Evolution of the Pregame Meal and Sports Nutrition
Sports nutrition went big time in 1983, and athletes’ pregame meals never turned back. Chalk it up to tennis great Martina Navratilova and a Miami-based consultant, Robert Haas. Navratilova was a young star with unlimited potential but uneven results. Bounced out of the 1982 U.S. Open quarterfinals, Navratilova vowed to change things. That’s when she turned to Haas, recommended by an Italian player on the women’s tour.
Haas started with the basics, exhorting Navratilova to drink more water before a match. He recommended cups and cups of his own homemade sports drink (one cup water, two tablespoons orange juice, pinch of salt). He next banned Navratilova from butter, margarine and a favorite meal of Peking duck and German spaetzle as part of minimizing fats and oils (heresy today) in favor of a carb-centric pre-match meal of pasta with tomato sauce, potatoes (hold the butter), rice and bread.
It worked. Navratilova won 86 of 87 matches in 1983, then a record 74 straight in 1984. She lost 21 of her first 25 matches versus Chris Evert. Then post-Haas, she went 39-16 in their final 55 matches. She won at Wimbledon 20 times — the first and last titles were 27 years apart. For his part, Haas authored "Eat to Win: The Sports Nutrition Bible," which topped the overall American bestseller list for six months.
Let’s call it sports nutrition’s awakening.
Here are 17 more pregame meals to retire the phrase "breakfast [or lunch] of champions." Be forewarned. Some choices could be worked into a "Stranger Things" episode. Or maybe "It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia."
Ancient Olympians and the Atkins Diet
Fad diets preceded the rise of sports nutrition by centuries. While the Atkins diet was first proffered in the 1960s (eat all the eggs and bacon you want for breakfast, hold the toast and potatoes), Greek scholars have uncovered documents showing that at least one champion runner credited several race victories to a meat-only diet, including his pre-race meal.
Word spread throughout Greece, and soon many citizens were passing on dried figs, flatbread, honey and even olive oil to opt for a strict diet of mutton, beef, goat and pork. Greeks who lived near the sea would add fish, even though it was considered food only for the poor.
Other winning ancient Olympians reworked their meat-only diets to consume all foods except bread and, later due to a newer fad, honey. But there was one constant for ancient Olympic champs, even when they ate only meat, banned bread or abstained from both bread and honey. They all continued to bath in olive oil before competitions— quite the twist on the pregame meal.
Swimming in Bone Broth
OK, it is the final round of Jeopardy. You have bet it all. And the question is ... who was the first woman to swim across the English Channel?
Silence. Hint: She did it in 1926 and was cheered by two million New Yorkers during a victory parade. She was 19 and swam an alternate route that added 14 miles but calmer water, still breaking the Channel world record (and beating an Italian male) by two hours.
OK, give up? Gertrude Ederle, an American swimmer who won Olympic gold at the 1924 Summer Games in Paris. She is a former world record holder in five competitive swim events and lived until 98 years old. Her secret pre-swim and during-swim meal? Bone broth, a superfood that has enjoyed a 21st-century revival ($6 for a fresh 12-ounce cup in Los Angeles).
I’m all-in on bone broth, but if you need more proof for pregame fuel or living/playing longer, consider that both NFL quarterback Tom Brady (uh, he’s 41 and still playing) and NBA megastar Kobe Bryant are devotees of bone broth for anti-inflammatory purposes. Maybe it is no mistake each athlete has won five world championships (same as Ederle), and Brady is looking for No. 6.
Going the Long Distance With Superhero Muffins
Shalane Flanagan won the 2017 New York City Marathon, becoming the first American woman to do so since 1977. Flanagan broke the 40-year dry spell with, wait for it, muffins?
Not any old muffin and certainly not those white-flour, sugary, softball-size pastries you see at New York deli counters. Flanagan’s "Superhero Muffin" ingredients for her pre-workout snack: almond flour, butter, carrots, zucchini, maple syrup and eggs. If it’s morning, she adds two cups of coffee with cream, plus a bowl of oatmeal mixed with almond butter, bananas, berries, honey and dried fruit— obviously ignoring the fads of ancient Olympians.
On the Brink of Butter Pecan With Bobby Knight
For his 1986 bestselling book, "A Season on the Brink," sportswriter John Feinstein convinced the cranky, high-achieving Indiana University men’s basketball coach Bobby Knight to allow full access to the team’s players, coaches, rituals, game plans and, naturally, the formerly secret pregame meal routine.
