Athletes can be notoriously fastidious regarding their nutrition around training. They can go to great lengths to ensure that they are consuming the right quantities of each macronutrient, micronutrients, fluid, and supplements. But all those excellent nutritional habits might be for nothing if nutritional practices on competition day are poor. In this article, I examine some common mistakes that athletes might be making regarding their nutrition on the day of their competition, and provide some practical tips to consider making.
Trying New Things
Race day is not the time to try something new. At competitions on the professional circuit, it is reasonably common to be provided with sports drinks or food to try. The problem here is that you have no idea how your body will react to something. The last thing you want is to eat a different type of food that might cause you stomach upset. You’re already going to be nervous, which can cause stomach problems by itself, without adding something that can further affect your stomach.
I’ve fallen foul of this myself. At the World Championships in 2011, the athlete’s village had an unlimited supply of Mountain Dew. We don’t have Mountain Dew here in the UK (we have a slightly different version that is marketed as a high caffeine sports drink), and so I had no idea that it contained caffeine. My caffeine strategy for race day was to attempt to abstain from caffeine for a few days prior – I now know this is not necessary – in an attempt to improve my caffeine sensitivity. By drinking as much of this novel and untested drink I could get my hands on, I was undermining my caffeine strategy.
Not Having A Well-Practiced Plan
Related to #1 is the fact that your nutrition in the days up to and of your competition should be well planned and practiced. You shouldn’t be taking anything that you haven’t practiced in training first. If you’re using caffeine, how much do you need? At what time should you be consuming this caffeine? How much caffeine can you tolerate before the negative effects start to show? How much fluid do you need? When should you eat? How much should you eat? What should you eat? In the case of multiple rounds, what are you doing for recovery? The answers to all of these questions should be planned and practiced well in advance.
When I competed at the 2008 Olympics, my race-day nutrition was the culmination of everything that I had learned up to that point. In 2007, I had been refining my nutrition plan all season. At the end of that year, I evaluated everything that I had done, made some changes, and then put into place my plan for the Olympics. At every competition that year, I practiced my plan, so that it would become second nature. Any problems that came up, I could solve them ahead of what would be the biggest race day of my life. On the actual day of my race, everything was in place to ensure that my nutrition was optimal for the first round, my recovery between rounds, and then my pre-race nutrition for my quarter final.
When getting your nutrition strategy in place for competition, it’s important not to leave anything to chance. Where reasonable, I used to take my pre-race supplements to competitions. That prevented me from having to rely on them being provided, and also ensured I was in complete control of the dosage. I used to pack my caffeine drinks in my hold luggage for plane journeys, so I knew they would get there safely. I also used to pack my own carbohydrate and protein bars and protein powder in case the protein sources at the hotel were not up to standard (sometimes they weren’t there at all!). Some athletes also pack their food, such as porridge that they can have in place of the hotels breakfast. All of this ensures you can stick to a plan that you know works, and can reduce the stress of having to find the “right” food at your competition venue.
It can be a good idea to pack some comfort foods too, to make you feel a bit more relaxed. I packed a tub of hot chocolate that I could have the night before (and sometimes during the day of) races, just to help remove some of the tension, and enable me to relax and feel a bit more at home.
As an additional point, if you find nerves make you go to the toilet a lot, it can be a good idea to make sure you’ve packed your own toilet paper. Never rely on the venue for this and pack alcohol hand gel, just in case.
Using The Wrong Amount Of Caffeine
Caffeine is one of the most studied ergogenic aids within sport. For endurance exercise, the evidence is pretty clear; it improves performance (Graham 2001). However, the results for high-intensity performance are slightly less clear. The main reason for this is that the caffeine appears to affect type I (slow twitch) fibers to a much larger degree than type II (fast twitch) fiber (Jacobson et al. 1992). There is some evidence that while caffeine may not directly improve one-off high-intensity performance, it might do so indirectly by decreasing feelings of fatigue, as well as increasing adrenaline secretion. Caffeine also acts as a pain blocker and can decrease rating of perceived exertion in maximal performance (Davis & Green 2009). Williams (1991) also found that caffeine ingestion improved reaction time, which is obviously of interest to sprinters.
The problem with caffeine is that different people have different levels of sensitivity to it. What works for one person might be too much, or too little, for another. From the literature, a dose of between 3-9mg/kg of caffeine appears to offer the most benefits. That is a wide range! Personally, I found that once I went higher than 3mg/kg of caffeine, I started to get shaky and feel ill. For an 85kg athlete like myself, this equates to just over 250mg of total caffeine. I split this caffeine dose across two caffeinated sports drinks, energy gel, and an energy bar.
Timing of caffeine intake is also important. Peak plasma concentrations are reached about 1 hour after taking caffeine (Graham 2001), and so most people take their caffeine about 60 minutes pre-race. I used to taper my caffeine intake in 50-80mg intervals, taking my first dose 80 minutes pre-race, and my last dose 45 minutes before.
Considering all the research on caffeine, provided your sport and governing body allow it, you should probably be taking it on race day – so long as you can tolerate it. You should practice the timing and dose of your intake in training, to see what works best for you.
Eating Too Much
This problem might be unique to me, but competition day makes me hungry! I assume it’s mostly down to the nerves (some people have the opposite problem), but I am always hungry. The problem here is that when you are competing at a reasonably decent level, you tend to stay in hotels before you compete. These hotels tend to be of good quality, and they tend to provide a buffet for the athletes. This buffet can increase the chances of overeating because it is packed with good food.
