What to eat before and after your squash game

Written by Adele du Rand

Squash is an intense sport, and fueling your body correctly is important if you want to have sustained energy during your game.  In this post, we’ll look at the latest research on sports nutrition. 

The Highlights

  • Your body prefers to use carbohydrates as an energy source when you do high-intensity exercises.
  • Eat healthy carbs, not empty carbs.  An apple is not the same as a donut. Enjoy sweet potatoes, potatoes, rice, fruits, starchy veggies, and legumes (beans and lentils).
  • You can reload your energy reserves after playing a long squash game or many games on the same day (like when you play in tournaments) by eating healthy carbohydrates.
  • Specific micronutrients are important for high exercise performance: Magnesium, iron, zinc, vitamin D, vitamin C, and potassium. Foods include dark chocolate, avocado, nuts, legumes, red meat (not too much), beetroot, dark leafy greens, seeds (hemp, pumpkin, and sesame), bananas, broccoli, potatoes, sweet potatoes, watermelon, berries, and citrus fruit.
  • You need a healthy gut for energy production. Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables every day to support gut health.  Fermented foods, such yogurt, sauerkraut, kombucha, kimchi, kefir and tempeh, also helps your gut.
  • Stay hydrated. Make your own hydration drink by combining water with a pinch of salt, potassium, glucose, or sucrose (like organic brown rice syrup or pure maple syrup), or drink coconut water.
  • Drinking 250 ml to 500 ml beetroot juice two to three hours before high-intensity exercise may help with cardiorespiratory endurance.
  • For rapid recovery, the experts suggested that a 73 kg athlete should eat carbohydrates (roughly the size of a medium potato or one cup of pasta or rice) every 30 minutes for 2 to 4 hours, or until the next full meal!

Eat the right carbs

For high-intensity activities, like playing squash, your body prefers to use carbohydrates as fuel!  These carbohydrates are stored in the muscles and the liver, and when you need a huge amount of energy quickly, the stored carbohydrates are then used for energy!

After a hard squash game, you need to refuel your energy reserves.  What is your best option to refuel?  While it seems a no-brainer to choose energy drinks and chocolates, these carbs are loaded with sugar and very little, if any, nutrition.

So what are the right carbs?

Think like this:  A donut is not the same as an apple! You get carbs that are empty – loaded with sugar and very little, if any, nutrition. Then you get carbs that are brimming with vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, antioxidants, and enzymes, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes. So, while energy bars and energy drinks are convenient and do help your body with energy, it is not good food. The better options are whole, natural food, such as a variety of colourful fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes.

But what about using fat for energy?

What is interesting, is that your body prefers carbohydrates for certain activities and fats for other activities!  So, your body switches between the different energy sources depending on what you are doing!

So, it’s not that fats are a poor source of energy, not at all.  It’s about understanding that for certain activities, your body will perform better on carbohydrates than fats.

Let’s have a look at the research.  Research has shown that physically active people can adapt their energy production systems to use ketones (fats) as a fuel when exercising at low intensity, but it seems that the long-term performance of these diets could be harmful to performance [4]. Other research found that you can actually cause skeletal muscle damage when training or competing with a low-carbohydrate diet. What the experts agreed on, is that is difficult to keep the energy levels high when you are competing or participating at high intensity.

A healthy guts helps energy production

Your gut is home to 10-100 trillion organisms or microbes, primarily bacteria.  It is called your microbiome.  These microbes are responsible for breaking down your food so that your body can use it [1].

The healthier your microbiome is, the better your food is digested.  If your food is not well digested, those important vitamins and minerals are not available for your body to use in the energy production process.  Also, undigested food can cause inflammation and impact your immune system.

Second, these microbes create their own waste products, called short-chain fatty acids (also called post-biotics).  These postbiotics are very useful to us: each and every cell in our bodies uses these short-chain fatty acids for healthy function, including energy production!

So, if your cells don’t get these short-chain fatty acids, they cannot function well, and your energy production will suffer.

How to keep your gut healthy and happy

The best way to keep your gut healthy is to eat lots of fruits and vegetables, eat a variety of fruits and vegetables each day, eat fermented foods (like and limit the use of antibiotics and NSAIDS like ibuprofen).

While it can help to take a probiotic (to increase the variety of healthy gut bacteria), you can also eat fermented foods, like yogurt, sauerkraut, kombucha, kimchi, kefir and tempeh.

The mighty micronutrients

Shifting the focus to the micronutrients.  Micronutrients are the vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and enzymes that help our bodies to work at their best!

We need a huge amount of these micronutrients for our cells to be able to make energy.  So, if you are looking for energy, make sure that you eat a variety of fresh fruits and veggies each and every day so you get all these micronutrients in.

When you are doing high-intensity sports, like squash, some nutrients play a very important role.  There are a few reasons why we should focus on these nutrients.  First, we lose nutrients through sweating.  Second, our bodies use these nutrients as our metabolic rate increases, and third, increased brainpower also uses more nutrients.  Therefore, we need to load up!