The regimen was gobbled up by basketball fans, players and coaches. At home in Bloomington, the players would eat at the Indiana student union in an "elegant" third-floor meeting room. On the menu every game, home or away, early or late: spaghetti, hamburgers without buns, scrambled eggs, pancakes and ice cream. Everyone got vanilla ice cream (not exactly recommended pregame food these days) except Knight, who preferred butter pecan.
All players and assistant coaches dined wearing jackets and ties. Knight typically showed up in slacks and a sweater. The players sat at long tables in the same spots for all of their years of college eligibility. Freshmen slipped into spots vacated by graduated seniors, and if a player was injured and not at the pregame meal, no one sat in his chair. No one talked during the meal. The focus was intended to be on the game ahead.
Knight’s place was head of the table, but he never dined with the players. The head coach showed up when ice cream was served, eating his butter pecan in a side room before addressing the team.
The Babe and Breakfast and Hot Dogs and … Wayne Gretzky?!
In an era of day baseball, the famed Babe Ruth ordered up one great Bambino-size pregame breakfast: six eggs (typically an omelet), a porterhouse steak and potatoes. His pregame drink gets no love from today’s team nutritionists and strength coaches. Ruth drank a quart of ginger ale mixed with bourbon (no reliable account of how many parts bourbon to ginger ale).
You likely will not be surprised to know the epic home run hitter still became hungry before and during games. The most cited hot-dog snack count before New York Yankees contests was three dogs for the Babe, though other writers and fans say it was more.
The Ruthian appetite is well-documented, but Stadium Talk can verify that hockey’s "Great One," aka Wayne Gretzky (who was skilled like Ruth but much skinnier), downed four hot dogs with mustard and onions before every NHL game. Gretzky joked that his pregame routine was aimed to "have the worst breath possible" before facing opponents. But the true reason is the four dressed wieners were a random pregame meal before one of Gretzky’s best performances early in his career (which is saying a lot). He stuck with the routine.
Food Fight Among NBA Greats
Even the staunchest Philly or Phoenix NBA fan won't claim Charles Barkley’s superiority as a player compared to Michael Jordan. But there is plenty to endorse with Sir Charles' popularity as an NBA on TNT commentator (no one is both funnier and smarter at the same time) compared to Jordan’s tenure as owner of the Charlotte Bobcats.
There is no surprise when comparing the pregame meals of Barkley and MJ during their playing days. Jordan ate the same pregame meals for years at the behest of trainer Tim Grover: steak, plain baked potato and a bit of lettuce, the latter mostly for show. Grover had switched his superstar client from the usual chicken and pasta, looking for more a gladiator mindset through Jordan’s stomach.
Barkley? Well, not exactly gladiator mode. But his career was stellar nonetheless with a pregame meal of two McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwiches, a large order of fries and a Diet Coke.
Fun fact: When Barkley was a rookie with the Philadelphia 76ers, he would run during conditioning time with his other younger teammates while famed veterans Julius Erving and Moses Malone would eat McDonald’s Egg McMuffin sandwiches and gently ride exercise bikes. As Barkley became the veteran star for Philly, he, not surprisingly, took to eating McDonald’s for his breakfast exercycle ride. Word is, he upped the McMuffin game by going with scrambled eggs and sausage patties wrapped in a pancake like a taco.
A Nugget or 20 About Usain Bolt
When a man wins three straight Olympic double golds in the 100- and 200-meter dashes, it is hard to tease or tear down a pregame meal from the McDonald’s menu. The Jamaican human-wonder sprinter Usain Bolt dines on 20 chicken McNuggets before every race.
Time magazine chronicled the champion’s McNugget multitude during the 2008 Summer Olympics in London, where Bolt won three gold medals by also anchoring the winning 4 x 100-meter men’s relay. Its reporter determined that not only was Bolt eating 20 McNuggets before races, he was eating at least another 60 to 80 nuggets each day, maybe not trusting any other food as fuel.
Bolt was in Beijing for 10 days, prompting Time to report Bolt consumed approximately 1,000 McNuggets for an average of 4,700 calories per day from the breaded chicken pieces. That’s a lot of happy meals.
Laffit Pincay Jr. and Stranger, er, Smaller Things
Like wrestlers, boxers and UFC competitors, all jockeys have to make weight to participate in their sports. Jockeys are especially challenged to stay light. To wit: A jockey can weigh no more than 126 pounds (57 kilograms) if he or she wants to mount an entry in the Kentucky Derby, which Laffit Pincay did successfully in 1984, riding Swale to the winner’s circle.
Like most all of his races, including several Breeders Cup titles and the third most overall victories of all time, Pincay’s pregame meal was precisely half a peanut, or 3 calories. That's discipline, or strangeness, or both.
