Competition day nutrition is something every athlete tries their best to be mindful of in order that they may prepare and perform well. Unfortunately, I see a lot of poor advice that certainly may work but does not mean it is the most optimal. Some people create an extremely strict dogmatic mentality and are so picky about what they put in their body at every meal while others mindlessly eat without any care or concern on how that fuel may affect their performance, both are inappropriate. It doesn’t need to be something to overly stress about but it should be something you care about. Personally, I believe people are already half way done with their race or competition when they show up to the starting line or step onto the field. In that I mean the way you trained, recovered, and treated your body the prior months, weeks, and days leading up to the race has a massive bearing on how well that race will go. It’s great to have confidence and dream big when you step on the line to go race, but there is certainly a reality every single person must face when they step on that line; the reality of how one prepared themselves. As an NCAA long-distance runner I have navigated years of experimenting with different race day protocols, here are some of the tips that I’ve found to be best for me and are exactly what I follow when I have had my best races. Disclaimer: This is speaking for myself and is not intended to be suggestive for others, although I hope people may consider these habits to integrate on their own choosing.
1. Consume high-quality electrolytes – Sodium & Potassium are performance enchanting substances. Unfortunately, people forget the importance that salt has on athletic performance, nervous system health, and proper electrolyte balance. Studies have shown the importance of salt for muscle function, fluid balance, hydration, and cardiovascular benefits.
2.Consume Digestible Protein – Carbohydrates are not the only important macronutrient for race day. Amino Acids in protein also play a critical role in athletic performance and mitochondria health for energy production. That said, animal protein triumphs all plant protein in regards to its bioavailability and digestibility. I’m not saying eat a steak or bacon before your race. Opting for leaner meats will provide all the amino acids you need while not slowing your digestive system down too much. Personally, I find fish and whey protein to be two protein sources that are easy to digest, provide great BCAA profiles, and aren’t really high in fat which slows the digestive system.
3.Consume Easy to Digest Carbohydrates (Low-Fodmap) – Low fodmap carbohydrates have been shown to be much easier to digest and absorb as compared to high fodmap carbohydrates. The last thing anyone wants on race day is to put an excess burden on the digestive system. My favorite low–fodmap carbohydrates are white rice, potatoes, and oranges. High fodmap carbohydrates include plant foods like wheat, soy, many nuts, & seeds.
4.Consume Caffeine – Caffeine has been shown up to upregulate the nervous system and brain function. It has also been shown to spare muscle glycogen which is excellent news of longer endurance efforts. Another is the increase in adrenaline which is a hormone that is responsible for the body’s fight or flight system.
5. Avoid eating large meals 2 hours prior to competition time – Most people fail to realize that it takes a good bit of time for the body to harness the energy that is found within the food they eat. Eating a big sandwich an hour before your race is not likely to benefit you. In fact, it’s probably not going to feel too great in the race because of the lack of digestive time. Personally, I aim to finish eating any solid food 4-5 hours prior to race time and just sip on liquids like coconut water and UCANN Superstarch if I need some more carbohydrates.
1.Don’t Over hydrate – Tim Noakes wrote an excellent book titled, “Waterlogged” where he discusses the anti-science behind the hydration hype that has been over-pushed in the running and endurance community. Over hydrating can dilute your body’s electrolytes and kick out important minerals that the muscles and nervous system rely on for performance. Personally, I like to hydrate well in the morning if my race is in the afternoon or evening but back down on hydrating 3-4 hours out from race just so I can empty out any extra liquid that doesn’t need to be in my body once I’m hydrated. Plus I just feel lighter whenever I’m not bogged down with so much liquid sloshing around in my stomach
2. Consume High Glycemic Processed Grains & Sugar – Jumping on the blood sugar rollercoaster is not great a race day idea. Most ‘energy bars’ are just chock-full of refined sugar, grains, and vegetable oils that are potentially inflaming the body even more. This suppresses the mitochondrial function and just leaves energy levels all over the place throughout the day. Most of these ‘energy bars’ are no different than eating a candy bar before a race, some even have more sugar than chocolate bars! The protein content is also nothing to be impressed by as it is often always some kind of plant protein from soy protein or oats which have poor amino acid profiles and are not as bioavailable as animal protein sources.
3.Avoid Animal Protein – As noted earlier, amino acids are is a critical part of exercise performance. Sadly, the endurance community has bought into this nonsensical idea that eating animal protein is ‘too heavy’ before racing. Personally, I find it the opposite of that. Animal protein is satiating and leaves me less inclined to snack on other foods prior to race time. Anyone that knows me well knows that I am a huge fan of sardines, regardless of the day. This fish packs a solid dose of protein as well as 1+ gram of omega 3 fatty acids per serving. Omega 3’s are proven to be beneficial athletic performance boosters.
4. Eat all day long – Similar to what I discussed earlier, eating too much prior to a race can be nothing more than a burden on your digestive system. Most of the time people are eating way too much for too short of a race anyways. You don’t need 200g of carbohydrates before a race that lasts 15 minutes or less. Being mindful of your hydration levels and electrolyte levels can also play into not overindulging in excess processed foods.]
5. Change up what’s worked for you – Each one of our bodies is unique and often becomes very familiar with foods that are a part of our everyday nutrition protocol. This is why I am such a fan of including a lot of the same foods in my diet every day. Not only does it make things easier, but it’s also easier on the digestive system. This is not to excuse the fact there are still important micronutrients and macronutrients that ought to be a part of the diet in order to have the greatest success on race day.