Nutrition during the competitive season needs to be a continuation of all the good practices that have been put into place over the preceding months. Overall energy intake may need to be reduced slightly, as training begins to taper, but the focus still needs to be on obtaining a healthy diet with nutrient rich foods such as oily fish, lean meat, low fat dairy, fruits and vegetables, wholegrain cereals, pulses, nuts and seeds.
Planning for competition days is a key part of the process. Ensuring you have access to the right foods and fluids in the hours leading up to and after the event will be essential for optimum preparation and recovery, particularly for those who have multiple races on the same day.
Often the food options available at sporting events are less than ideal and may not always be available as and when you need them. This is a variable that you can control. Bring plenty of food and fluid options to see you through the day and use a cool bag for foods that need to be kept at low temperatures, e.g. meat, fish, eggs and dairy.
The focus before the event should be on carbohydrate intake, to help top up muscle energy stores. Beginning a race in a carbohydrate depleted state will certainly impact on the second half of any middle distance race, particularly as the pace picks up.
Whilst carbohydrate loading practices that aim to super-compensate muscle glycogen stores have not been shown to be particularly beneficial for middle distance events, it is important to pay attention to carbohydrate intake in the days leading up to an event and factor in a good meal 3-4 hours before the race.
Pre-race meals may consist of:
- scrambled eggs on a toasted bagel or English muffin and a glass of fruit smoothie
- muesli and yogurt with fresh fruit, a toasted scotch pancake and a glass of fruit juice
- a lean meat sandwich with a small bottle of drinking yogurt, e.g. Yop
- a falafel and low fat hummus wrap with a glass of flavoured milk
- a baked potato with tuna and sweet corn or chilli sauce and a piece of fruit
- Take some carbohydrate rich snacks to have in the 1-2 hours before the race to boost muscle glycogen stores and stave off feelings of hunger.
Such snacks might include:
- malt loaf
- fruit bread
- hot cross bun
- dried fruit
- homemade oat bars
For those who suffer from gastrointestinal issues or nerves, liquid energy sources may be more suitable, e.g. flavoured milk, smoothies, drinking yogurts/yogurts.
It is important to have established appropriate foods and the timings in which these are consumed before a race in the months leading up to a competition. This is a trial and error process, but once you have established which foods and fluids, at what time, suit your needs, then create a race day nutrition plan and stick to it. Avoid trying any new nutritional strategies on the day of a race.
In order to maximise your recovery between races, consume a moderate to high glycaemic index carbohydrate snack with a small amount of protein (10-20g). The combination of carbohydrate with protein will help to restore muscle energy stores at a greater rate. Try to consume this as soon as possible after the race, particularly for those competing in multiple events when recovery time is short.
When appetite is suppressed after hard physical exertion sports drinks or cordial drinks containing sugar can be very useful. For those who prefer liquid recovery snacks, a flavoured milk or drinking yogurt are ideal.
Food options are just as effective as liquid, however it is important to minimise fat and fibre intake as these nutrients slow down gastric emptying and, therefore, the delivery of carbohydrates to the muscles.
Appropriate food options include:
- tuna pasta
- lean meat/egg sandwich
- a bagel with low fat cream cheese and a glass of milk
- chicken couscous
It is important to commence each race in a well hydrated state, which may require some attention in the days leading up to a competition.
- increase your perception of effort and feelings of fatigue
- place a greater strain on the cardio vascular system
- suppress the cells of the immune system
- cause ‘dry mouth’, which can increase the risk of upper respiratory tract infections
Understanding your fluid requirements and paying attention to your fluid intake will help reduce the risk of dehydration, whilst also avoiding excessive fluid consumption.
There are a wide variety of sports drinks available, marketed for athlete consumption. Knowing what is inside these drinks and why they can be of benefit will help you to choose the right fluid at the right time, depending on your needs, e.g. energy, hydration or both.