The field of sports nutrition is still constantly evolving and developing; but the aim for competition day always remains getting athletes to the start line feeling confident, comfortable, adequately fuelled and primed for optimal athletic performance.
Across my involvement in athletics and perhaps a little interest in food and nutrition, I’ve seen athletes check in at all points of the nutrition spectrum. From the athlete who insists pre-race Macca’s is their key to success to those who won’t stomach a bite before competing.
“The amount, composition and timing of food intake can profoundly affect sports performance” – IOC Consensus on Nutrition and Sports Performance
So what is the ‘right’ food to eat on competition day?
So let’s look at what is currently recognised as effective competition nutrition strategies. Remembering, despite what all the research points to, ultimately you have to find your own perfect race day plan. Inevitably this will involve an aspect of trial and error; which should be rehearsed at training. Just like any other aspect of your performance, such a new run up or throwing technique, you need to rehearse your nutrition practices to confidently take them onto the big stage.
Overall competition day diet should differ as little as possible from a typical training diet, as this is a fuelling pattern familiar to your engine. However on race day, the timing of you nutrition is just as important as what you consume. Event timing, competing in multiple rounds or events as well as the impact of nerves need also to be factored into the equation!
To get you going:
Events contested in the stadium are not long enough in duration to deplete your body’s stored glycogen – the stored form of carbohydrates and the body’s preferred fuel during exercise. Meaning there is no need for any “Carbohydrate Loading,” and your nutrition should focus on topping up your fuel tank and ensuring adequate hydration levels. The main aims of nutrition prior to competition are to;
- Top up your body’s glycogen stores
- Optimise your hydration status
- Avoid gastrointestinal (GI) upsets – leaving your stomach not too empty, but not full enough to cause upsets
- Be a routine that you trust, and gives you an element of confidence before competition.
Topping up your body’s glycogen stored can be achieved through your typical diet especially when combined with traditional easy training prior to competing. For those of you who like numbers; typically we can reach our maximal glycogen storage levels through 7-10g of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight combined with 24-36 hours of tapered training.
Pre-competition foods should be chosen based on the timing of competition, personal preferences and availability.
3-4 hours prior:
Meals should incorporate mainly carbohydrate and some protein, and avoid large amounts of fat or fibre (as these will take longer to digest, and increase the risk of stomach upsets)
Pre-event carbohydrate needs are 1-2g/kg, some meals that can help reach this goal include:
- Pasta or rice dish (with small amount of low-fat sauce)
- Toast with baked beans
- Roll or sandwich – light salad fillings
- Breakfast cereals or porridge with fruit
- Baked potato with light fillings
- Smoothies or liquid meal supplements
1-2 hours prior:
Easily digested carbohydrate based foods are recommended, as these will be quickly digested and provide an easily accessible fuel source for you body. Suggestions include:
- Honey/Jam sandwich
- Muesli bar
- Sports bars (careful to avoid high protein options)
>1 hour prior:
Quick energy sources, if a quick top up of energy is required such as:
- Sports drinks
- sports gels
An important aim is to avoid stomach discomfort and GI upsets, you want to compete feeling light and comfortable. It’s easy for nerves to get the better of us on competition day; sometimes this can contribute to GI upsets. If you need to accommodate for the effect of nerves, eating your last meal earlier or trying liquid meals could help reduce the chance of GI upsets. If eating your last meal further out from your start time, you should be prepared with sports drinks/gels or lollies if you need a little top up of energy closer to the start time. Liquid meals are digested faster and may be tolerated more easily. Liquid meals can include Up and Go, Sustagen Sport, PowerBar Plus powder or homemade smoothies. Again it is import to try these at training, especially if opting for a diary-based option.
When you have to get going again for round two:
<1 hour between events:
- Sports drinks
- Lollies, jelly beans
1-2 hours between events:
- Sports drink
- Piece of fruit
- Smoothie or other liquid meal
These snacks are not aiming to fill you up, but act as a quick top up of fluids and fuels
2-3 hours between events:
- Banana & honey sandwich
- Muesli bar
More time to digest, but still largely aiming just to top up fuel and fluid levels.
To make sure you can go again tomorrow:
You should aim to return to your typical diet as soon as possible in order to be nutritionally ready for training or competition that may be occurring in the following days. The priority is to replenish with sufficient amounts of carbohydrates, fluids, electrolytes and energy, to ensure rapid recovery by replacing lost muscle glycogen. Timing is crucial, as the body can utilise food in the recovery process more effective in the first 30 minutes post-exercise, known as the ‘window of opportunity.’
The American College of Sports Medicine suggests that 1.0-1.5g of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight in the ‘window of opportunity,’ and repeating this intake every 2 hours for 4-6 hours after exercise should be adequate to replace glycogen stores.
Protein also plays a role in the recovery process, by building and repairing muscle protein. 15-25g of high quality protein consumed in the ‘window of opportunity’ will benefit both strength and endurance athletes. When consumed in conjunction with carbohydrates the recovery can be even more effective.
Foods combining carbohydrates and protein include:
- 600ml Chocolate milk or milo
- Low fat yoghurt and fruit
- 250ml -300ml liquid meal supplement
- Nut butter sandwich/toast and milk
- 60g nuts and piece of fruit
Don’t forget to plan ahead
Planning ahead is crucial to ensure you have everything you need, you don’t want to rely on what will be available at the track! This can be particularly important when travelling interstate or overseas to compete. Where practical I always pack as much from home, foods such as muesli bars, rice cakes and oats/cereal are easily transported and can always be found in my suitcase.
When planning out my race day, I like to work back from my event’s start time and map out a timeline of eating and other race day activities. This ensures I have everything I need on race day; I also find the routine and structure this gives calming amongst the race day nerves! Yet despite as much emphasis as I place on planning and routine, it’s also essential to be prepared to adapt and have a plan- B. For example I always pack a muesli bar that I would be happy to eat if I can’t find a ripe banana when I’m travelling for competition.
Let’s see it all in action!
While it might not be a mirror image of the information provided above, I’ve largely followed the same basic race day plan for more seasons then I can remember. It’s a plan that I feel confident gets me to the start line ready to go, as well as being adaptable and comprised of foods that can be easily sourced on the road.
Here is a snap shot of my race day plan before the 1500m at the recent Hunter Track Classic:
In putting together this article, I’ve sort to combine general rules of competition nutritional strategies with my own experiences. However this only scratches the surface, an accredited sports dietician can help you plan more detailed race day nutrition. A list of accredited sports dieticians can be found here (https://www.sportsdietitians.com.au/#find-sports-dietitian).
**Please note, hydration and fluid intake is also an important component of competition day nutrition. We will be looking at hydration as it’s own topic in the future.
- Burke L, Cox G. The complete guide to food for sports performance. Crows Nest, N.S.W.: Allen & Unwin; 2010.
- Cardwell G. Gold medal nutrition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2012.
- IOC consensus statement on sports nutrition 2010. Journal of Sports Sciences. 2011;29:S3-S4.
- Ausport.gov.au. Fact sheets: AIS : Australian Sports Commission [Internet]. 2016 [cited 14 February 2016]. Available from: http://www.ausport.gov.au/ais/nutrition/factsheets
- SDA – Sports Dietitians Australia. Factsheets Archive – SDA – Sports Dietitians Australia [Internet]. 2016 [cited 14 February 2016]. Available from: https://www.sportsdietitians.com.au/factsheets/