Race Day Nutrition

Getting your eating strategy right can make a big difference to how you perform on the day of your event. Below we’ve outlined some tips on how to get your preparation right.

First a word of caution; like most things relating to sports nutrition there are general scientific principles but different things do work for different people and for different types of events. Don’t leave it to the week before your race to start experimenting, try things out during training rather than making any radical last minute changes.

Week before

The week before the event you want to concentrate on making sure your body’s energy stores, the glycogen in your muscles and liver, are fully topped up. This is what many athletes refer to this as carbo-loading.

Naturally, the week before your event you’ll be in the taper phase of your training where you cut the volume of exercise you’re doing. As you’re doing less exercise your calorie requirements will drop so it’s not always necessary to eat loads of extra food during this carbo loading stage. You should, however, pay attention to the types of foods you’re eating and aim for lots of slow releasing complex carbohydrates.

Some athletes follow the theory that carbo loading should first be preceded by a depletion phase where you briefly cut the carbs out of the diet. By initially starving your body of carbs the theory is it triggers the body to store more carbs once you start eating them again. It’s one of those things to try out for yourself and see what works for you, it may be great for a professional athlete who has nothing to do but prepare for the event but if you’re holding down a regular job then cutting the carbs can be tough going.

During the week before, you also want to make sure your body is kept fully hydrated as even slight dehydration can have a big impact on your performance.

Finally, if you know you’re staying away from home the night before your event it’s a good idea to prepare a back up food pack to take with you. This gives you a safety net if you can’t get the food you need for the hours leading up to your race. For example, you may arrive to find that the hotel doesn’t serve breakfast early enough for you.

Hours before

You should aim to eat your last meal 2 to 4 hours before the start of the race, leaving long enough to digest the found and store the energy but not too long to use the energy before you start. This can sometimes be a bit of a challenge if you’ve got a long journey to complete or you’ve got a very early start time; so think about your timings and have a rough plan of what you’ll eat and where you’ll get this meal.

Again focus on slow releasing complex carbohydrates that are going to help fuel you through your event.

Some people who suffer from pre race nerves may find it difficult to eat in the lead up to the event, however, it’s important to get this final top up to your energy stores especially if you haven’t eaten since your evening meal the night before. If you really can’t stomach any food then at least drink some energy drink, eat an energy bar or try something like a fruit smoothie or meal replacement shake.

Start line

Eating a fast absorbed simple carbohydrate immediately before starting can help to improve your endurance. However, it’s important if you’re following this approach that you do leave it the last minute as exercise will stop your body triggering the release of insulin in response to the rise in blood sugar.

Energy gels or energy drinks are particularly good for a last minute top up as they’re light on the stomach and fairly easy to take on the start line.

Also make sure you’re fully hydrated by drinking something around 15 minutes before your start.

For endurance events you may also want to consider some of the sports nutrition products that contain caffeine – read our guide on caffeine and sports performance for more information on the benefits and side affects of caffeine.

During

What you eat during your race is going to depend on the duration and type of event. For events that are going to last for longer than an hour then you’ll need to consider taking on board some carbohydrates to maintain your energy levels.

A common mistake is waiting until you feel hungry or thirsty before you try and eat or drink something. Instead, you want to follow a little and often strategy to help maintain your energy levels. Try and take on board some fluid and carbohydrates every 30-60 minutes if you can.

If you’re running then you’ll find that gels and/or drinks are your best bet but for events like cycling sportives it’s more feasible to eat energy bars, energy snacks, fruit, cakes or even sandwiches whilst riding the bike.

If you’re relying on event provided feed zones then it’s a good idea to check what’s going to be on offer beforehand so you know what to expect. With energy drinks it can be a bit hit and miss as even if you know what brand they’re using it’s difficult to know at what concentration they’ll have mixed the drink. For less competitive events you may want to consider taking your own powder ready measured and then at the feed zone just getting water to mix it. That way you avoid carrying loads of water from the start and you know exactly what you’re going to be getting.

After

Immediately after your event you should start thinking about replenishing your energy stores to help your body recover more quickly. There’s a window immediately after exercise where your body is extremely receptive to replacing lost glycogen and it’s also a good time to get some protein to help the body start repairing damaged muscle fibres.

There’s plenty of evidence to support a combination of carbohydrates in the 2 hours after exercise improves recovery and reduces muscle soreness so if you don’t feel like eating then try a recovery shake, something like Rego Recovery, Power Bar Protein Plus Recovery or High 5 Protein Recovery.

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