A great endurance racer knows that nutrition has a huge role in their training and competition. Without that piece of the puzzle, your success in any sport will be dramatically limited. On race day especially, your body has to be able to perform at an optimal level. The two largest factors contributing to that performance are hydration and glycogen. Even if you’re missing one, your game is going to suffer tremendously with lack of strength, focus, and endurance. The number one priority for any athlete is hydrationEvery function in your body depends on it. A dehydration level of only 3% will cause your body’s energy level to drop drastically. One downfall for many athletes is relying on their thirst mechanism. It is important to realize that this method lags far behind proper hydration levels. By the time your brain receives the thirst mechanism, you are already 3-5% dehydrated. Also, many do not know that sleep, caffeine and alcohol contribute to your body’s loss of water. Now its not sleep that directly causes you to become dehydrated, but rather the amount of time your body has gone without any water intake. It could be anywhere from 6-10 hours and your body uses water even when there is no physical movement. That does not mean you have to wake up every couple of hours through the night to drink, but it does mean that when you wake up your focus should be on hydrating. Be careful, caffeine and alcohol act as a diuretic, which causes your body to rapidly lose water. For that reason you should avoid energy drinks, coffee, and soda the week of your race due to the simple fact that they contain caffeine. Alcohol has a much stronger diuretic effect, but I assume that it’s avoided by common sense before a competition. The number two priority on the list is glycogen stores
This is your muscles stored energy. If your glycogen levels go low, you will feel a noticeable energy drain. Two things empty your glycogen stores, time and energy expenditure. The more you move, the more you used. The longer it’s been since you ate, the less full your stores are going to be. The best way to replenish your muscle glycogen is with carbohydrates. Now the confusing part is with what type of carbohydrates should you eat: simple or complex? Both are helpful at different times. Complex is your slow digesting energy source (pasta, whole wheat…). This is the type that will be best the night before and up to 3 hours before your race. If your race time is delayed unexpectedly, you still need to maintain maximum hydration and glycogen levels. This is where the simple carbohydrates come into play (juice, fruit, candy…). They get into your muscles a lot faster then the complex carbohydrates, so they do not need as much time to digest. You can have 20 -50 grams of them 15-30 min before your match. Simple carbohydrates are also great right after your race for faster recovery. The sooner your muscle gets replenished with glycogen after a workout the better. Now let’s put this all together
The day before your competition you should avoid all types of caffeine and alcohol. Be careful with energy drinks, most of them contain caffeine. You should really be focused on full hydration. Get the color of your urine as light as you can. Your food should mostly consist of complex carbohydrates. You should eat at least 100-200 grams before you go to bed. This is not so much carbohydrate loading, but it does make sure that when you wake up your glycogen stores will not be totally empty. This helps if you have an early race. Be careful though, if you eat too many calories trying to load up your glycogen stores, your body will convert the excess to body fat. You have to think of it as eating to replace the glycogen, not eating to get glycogen. If we ate to get energy, then when we over ate we would be exploding with extra energy instead of gaining weight. The bottom line is we eat to replace our glycogen stores.On the morning of your race
Make sure you drink enough water to compensate for the non drinking hours of sleep. Also get in another 100-200 grams of complex carbohydrates. As the day goes on make sure every 3-4 hours you have another 100-200 grams of complex carbohydrates. Make sure your last meal is 3-4 hours before the race. Otherwise your legs will take all the blood away from the digestive system and cramps will appear. If you need carbohydrate calories closer then the 3 hour mark and your last meal was longer then 3 hours ago, sports drinks are the answer. They offer hydration while giving you small doses of simple carbohydrates. You can sip that up to 15 min. before the race. If the race is going to last longer then 45 min. then it would be wise for you to pick up sports drinks and water as you go. I would not recommend solid food for calories just because it takes the longest to digest as opposed to liquids or gels.Post race
After the race your main focus besides getting your medal is going to be nutrition recovery. Sports drinks are perfect for a quick post race recovery. They have the simple sugars that are going to replenish your glycogen stores and they also have water and electrolytes to replace what you have lost through sweat. Potassium is also lost in sweat and should be replaced as well. Banana’s are a great source for that and are commonly brought to races for that reason. When you get home, eat a nice balanced meal of complex carbohydrates to further replenish your glycogen stores and protein to rebuild the muscle you broke down in your competition. Nutrition is a simple science that is clouded by the masses' confusion. Hopefully this cleared up some of that uncertainty on nutrition for competition day.
James Duscio is a personal trainer and nutrition consultant in Las Vegas.