Back in the 1980s when I was racing Ironman every year, I would consume 20 figs during the bike segment alone. Of course at the time we thought our nutritional practices were revolutionary, but 20 years ago fueling before and during competition was not a highly refined science, merely a necessity for survival.
Perhaps not surprisingly, indigestion and other forms of stomach distress were common by-products of our nutritional practices. Over the last two decades, however, fueling up for top race-day performance has evolved far beyond doughnuts and figs.
Indeed, survival eating has been replaced by the functional consumption of carbohydrate/protein fluid-replacement drinks, electrolyte-loaded gels and super-pills filled with extra vitamins and minerals. The downside, however, can be trying to unravel the practical consumption of all these food options.
Managing and optimizing your nutritional intake prior to competition can set the stage for a strong performance. But equally important to race-day success is your intake of fluids and solids during the event. Body size, length of the race, pacing and environmental conditions are all contributing factors that help determine an athlete's total calorie requirements and his or her selection of fuels.
Below are five key markers that can help you develop an effective nutritional plan for your next race. Experiment in training by combining the below tips with what has worked well for you in the past. Remember, however, sound nutrition doesn't make you go faster; it simply allows the body to maintain the highest output for the longest period of time.
1. Boost Your Intake
Slightly increase your protein (PRO) and carbohydrate (CHO) intake two days prior to the event. When your body is preparing for the stresses of the race, which places an increased emotional, psychological and physical demand on your body, PRO and CHO need to be topped off to stem muscle breakdown and the depletion of muscle and liver glycogen.
The RDI for protein consumption is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight; however, endurance athletes need between 1.4 and 1.8 grams/kg of body weight. To determine your required daily intake:
- Divide your body weight in pounds by 2.2, which will give you your weigh in kilograms.
- Multiply your weight in kilograms by 1.4 to 1.6 for a 45- to 70-kilogram athlete, or by 1.6 to 1.8 for a 71-kilogram-plus athlete.
- Example for a 70-kilogram athlete: 70kg x 1.5 = 105 grams of protein required per day.
Your total required protein intake (105 grams in our example) should be evenly consumed throughout the day. In our above example, our 70-kilogram athlete would consume 25 percent of the 105-gram RDI at each meal, for a total of about 26 grams of protein per meal.
The remaining 25 percent could be split into two, 13-gram snacks, one mid-morning and the other mid-afternoon. Note, however, that it's not advisable to consume an amount of protein that exceeds your calculated RDI, since dehydration is a frequent symptom of protein overconsumption.
Carbohydrate stores also need to be fully stocked in order to top off muscle and liver glycogen and help pack the cells with fluid.
- If you're between 45 to 70 kilos, take in five to six grams of CHO per kilogram.
- If you weigh 71 kilos or more, take in six to seven grams of CHO per kilo.
- Example using our 70-kilogram athlete: 70kg x 5 = 350 grams of CHO per day.
There are approximately four calories per gram of CHO, so 4 x 350 = 1,400 calories provided by CHO consumption. Again, spread out the calories between meals and/or after your training sessions.
2. Watch the Electrolytes
Don't increase your consumption of electrolytes before competition unless you are a heavy sweater and you have pre-determined your sodium intake. Consuming extra electrolytes in the form of supplements and/or a fluid-replacement drink can overload your system. The need for additional electrolytes is determined by workload plus water loss; however, the majority of athletes don't need an excessive amount of electrolytes before competition.