A Game of Chicken With a Beer Chaser
Many pregame meals are based on superstition. An athlete eats a certain food, performs well, doesn’t change the food.
Baseball batters might be the most superstitious of all athletes, fretting over slumps and reveling in hitting streaks. Wade Boggs, who starred for the Boston Red Sox and later the New York Yankees during the 1980s and 1990s, would not play a game unless he consumed chicken in the hours before opening pitch. It might be baked or roasted or fried. Any preparation would do (hey, superstitions of sameness can only go so far). Several reports maintain Boggs consumed a whole chicken, but let's call it somewhere between a half to whole chicken.
That’s certainly plenty of yardbird and fueled Boggs to 3,010 career hits and 2005 induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Yet the supreme professional hitter also is renowned (or maybe not?) for his beer-drinking prowess. Boggs once told USA Today that he drank 107 beers in 24 hours, while other accounts put the quaffing at 40 to 50 beers (assuming 12-ounce servings, and I still am getting a stomachache). Believe the low or high beer mark, but it was prodigious enough for the writers of the hit TV show "It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia" to create a Season 10 opening episode in which its zany main characters attempt to break the record.
Steve Kerr Discusses Toni Kukoc’s European Habit
When Croatian star Toni Kukoc arrived in Chicago to play with the Bulls, he was one of the first European players to bust into NBA lineups. Most established stars in the league weren’t too sure about whether the Euro players could compete and certainly didn’t care what they ate for pregame meals.
But Steve Kerr, then a guard with Chicago, was different. In fact, he went out of his way to invite Kukoc out for a pregame meal on the road before Kukoc’s first game as an NBA pro. Kerr told the story a few years ago on the NBA on TNT set with Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley.
Kerr said it was about 3 p.m., or four hours until game time. As Kukoc gave his order, Kerr’s jaw went slack. "Toni ordered a feast," said Kerr. "Salad, an appetizer, chicken, a huge plate of pasta, with a glass of red wine and dessert, tiramisu. Then he finished with an espresso."
Kerr was flummoxed. He asked his new teammate if this was his regular pregame meal.
"In Europe, we eat a lot," Kukoc happily shared, "have some wine and espresso. Then we go back to the hotel, take a big s---, and we are ready to play."
The (Sort of) Official Pregame Sandwich of the NBA
NBA players make a wide range of choices for their "main" or bigger pregame meal consumed approximately four hours ahead of tip-off. Chicken and pasta are staples, same for steak and baked potato. But teammates and opponents alike almost all agree on just the right pregame snack to stave off hunger: the humble peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich.
It started in full force with Kevin Garnett and the Boston Celtics' 2007-08 championship squad. One Celtic reserve player, lost in the history, complained to the Boston trainer about being hungry, "Man, I could go for PB and J right now." Garnett, in earshot, said, "Yeah, let’s get on that." Garnett, getting the star treatment, was served a PB&J in short order (the reserve got one, too). After that early season pregame snack, Garnett was hooked. He asked the Celtics training staff to make two PB&Js (strawberry jam) for him before every game. Paul Pierce, his teammate and another star during the title run, craved the sandwich as well, refining his pregame snack so that he consumed it exactly 55 minutes before opening tip.
In the following seasons, the Celtics champions parted ways. Garnett and Pierce were traded to Brooklyn. Tony Allen moved on to Memphis. All of them introduced their pregame habit to new teammates ("hmm, tastes good and Boston won a title, let’s do it!"). Same for ex-Celtic Glenn "Big Baby" Davis in his move to Orlando, and even Boston boss Doc Rivers stumped for PB&Js on the pregame training menu when he signed a big contract to coach the Los Angeles Clippers.
What’s more, if you are wondering, yes, the Golden State Warriors stock the sandwich for pregame consumption.
Enough About PB&J — What About Grilled Cheese?
Grilled cheese, another humble yet beloved sandwich, is the pregame meal for Claude Giroux of the NHL's Philadelphia Flyers. The longtime clutch scorer and Philly captain has dined on grilled cheese sammies since his youth hockey days in Ontario with his mother working the home griddle.
Giroux has lots of fans for his culinary simplicity, including one 6-year-old boy who wrote a letter inviting the tenacious forward to his backyard for a skate and grilled cheese sandwiches flipped by the boy’s mom. Giroux passed on the backyard venture (his contract likely prohibited it?) but invited the young fan to watch a practice and share grilled cheeses afterward.
Giroux also is known to wish his Twitter followers a "Happy Grilled Cheese Day" on April 12. Hey, why change a gooey, er, good thing?
