Note: This post is cross-posted on the Sport Tracks blog at sporttracks.mobi.
In the middle of spring semester of my sophomore year of college, I signed up for a nearby half-iron distance triathlon held the weekend after final exams. I managed to squeeze in a good bit of training between coursework and paid work, and felt prepared for a good performance going into race weekend. Having never raced anything longer than an olympic distance triathlon or read anything about fueling for endurance competition, I was ignorant to the paramount importance of a solid race day nutrition plan for optimum performance.
On race morning, I simply loaded up my bike with three bottles full of gatorade and hoped for the best. Halfway through the bike, I was drinking excessively just to get more calories in, and ended up having jump off my bike and run into the woods for a #1 break twice. Halfway through the run, my energy finally give out. My pace dropped over a minute per mile and I limped across the finish line feeling utterly defeated.
Needless to say, the experience would have been much more successful and enjoyable had I planned, rehearsed, and executed a smart race day nutrition plan. Fortunately, after plenty of research and experience, I now have a strategy that allows me to perform at my best. The following guidelines on race day nutrition should help you cross the finish line in record time.
Two to Three Days Before the Race
Make sure to eat three square, nutritious meals, mainly vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, whole grains, legumes, and lean meat. Make sure to take in enough carbohydrates to top off your glycogen stores before race day. Don’t worry about gaining a few pounds during your taper, it’s much more important to be properly fueled than to be as light as possible.
Race Day Breakfast
Eat a tried and true breakfast 2-3 hours before the start time. The mantra “nothing new on race day” is especially true when it comes to food and drinks. Your breakfast should be high in calories, but lower in fat and fiber. Be sure to take in plenty of fluids as well.
5k, 10k, and Sprint Triathlon In-Race Nutrition
For races lasting less than an hour, your nutrition leading up to the race and pre-race meal will provide enough energy to last the full duration of the event. For especially hot and humid races, you may want to bring a cold electrolyte drink on the bike, or utilize aid stations to take in some additional fluid. A recent study even showed that simply swishing a carbohydrate drink in your mouth (without actually ingesting the calories) can boost performance in high-intensity racing lasting an hour or less.
In-Race Nutrition for Events Longer Than One Hour
To stay properly hydrated, you first need to determine your sweat rate. For cycling races, pick an hour-long ride similar in temperature and humidity to your target race. Weigh yourself nude before suiting up, then ride for one hour at race-pace intensity, towel off, and weigh yourself nude again. The difference in weight is your sweat weight. For reference, a gallon of water weighs eight pounds. Thus, if you lost two pounds in an hour of cycling, you need to drink 32 oz per hour of racing to stay properly hydrated. The same approach works for running, just make sure to pick a day/time that closely matches the temperature and humidity you expect on race day.
To help your body absorb the fluid you take in, make sure to drink an electrolyte mix (such as Osmo, Nuun, or GU Brew) instead of plain water. There is plenty of research showing that losing just 2% of your body weight from sweat leads to dehydration and a big drop-off in athletic performance. The negative effects of dehydration on performance are more drastic and harder to remedy than not taking in enough fuel, so make sure your main focus is staying hydrated.
This amount varies based on intensity, mode (cycling or running), body weight, fitness, elevation, altitude and other factors. Experimentation during high-intensity training sessions and tune-up races is required to find the amount the works best for you.
Your fuel source will vary based on the length of your race. For bike races lasting 4+ hours, I like to eat as much real food as possible. I’m a big believer in the nutrition motto of: “Hydration in the bottle, fuel in the pocket.” The Feed Zone Portables book offers a gold mine of real food recipes for your next hard training session or race.
For running events and shorter triathlons, I find the intensity to be too high to eat natural food. Instead I eat energy bars and chews with a good mix of glucose and sucrose, and try to avoid anything with a lot of fructose and maltodextrin to avoid GI issues.
The most important aspect of post-race nutrition is to rehydrate and refuel, preferably with an electrolyte drink and fuel with a 4:1 mix of carbohydrates to protein within 30 minutes of your race. I normally go for a banana, some orange slices, a few eggs, and a granola bar. Wait to eat a full meal until after you’ve cooled down and showered, but rehydrating and getting in 200-400 calories in the 30-minute window is essential to bouncing back fast for the next hard effort. Another key for consecutive hard efforts, such as stage racing, is to snack frequently throughout the day rather than a eating a few enormous meals. Snacks and smaller meals are easier to digest and keep energy levels more consistent, and help assure your replenishing your fuel stores without overeating.
Please share your own tips, tricks, successes, and PG-rated nutrition failures in the comments section below.