There is a pretty good likely hood that at some stage in your racing you have come into strife with your race nutrition and these nutritional woes have ruined your race day performance.
Our bodies are quite amazing but we need each of the parts of fueling to be in harmonious cooperation with our body. What we typically see is massive over reactions or overcompensation and the athlete not realizing until it’s too late.
I have listed some of the most common mistakes below and also given some advice how to avoid these common performance ruining pitfalls.
Eating and Drinking too much in the few days before the race
Carbo-loading, fluid and sodium loading in race week can be a costly mistake on both your health and performance.
I discussed carbo-loading in a previous post, but to quickly summarize, when you aim to eat more carbohydrates in the ‘idea’ that you’ll be maximizing muscle glycogen stores in race week week it is much too late. Your muscle glycogen stores are as full as they are going to be). All that stuffing food down your throat now does is increase dead weight (excess fuel will be stored in your adipose cell ie. fat).
Hydration – we always see athletes walking around with there trusty water bottles sucking down liter after liter thinking that they can super hydrate before the race. All it does is increase your potential risk of hyponatremia (dilution of sodium in the blood). You only need approximately .5 -.6 x your body weight each day (example: 70kg / 154lb athlete should drink between 77-92 ounces or 2.2-2.7 liters per day).
Sodium loading – is typically done or ‘advised’ because of the thought that you can get ahead of the game prior to the race. Most athletes already consume too much sodium (salt) in their day to day life. Sodium needs to balanced with all electrolytes and a high intake has the potential to disrupt your hormonal balance. Read this post at slinkyslender.com for more details.
Eating your pre race meal within 3 hours of the race
Your pre-race meal needs to be consumed a minimum of 3 hours before race start. The reason for this is 3 hours allows enough time for the body to fully digest the meal and it’s this digestion time that will help you avoid gastro-intestinal distress. Further to that reason and just as important to performance is that when you eat closer than 3 hours to your race start you’ll get elevated blood sugar that will cause excess insulin release which will cause hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) and the feeling of lethargy on the race start… not good! Having high insulin also inhibits our fats-to-fuel conversion which can be a major loss to endurance performance and those high insulin levels will also increase of muscle glycogen usage – meaning rapid carbohydrate fuel depletion.
By eating your pre-race meal 3 or more hours before race start you’ll effectively top up your liver glycogen stores, allow time for full digestion and for your insulin and blood glucose to normalise thus saving you from potential intestinal distress and major performance loss.
Over eating and drinking in your pre-race meal
All you need to do for you pre-race breakfast other then eat it well in advance is top of your liver glycogen stores which have been depleted during sleep and take the edge off your hunger pangs. I have seen many athletes whoof down huge caloric meals between 600-1000 calories in the hope of get more energy out of it… unfortunately all it’s going to do is be turned to dead weight.
So a meal (3hrs before) of 200-400 calories and mostly complex carbohydrates and a little soy protein and a tiny amount of fat is ALL you need.
Your fluid requirements only need to satisfy your hydration without putting you at risk for overhydration! All you need is between 290ml-350ml of fluid (with no calories) each hour up to 30 minutes prior to race start. (700-900ml of total fluid).
Excessive fluid intake during the race
The amount of fluids consumed by most athletes are extremely and dangerously excessive. The risk of hyponatremia is real especially for the mid to back of the pack athletes and has been unfortunately fatal for some.
Most athletes in most conditions need ~ 590-750 milliliters per hour. Only in very hot and humid conditions should you need more. If so make sure you increase cautiously and also increase your electrolytes at the same time.
Simple Sugars are simply no good
We now know in our day to day diet that simple sugars are the cause of many of todays health problems but these simple sugars (fructose, sucrose, glucose) are also poor carbohydrate fueling choices because they can only be mixed in a weak (6-8%) solution thus providing only ~ 100 calories per hour. If you aim to increase the amount you drink to get more calories bloating and discomfort will occur but worse still you put yourself at a high risk of fluid intoxication.