MLB Pitchers Throw Changeups to Pregame Meals
Clayton Kershaw (Los Angeles Dodgers) and Justin Verlander (Houston Astros) are two of Major League Baseball’s best pitchers season in and season out. And both have included a fast-food franchise into their pregame meal rotation.
When Verlander was pitching for the Detroit Tigers, he made headlines by sharing his pregame meal on start days with talk-show host Conan O’Brien. It was all Taco Bell to fuel that fastball: three Crunchy Taco Supremes (hold the tomato), a Cheesy Gordita Crunch and a Mexican Pizza (hold that tomato, too). But pregame meals do often feature superstition as a main ingredient. When Verlander didn’t have the season he wanted in 2013, he hinted strongly during 2014 spring training that he was abandoning the routine.
Kershaw, on the other hand (literally he is a lefty), has consumed a turkey and cheese sandwich on his start days, along with a always-the-same earlier breakfast of six different cereals with milk and a pregame cup of water exactly 20 minutes before his first pitch in the game. That turkey sandwich was on a bagel for years, according to Sports Illustrated, and when the Dodgers training staff went to healthier fare, Kershaw brought his own bagels to the ballpark.
But wait: Kershaw also cut a commercial for Subway in which he said the franchise’s nine-grain hero with turkey, cheese, jalapenos, mustard and "a little bit of vinegar" has been his go-to pregame sandwich for years.
The Linebacker Who Scared Quarterbacks and Scarfed Cookies
The Chicago Bears are famed for their linebackers over the years — Dick Butkus (now there’s a football name), Mike Singletary, Brian Urlacher and now Khalil Mack. While some fans might joke the old-school Butkus ate raw meat pregame, we are not joking about Urlacher’s pregame meal before he retired and was voted into the Football Hall of Fame.
Instead of protein shakes or steaks or anything else, the Bears star ate just two chocolate chip cookies before every game over the course of his career.
Mangia! Ovi’s Hat Trick of Chicken Parm, Pasta and Garlic Bread
On June 7, Russian hockey superstar Alex Ovechkin led the Washington Capitals to the team’s first-ever NHL Stanley Cup title. By June 10, seemingly partying for 50 hours straight, Ovechkin was using the Cup for a keg stand (after an appearance at a Washington Nationals MLB home game), then jumping into the Georgetown fountain for a swim.
No wonder. Ovechkin had waited 13 seasons, 1,124 games and way too many early playoffs exits at the hands of rival Pittsburgh. There is no coincidence when considering Ovi’s gameday meal when Capitals play at home. For practically his entire career, he has placed the same to-go order with local restaurant Mamma Lucia’s: chicken parmesan, pasta with four different sauces and Italian bread. Only Ovechkin himself knows just how much sauce guarantees a win.
In the early years, many teammates placed Mamma Lucia orders, too. But as pregame training went more nutrition packed (healthy proteins, healthy fats, complex carbs) and, well, let’s say it, boring, fewer Capitals opted for lasagna or even the chicken parm. Ovechkin was the only player to order it during their run to the Stanley Cup.
Bobby Fischer’s Fish Story
The late Bobby Fischer is arguably the GOAT (greatest of all time) among chess masters. One of many traits required of a chess champion is to spot "red herrings," or diversionary moves intended to prompt an opponent to work on a countermove fruitlessly, because the red herring is a ruse to hide a more nuanced but crippling move by the opponent.
No definitive word on how often Fischer deployed his own red herrings, but he did eat herring as a centerpiece of his pre-match meals. On the menu: skyr (sour milk, whipped with sugar and heavy cream), dark bread, cheese, herring (research shows it is brain food), apple juice, orange juice and a barley and dextrose-malted shake.
Unlike other pre-game eaters, Fischer never left his pre-game meal, instead making sure his remaining food was transported tableside for munching during matches that could last hours. We’re on board with that.
Gut Feeling: A Futuristic Turn for the Pregame Meal
A recent sports nutrition conference in Brussels was abuzz with new research that puts more emphasis on "gut health." Rather than simply recommending the precise and perfect balance of protein, carbs and fats on an athlete’s plate, researchers are targeting how certain foods might be causing distress to the "gut microbiome" — leading to unwelcome bath breaks or hold-it scenarios.
The research is focused on a different sort of balance, in this case between healthy (aka probiotic) and more destructive bacteria in the stomach and intestines. Some of the testing is basic, such as whether beans affect all athletes the same way (not) or if broccoli is a wrong move for pregame meals.
Another potential new recipe for athletic success: adding probiotic foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi and yogurt, plus putting kombucha and kefir on tap at the pregame table.