, chicken, turkey, fish, nonfat cheeses, dairy, and egg whites) and veggies and you have the ideal pre-game meal. The recommended ratio is 50-65% carbs, 10-25% protein and less than 30% healthy fats like nuts, nut butter, fish oils, avocado, soy, and oil-based salad dressings.

Refueling During the Match

There are plenty of chances to refuel during a volleyball match. If the match goes long or you're working harder than usual, you can use up all the stores of energy you packed away before the game.

If you feel you need a boost during the game, this might be a good time to eat a protein or nutrition bar. Most of these bars are formulated to give you energy right away, whereas real food at this point will take longer to convert to energy. Make sure the energy bar you choose has a good ratio of carbohydrates to protein. A good choice has a ratio of at least 4:1 (carbs to protein).

If eating during a match makes you queasy or doesn't sit well, you can restore your energy with the proper hydration. Drink a sports drink during the game in addition to water.

Sports drinks contain potassium and sodium that you lose when you sweat. The calories they provide can take care of some of the muscle breakdowns you might be feeling over the course of a long match.

Playing in a volleyball tournament is distinctly different than playing in one match. Instead of storing up carbs for a two-hour block of time, you need to eat and drink in a manner that will allow you to keep your energy up all day long.

In most tournaments, you will have a game or two followed by a break. Make sure to study your schedule so you can plan the best times to eat. The best course is to eat a good, hearty breakfast and follow it up over the course of the day with high-carb snacks, like pretzels or a bagel. Fruits like apples, bananas, and oranges make good tournament snacks as well.

Take in food when you know you have enough time for your body to process it. Ideally, you will want to take in some food every 2-3 hours. Eat protein or nutrition bars for quick energy, but make sure you have a sandwich or something hearty around lunchtime when you have a free hour or two. Eat right when you finish playing to optimize your body's capacity to store carbohydrates.

If you don't have much time, make sure to keep your snacks light. Playing on a full stomach when your body needs to digest will make you sluggish and hurt your game.

Staying Hydrated

Keep yourself well-hydrated all day long and incorporate some sports drinks with your water to help maintain your energy level and keep your muscles from cramping.

The post-game meal is often disregarded. Sure, most of us eat after a game because we've worked up an appetite. But what you eat at this meal is important because it helps you to store carbs, which will help you recover more quickly.

The timing of this meal matters as well. You should eat within one hour of the end of the game because that is when your body is most efficient at storing carbohydrates.

In addition to taking in carbs soon after finishing a volleyball game or practice, it helps to take in some protein as well. Protein will help your body store carbs and aid in your recovery process.

You should start to hydrate in the days before a match. Technically, if you're in season for volleyball, you should be hydrating all the time for practice, games, and tournaments. When you are hydrating for an upcoming match, start by taking in fluids the night before and all day during the day of a game. Hydrating will keep your body running smoothly, keep your energy up, and help keep your muscles from cramping. You will know you are well-hydrated when your urine is light in color.

During a match, hydration can help to maintain your energy. As mentioned earlier, you should drink a sports drink during a match. The calories from the drink will help give you energy as well as replace the potassium and sodium you've lost. Water alone cannot provide what your body needs.

Drinking a whole bottle of water at once is not the best way to deliver hydration to the body. It is recommended that you drink four to eight ounces of fluid every 15 minutes during activity. This means that during each time out, you should take a few swallows of water. Spreading out your intake in this way will allow you to avoid the feeling of being waterlogged and allow your body to metabolize the fluid throughout the match.