We see athletes aim to get around this low calorie fueling by making a super strong concentrate, which greatly exceeds its 6-8% osmolality and this means that the concentrate is so strong that it will remain in your stomach until its diluted enough to be absorbed. This is where it gets tricky because in an effort to dilute the mixture, athletes then run the risk over over-hydration (water only and no electrolytes) but if you don’t self dilute the body will aim to do this by diverting fluids from other needed areas to help the digestive system out. This results in stomach distress and increased potential of cramps.
The best choice for the endurance athlete is to consume complex carbohydrates because they allow the body to rapidly process more calories and thus provide steady energy. The beauty is that you can mix complex carbs (maltodextrins and glucose polymers) at more concentrated levels and they will empty the stomach at the same rate as normal body fluids.
Trying to replace the calories you’re expending – excessive caloric intake and too much at one time
Way too many athletes are aiming to consume enormous amounts of calories while they are racing. It is just a physiological impossibility to replace the same amount of fluids, sodium and glycogen that you’re expending in a race situation.
Aiming to induce more than you actually need will result in stomach distress, sub-par performance and even the possibility of a DNF.
Your size will determine how much calories you actually need per hour. A typical sized triathlete at 70-75kg / 154-165lbs only needs between 240-280, if your lighter than you will need less and a heavier athlete will need a bit more.
Every time I have aimed on the minimal side, I have had much better results. You can always drip in more. It is very hard to come back from a shut down gut.
Also to note is that you should be dripping your calories in and not whacking in massive loads at once. Look at how the drip works in a hospital. They don’t want to flood the system but allow the nutrients to absorb. So drip drip drip is much easier on your digestive system.
Finally as the days goes on, your total calorie needs reduce as digestion becomes harder for the body to do.
I found it interesting that many athletes still do not supplement with electrolytes when racing and wonder why they cramp. Electrolytes are the bodies oil and we need them to stop the engine (muscles) seizing. You need electrolyte replacement in both hot and cold climes. While you may not need as much in cooler races you will still need them.
We have found a lot of success with around 1g/hr of sodium (with other essential electrolytes) with products like salt sticks and endurolytes.
I stand by the position that in racing up to the Ironman distance that we don’t need solids while we’re racing. What we want is the easiest food to get down and which is also easily digested. Liquids will do this however solids can create havoc on your digestive system because the body has to work much harder to break them down and will divert critical blood flow and liquids from the working muscles. The time it takes to break down the solid food increases the likelihood of stomach distress. You might feel hunger pangs on liquid nutrition but you will still have optimal energy.
Using a new untried product
Really.. I shouldn’t have to bring this one up, but it happens again and again. Test and refine your strategy in your more specific longer sessions. Aiming to ingest race fueling when doing your efforts.
The only time you should ever use some untried is if you have lost your sports nutrition somehow. If that is the case only take in small amounts at a time.
Not having a plan or sticking to a plan no matter what
Working out your game plan when it comes to nutrition is imperative, knowing which of the best nootropics stack (buy here) diet you’re going to have and at what increments will help you chances of success. This needs to be done well in advance of your race. Work it out and see if works in training when at race intended speeds.
There are many factors that can change your plan. For instance if the race gets really hot then you will need to reduce how much you take in as the ability to absorb calories is greatly diminished. Flexibility is key.
Too much complexity and variety of fuel sources.
Try to keep your nutrition as simple as possible. Having a variety of different fuel sources is just too hard on a digestive system that is already compromised due to the activity level. Focus on complex carbs (maltodextrin or glucose polymers), if you’re adding protein ensure you use soy for pre race and racing as it doesn’t create ammonia like whey does. Use whey for post session recovery and remember to drip in the nutrition in small amounts.
There you have it. Some of the most common mistakes we see athletes do when it comes to racing. There are many more, but really at the bottom of it is athletes typically over compensate on there fluids and calorie needs while under-compensating on their electrolyte needs.
Take some time to plan it out your fueling strategy, test it over and over and refine it on your longer sessions and when at race intensities so you get experiential learning of what works. Then implement on race day but be flexible in the fact that conditions may warrant changes to your plan on the fly.