Running, riding, or doing your best in any endurance event requires careful preparation as it relates to nutrition leading up to the day of the race. A lot of endurance athlete’s I know adhere to the “see food” diet. That is, they see food and shove it in their mouth without any regards to how many calories it has, macro-nutrient density, and if it will positively or negatively affect race day performance. While race day nutrition strategy is often seen as complicated and not worth the time and effort, properly fueling before and during the race can mean the difference between a PR and falling flat on your face. This article will discuss six simple steps you can start using today to have the best race of your life.
Step 1: Load Up On Carbs Three Days Before Your Race
Carb loading is a technique used to enhance muscle glycogen stores before long-term aerobic endurance exercise. The most effective regimen is three days of a high carb diet in conjunction with tapering exercise the week before competition and complete rest the day before the event. 600 grams of carbohydrate per day or 8 to 10 grams per kilogram body weight should increase muscle glycogen stores 20-40% above normal. More muscle glycogen means you’ll have the fuel to press on when you start pushing the pace.
Step 2: Dial In Your Pre-Competition Meal
The following guidelines (in addition to step 3) should be followed for your pre-race meal:
- Sufficient fluid should be consumed to maintain hydration (step 4)
- Carbohydrates should make up the majority of the meal, but large amounts of simple sugars, especially fructose and maltodextrin, should be avoided because of the potential for GI problems such as diarrhea.
- The meal should be low in fats and fibers to facilitate gastric emptying.
- Protein should make up a small part of the meal because the metabolism of protein increases the acid load that must be buffered and finally excreted by the kidneys.
- The foods should be familiar to and well liked by the endurance athlete.
The table below presents two pre-competition meals that meet these considerations. These meals should be eaten about 3 hours before competition.
Glass of orange juice
One bowl oatmeal
Two pieces of toast with jelly
Sliced peaches with skim milk
One cup low-fat yogurt
One toasted bagel
One ounce of turkey breast
One-half cup raisins
Step 3: Time Your Carbohydrate Intake
The following table summarizes optimal carb intake in the hours leading up to your race:
Carbohydrate 3-4 hours Before Exercise
200-300 grams of carbohydrate 3-4 hours before endurance exercise for an adult maximizes glycogen stores at the onset of exercise and thus enhances performance. Body size, or more appropriately glycogen storage potential, accounts for this broad range.
Carbohydrate 30-60 minutes Before Exercise
Ingest 50-75 grams of carbohydrate 30-60 minutes before exercise.
Carbohydrate Immediately Before Exercise
If carbohydrate is to be consumed immediately before exercise (<5 minutes), 50 grams (less for women) can enhance performance without overloading the stomach at the onset of exercise.
Step 4: Get & Stay Hydrated
- Total Daily Fluid- According to Ryan-Smith and Antonio (2013) daily fluid amounts will vary from individual to individual based on athlete type, body weight, gender, exercise duration and intensity, sweat rates, and type of environment the individual lives/exercises in. While this makes it difficult to recommend an EXACT amount of fluid daily to promote optimal hydration for an athlete, a general guideline of 400-600mL (13 -20 ounces) of fluid every 2-3 hours (160 ounces daily) will ensure the individual is adequately hydrated prior to each training session (Smith-Ryan, Antonio, 2013).
- Prior to exercise- 500 to 600ml of water or sports drink 2 to 3 hours before exercise and 200-300ml of water or sports drink 10 to 20 minutes before exercise. This will ensure optimal pre-exercise hydration.
- During exercise and to maintain hydration at less than 2% body weight reduction approximately 200-300ml of fluids should be taken every 10-20 minutes.
Step 5: Get Caffeinated 60 Minutes Before Race Time
It’s no secret that the best endurance athletes in the world start their morning out with a cup of coffee or two before heading out the door for a workout or race. Besides being the “best part of waking up,” and tasting damn fine, caffeine sparks several physiological processes in the body that can benefit both the elite endurance athlete and average joe alike. Here are the key points on caffeine:
- Caffeine is without a doubt the most effective and legal endurance-enhancing.
- Thousands of published research articles demonstrate that caffeine can improve time trial performance, decrease time to fatigue, and make endurance exercise seem easier.
- Effective dosing is 3-6 milligrams per kilogram body weight. Higher amounts do not increase endurance performance further.
- Your 1stdose of caffeine should be taken ~60 minutes before endurance exercise. Additional caffeine can be taken every 2-3 hours after that.
- Caffeine does not cause dehydration, and it won’t make your heart explode.
- The research is conflicted as it relates to habituation to caffeine. If you feel it isn’t working as well after 3-4 weeks; abstain from caffeine for five days before taking again.
As a side note, PerformElite contains efficacious amounts of caffeine and other endurance performance enhancing ingredients to give you an edge on race day.
Step 6: Fuel Properly During Your Race
There is no denying it. Carbohydrate is the most important macro-nutrient when it comes to fueling endurance performance during races. Without enough, performance can suffer, and you may experience the dreaded “bonk” (when muscle glycogen becomes depleted). Adequate carbohydrate consumption, especially during racing, ensures blood glucose levels remain elevated and provides the energy need to sustain muscular contractions. It also helps spare precious muscle glycogen. This is especially true as the intensity and duration of endurance exercise increases.
Below are guidelines to follow during races lasting from 30 minutes to 3 hours or more. The amounts discussed here can be obtained from sports drinks, gels, chews, bars, or whole food sources and is largely determined by one’s personal preference. The type of carbohydrate (i.e., maltodextrin, fructose, glucose, dextrose, etc….) won’t matter until you start consuming over 60 grams of carbs/hour.
Endurance Exercise Shorter Than 30 minutes
If your run, ride, or other endurance activity lasts 30 minutes or less, there is no need to consume carbohydrate during racing and training. Your body has more than enough muscle glycogen and blood glucose to provide adequate energy for the duration of the session.
Endurance Exercise Lasting 30 minutes to 2 hours
Carb consumption can help here, especially when the intensity is “all out” for the duration of the endurance activity. Eating/drinking 30 grams of carbs per hour will provide enough energy to help you reach the finish line feeling powerful and strong.
Endurance Exercise Lasting 2-3 hours
As endurance exercise starts to go beyond 2 hours, there is a dose-response relationship showing higher amounts of carbs are needed to continue to fuel optimal performance. 60 grams of carbs per hour is the recommendation here as long as it doesn’t cause stomach problems. In a future article, we will discuss how to train the gut to tolerate higher amounts of carbs.
Endurance Exercise Lasting 3 Hours Or Longer
As we start to enter the ultra-distance and beyond zone, it makes sense more carbs are needed. 90 grams of carbs per hour is recommended but with one caveat. The type of carbohydrate used should not be exclusive (i.e., just using fructose) since amounts over 60 grams per hour from a single source can cause stomach distress. Instead, multiple transport carbohydrates should be used. Although this sounds overly complicated, it is as simple as making sure your drink, chews, gels, etc. contain a combination of carb sources such as glucose, sucrose, and fructose. This will ensure maximal absorption while minimizing the gut discomfort.
The Bottom Line On Having Your Best Race Ever
If you follow the steps above you can ensure you are doing everything right to fuel yourself for the best race of your life. While proper training will be the biggest predictor of having a successful race, proper nutrition leading up to race day may mean the differences between an ok race and a podium appearance.