Which micronutrients are important for energy and performance?   Magnesium, iron, zinc, vitamin D, vitamin C, and potassium

What should you eat?  Let’s have a look:

  • Magnesium: banana, dark chocolate, nuts, legumes, tofu, leafy greens, and seeds.
  • Iron: spinach, shellfish, legumes, red and organ meats, pumpkin seeds, and quinoa.
  • Zinc: red meat, shellfish, legumes, seeds, nuts, and eggs.
  • Vitamin D: salmon, cod liver oil, egg yolk, and get some sunshine on your skin!
  • Vitamin C: citrus fruit, peppers, strawberries, blackcurrants, broccoli, and potatoes.
  • Potassium: avocado, sweet potatoes, spinach, watermelon, coconut water, butternut. beetroot and bananas.

Staying hydrated

For any exercise, hydration is massively important.  Good hydration keeps you thinking clearly, supports your gut circulation, and helps with blood flow to your organs and muscles.

You know you are well hydrated when your urine colour is light yellow in colour.  Not clear, and definitely not dark yellow or brown.

How can you make sure you stay hydrated when you do high-intensity exercise?

It is not just about drinking water.  What you need is water combined with electrolyte minerals and sodium and, sometimes, even glucose!  Both sodium and glucose “help” water absorption in your gut!

You can make your own drink: combine water with a pinch of salt, potassium, and glucose or sucrose (like organic brown rice syrup or pure maple syrup).   You can also buy electrolyte mixtures, such as Rehidrat ® sachets.

You can also drink coconut water.  I love coconut water as it contains key nutrients, including magnesium, potassium, calcium, sodium, and manganese.

Avoid the common sugar alternatives, like sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol, sucralose, maltodextrin, and fructose, especially high fructose corn syrup.  And definitely avoid the “energy drinks” as these drinks often have too much sugar in that what you need.

Have some beet juice

Beetroot juice has also received a lot of attention in the last few years, specifically to help with athletic performance.

And with good reason.  Beetroot juice increases the levels of nitric oxide in your blood, which helps with increased blood flow and cardiorespiratory endurance (the level at which your heart, lungs, and muscles work together when you exercise for an extended period of time) [5].

To quote from a study [6], “Results indicate that beetroot juice is given as a single dose or over a few days may improve performance at intermittent, high-intensity efforts with short rest periods.”

How to refuel after your game

Eating the right carbs after exercise is also important to help restore your energy reserves.

Research [2] indicated that nutritious, carbohydrate-rich foods that can be quickly digested, can help with recovery.  This is important, especially when doing strenuous exercise on the same day or even on consecutive days – I am thinking of squash tournaments here, where players may have to play more than one game per day, for a few days.

When you want to reload your energy reserves, load up on sweet potatoes, potatoes, rice, fruits, starchy vegetables, pasta, legumes, and rice [3].

For example, for rapid recovery, the experts suggested that a 73 kg athlete should eat carbohydrates (roughly the size of a medium potato or one cup of pasta or rice) every 30 minutes for 2 to 4 hours, or until the next full meal!  [3]

Everybody’s nutritional needs are different

Unfortunately, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach as to what you should be eating, from both a macronutrient (how much protein, fats, and carbohydrates) and a micronutrient (vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and enzymes) point of view.

Other factors have an impact on your body’s energy needs and ability to make energy, such as age, health history, fitness levels, injury, gender, allergies, food sensitivities, immune health, and athletic goals.

The first step is to figure out what works for you, and the second, work with a nutritionist to find the exact approach that works best for you.

In summary

Nutrition has a huge impact on your ability to perform.  As squash is very demanding on your body, it is important to understand what works best to refuel your body so that you are ready for your next game, especially in tournaments when you are playing two or even three games on a day.

The research gives us a great starting point.  Carbohydrates are best, so load up on nutritious carbohydrates (remember, a donut is not the same as an apple!).  Beet juice has also shown benefits, and I recommend you make a juice with beet, pineapple, and orange or carrot for a delicious drink!

In the end, you need to experiment and find out what works best for you!

Sources and references

[1] Defining the Human Microbiome.  Ursell LK et al.  NCBI.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3426293/  Accessed 16 Dec 2021.

[2]  High-Quality Carbohydrates and Physical Performance. Kanter, M. Expert Panel Report.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5794245/  Published online 21 Oct 2017. Accessed 15 Dec 2021.

[3] Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: March 2016 – Volume 48 – Issue 3 – p 543-568. https://journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/Fulltext/2016/03000/Nutrition_and_Athletic_Performance.25.aspx  Accessed on 15 Dec 2021.

[4] Rethinking fat as a fuel for endurance exercise. Volek JS, Noakes T, Phinney SD.  Published online 2 Oct 2014.  https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25275931/  Accessed 15 Dec 2021.

[5] Effects of Beetroot Juice Supplementation on Cardiorespiratory Endurance in Athletes. A Systematic Review.  Dominguez R et al.  NCBI.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5295087/  Accessed 18 Dec 2021.

[6] Effects of beetroot juice supplementation on intermittent high-intensity exercise efforts.  Dominguez R et al.  NCBI.  https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29311764/  Accessed 18 Dec 2021.