Overeating on competition day is potentially a problem for a number of reasons. The first is that by having a large volume of food in your stomach, you are likely to feel bloated and uncomfortable – not exactly how you want to be feeling come race day. In addition to this, having a full stomach can cause gastrointestinal distress (remember, you are already nervous and so likely to have a dodgy stomach anyway), and also increases the time for gastric emptying of important nutrients, as well as water. In weight dependent sports, a huge binge will make you heavier, and slow you down.
Instead, as per #2, have a well-practiced plan. If you know the types of things that you can eat without feeling bloated, go for that. I used to eat my last main meal at least 4 hours pre-race so that I wouldn’t feel bloated and heavy. If I were then hungry, I would then snack on carb/protein bars, which I knew didn’t cause GI distress, or make me feel uncomfortable. I also found that if I ate white bread, white rice, poultry, as opposed to whole grains and red meats, these would clear my stomach quicker, and so make me feel a bit more comfortable.
Eating Too Little
So, you don’t want to eat too much, but you also don’t want to eat too little. It’s well established that you need to ensure your energy stores are topped up, especially if you have multiple races in a day. Davis et al. (1999) found that carbohydrate intake was important in reducing fatigue. It’s also important to ensure that you consume sufficient protein around your competition. There is some evidence from both Meeusen et al. (2006) and Davis et al. (2000) that protein intake may have a role to play in limiting central nervous fatigue.
From my experiences, making sure that you are in a well-fed state before your competition helps your mood. Being tired and hungry doesn’t put you in a good state of mind to perform, whilst feeling content and happy can help.
I’m well aware that some people get so nervous that they feel like they can’t eat, and that’s fine. It might be an option to consume a drink that is quite high in calories, so at least you are getting something. Alternatively, experiment with foods that you feel you can manage, and then have those on race day instead.
Poor Fluid Balance
Everyone knows that being severely dehydrated can affect your performance. It can cause discomfort, overheating and a decrease in plasma volume. As I mentioned earlier, being uncomfortable on race day is not conducive to good performance, and so you want to avoid this as much as possible.
However, the opposite is also true; it’s possible to consume too much water. That can lead to a condition caused hyponatremia (too little sodium). Although it is mostly limited to endurance athletes (Murray & Eichner 2004), it can still have an effect in speed-power athletes. The main cause is drinking too much water. This is a real risk. Athletes, keen to ensure they aren’t too dehydrated, can over consume water. I’ve certainly done this myself – back in 2007 I would quite comfortably consume 2L in the 90 minutes before my race, as well as high levels of liquid in the days leading up to my race. Clear urine was an obsession, and I was paranoid about getting cramps. However, the result is that I was over hydrating myself, which can cause cramps, the very thing I was trying to avoid. After I learned the error of my ways, I instead chose a more conservative hydration strategy, comprised of about 1L of liquid in the 120 minutes pre-race. Other side effects of consuming large volumes of water include needing to pee a lot (which nerves increase) and also the addition of extra weight. The 2L of liquid I was consuming would have been adding about 2kg to my weight, as well as being slightly uncomfortable in my stomach.
The advice regarding hydration is to drink for thirst, not for a pre-determined target. For speed-power events, anecdotally I can tell you that many elite athletes try to compete in a slightly under-hydrated state as it makes them lighter, improving their power-to-weight ratio. If you’re going to try this, trial it in training first, and properly rehydrate afterwards.
Finally, a little tip for you: Just before your race, rinse your mouth out with a carbohydrate drink, and then spit it out. It has been shown to improve performance in one-hour time trials (Carter et al. 2004). Whilst most people reading this will be performing for a much shorter period, it may well have some carryover into speed events, potentially by increasing the feeling of having energy within the brain.
Despite what I have said in the previous points, sometimes things can’t be perfect. On competition day, you are already going to be in a state of high stress. You want to run well, and you’re nervous, so it’s understandable. Striving to make things perfect can be an additional source of stress. Sometimes you just have to make do. Sometimes you have to make sub-optimal food choices, and that’s OK.
Take Usain Bolt for example. He chose to eat chicken nuggets from McDonald’s at the Olympic Games. On the surface, this looks like a poor food choice. However, in this situation, Bolt is picking something he knows he likes, and he knows is safe. It’s also something he likes, so is likely to make him happy. Instead of stressing out about what to eat, he has just made a simple choice that hasn’t required much mental capacity and deliberation.
Remember, it is (almost) always better to eat something than nothing, no matter how bad. When travelling before a race, I have been stuck in an airport waiting for a flight. Rather than looking for my usual pre-race meal, which would have been almost impossible in an airport, I just ate what was easiest to find, which happened to be two burgers. That was much better than the other option, which was to eat nothing, and I still raced well the next day.
It’s also important to be flexible within your nutrition strategy. You have to realistic and understand that the meal you have at home pre-race may well not be available at the hotel. You’re going to have to not eat your normal food, and so it is vital not get stressed out by this.
Even with all the best preparation in the world, sometimes things outside of your control can have an impact on your nutritional strategy. Competing in Stuttgart Indoor Grand Prix in 2011, I had taken all my caffeine at my pre-planned points, when my race was delayed by 45 minutes. When I heard this, I had just finished my warm up and was heading to the call room. Instead of panicking and thinking that everything was wasted, I just chilled out for 15 minutes, topped up my caffeine, did a few strides, and subsequently ended up with my fastest time of the year.
So, to conclude, my key tips to remember for a good competition day nutrition program would be:
- Stick to what you know.
- Continually practice and refine.
- Take your supplements, and where appropriate, drinks and food.
- Practice your caffeine strategy and utilize it on race day.
- Eat the right amount of food.
- Drink the right amount of liquid.
- Be flexible – it doesn’t always have to be perfect!
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Carter, J., Jeukendrup, A. & Jones, D. (2004) The effect of carbohydrate mouth rinse on 1-h cycle time trial performance. Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise 36(12) 2107-2111.
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