You know that feeling: shaky legs, butterfly stomach, jittery mind. It's race day and you've got a bad case of anxiety like so many other athletes do.
However, what you eat—processed fats, for example—and how you eat it—too close to the start time—can make all the difference in how you feel. Here's what you need to know to relieve anxiety on the big day.
What to Avoid
Before you worry about what you should eat, it's important to first consider what you should avoid. Eat the wrong foods and anxiety is inevitable. Avoid these foods to relieve stress:
- Poorly processed fats: The foods you eat affect how well your brain works on race day. The chemicals in your brain called neurotransmitters can influence your mood and they need vitamins and minerals to do their job. "If we're eating poor fats we're not getting the help [we need] for our brain," says Mary Purdy, M.S., R.D. and owner of Nourishing Balance.
- Caffeine and sugar: If your day isn't on track until you have a cup of coffee, then this may be difficult to avoid on race day. But remember, "You've got enough adrenaline running through your system, you don't need to add more," says Aimee Gallo, owner of Vibrance Nutrition and Fitness. If you need a cup before the race, sip in moderation—aim for half of what you usually drink—or save your steaming cup of coffee for after the race.
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What to Eat and Drink
You can help reduce the effects of race-day stress in a variety of ways. Here are some food and drink options that will help relieve anxiety before you get started.
- Magnesium: Purdy recommends eating leafy greens, seeds, nuts and beans to relieve anxiety. All of these are packed with magnesium, which hinders the release of adrenal stress hormones. It also aids in brain functioning for your best performance. Add these to your pre-race dinner the night before.
- B Vitamins: Indulge in whole grains, dark leafy greens or beans to reap the stress-reducing benefits of B vitamins. "Strong sources of B vitamins are essential for energy production but also to help recover from stress," says Purdy. Have a piece of whole-grain toast before the race if you're feeling anxious.
- Branch Amino Acids: Taken in supplement form, branch amino acids help reduce cortisol and stress hormones and balance neurotransmitters, Gallo says. Don't try this supplement for the first time on race day. Integrate them into your routine as you start increasing your mileage during training, Gallo says.
- Tryptophan: It makes you sleepy on Thanksgiving, but can help you relieve anxiety on race day. "Tryptophan is the precursor for serotonin, which is the feel good neurotransmitter in the brain," Purdy says. Eat protein throughout race day to help support your brain and blood sugar levels.
How to Eat on Race Day
Relieving anxiety on race isn't just about what you eat, but how you do it. Try these three tactics if you're feeling jittery in the morning.
- Create a Ritual: Don't just train physically for your race, put methods in place for eating as well. "Have a ritual that you create during your training so that the morning of [the race] you're just going through the motions and you don't need to think about where you're going to get breakfast or anything like that," Gallo says.
- Eat Mindfully: Find a calm and quiet place to eat, where you aren't stressed or rushed to finish your meal. Take time to check in with your body, nourish yourself, chew, and breathe. "That can do wonders for calming down the nervous system, as well as allowing your body to absorb and digest those nutrients," Purdy says.
- Have Good Timing: See how long it takes your body to digest carbohydrates so you can time it just right on race day. Too many carbs before the race can cause a blood sugar crash and when your "blood sugar crashes, cortisol levels come up, which contributes to anxiety," Gallo says.
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