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Pre-Event Nutrition Game Plan

This is an excerpt from Endurance Sports Nutrition, Third Edition by Suzanne Girard Eberle.


View more pre-event programs for endurance sports in
Endurance Sports Nutrition.

Pre-Event Nutrition Game Plan

Your job beforehand is to respect the nutrition aspect of long-distance endurance competitions and eat in a way that prepares you physically and mentally for the challenge that lies ahead. In simple language, you must start a long-distance race or event adequately hydrated and well fueled. If you’ve trained properly and eaten a normal diet the few days leading up to the race or event, you can expect to store roughly 2,000 calories of glycogen (between muscles and the liver), or enough fuel for approximately 90 to 120 minutes of vigorous activity or a few hours at a moderate intensity or pace.

Because working muscles rely heavily on carbohydrate as fuel during these distance endeavors, as well as on the efficient breakdown of fat (which depends in part on the body having sufficient carbohydrate available; see chapter 2 to review), enhancing or boosting glycogen stores by carbohydrate loading makes sense. This practice reduces the chance that you will deplete your muscle glycogen stores and hit the wall before reaching the finish line.

Keep in mind that for male athletes, carbohydrate loading doesn’t translate into eating enormous quantities of extra food, nor does it mean filling up on high-fat foods. To enter the race or event feeling fresh and well rested, you’ll want to taper your training as the day of the event approaches. Because you’ll be expending less energy in training than normal, you won’t require massive amounts of extra calories to boost your carbohydrate intake. Rather, men should aim to consume about 70 percent of their daily calories as carbohydrate-rich food (8 to 10 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight). Some athletes find it easiest simply to add a serving or two of a high-carbohydrate beverage (see chapter 5 for examples). Female athletes, on the other hand, need to consume carbohydrate at a level of around 12 grams per kilogram of body weight to achieve a similar performance advantage from carbohydrate loading. From a practical standpoint, the only way for female endurance athletes to do this is to consume extra food (an additional 700 calories a day) for 3 to 4 days leading up to their endurance event.

Because you rely on your body not only to perform in long-distance races and activities, but to get you safely back home or to the finish line, you need to know how to prevent bonking (hypoglycemia, or a too-low blood sugar level) and hyponatremia (low blood sodium level). Learn what measures to take beforehand to reduce your risk. (See chapter 14 for an in-depth discussion of hyponatremia.)

Last, endurance athletes must be aware of the risks of using nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen and naproxen sodium, during long-distance activities and races. Combined with dehydration, taking NSAIDs during prolonged exercise can increase your risk of kidney problems as well as predispose you to hyponatremia. You’ll need to pay particular attention to your fluid intake before and during the event or race if you choose to take NSAIDs.

A Few Days in Advance

The main goal is to successfully carbohydrate-load. Ideally, you have found a carbohydrate-loading routine that works for you by experimenting before long training efforts. Understandably, depending on your performance goals and the time of year (or where you are in your season), you may not be able to taper your training fully before every long-distance race or event that you undertake. Boosting carbohydrate intake, however, is helpful, and it becomes more and more essential as you ask your body to perform vigorously past 90 minutes.

As long as you fill up on carbohydrate and not fat, don’t be alarmed if you feel bloated or temporarily gain a couple of pounds in the days leading up to your event or race. Your body stores a considerable amount of water as it stows away carbohydrate as muscle glycogen. This extra water will help delay dehydration during the event or race.

Drink plenty of familiar, well-tolerated beverages such as water, fruit juice, sports drinks, and low-fat milk with your meals and snacks. Having beverages along with food helps your body hold on to the fluid longer. To avoid increasing the risk of hyponatremia, avoid the urge to drink too much plain water, especially during the day and evening before the event. Always monitor your urine color. It should be pale yellow, not clear like water.

To further decrease the risk of hyponatremia, maintain or increase your salt intake leading up to races in which you’ll be continuously moving for 3 hours (at moderate to high intensity) or longer. An adequate intake of sodium is particularly important if you’ll be competing in hot and humid conditions and when the weather will be warmer than what you normally train in. Add table salt to foods or eat your favorite salty foods, like soup, tomato juice, canned vegetables, canned chili, salted pretzels, and pickles.

Female endurance athletes, back-of-the-packers (a slower pace often means more opportunities to drink and thus overhydrate), undertrained athletes (sweat losses of sodium are greater), athletes troubled with cramping, and those not acclimated to the heat need to be particularly mindful of getting adequate sodium. If you’ve had problems with hyponatremia or dealing with the heat in the past or have a health problem such as high blood pressure, speak with your physician before taking salt (or electrolyte) tablets in the days leading up to (or during) a long-distance event or race.

If your competition involves travel and meals eaten away from home, be sure to take with you any special or favorite food items that you simply can’t do without. Make smart food choices a priority on travel days because all-day travel and poor nutrition is a double whammy for even a highly trained athlete. Prepare by bringing foods that travel well and by stocking up on energy bars and powdered meal-replacement products. Consider using a high-carbohydrate beverage or meal-replacement product to supplement your carbohydrate needs if time-zone changes or your travel schedule will interfere with your regular eating habits. As much as you can control it, don’t try new foods or change your eating habits in the week leading up to a long-distance event or race.

Now is the time to review your nutrition game plan for the day of the race. Early in the week, make sure that you have enough of all nutrition essentials that you plan to consume during the event or race, such as sports drinks, energy gels and bars, and, if appropriate, foods and electrolyte (salt) tablets that have previously passed the test in training. Double-check that any equipment that you plan to use, such as hip packs or bum bags, bladder hydration systems, and gel flasks, is in good working order. Gather and prepare your sports foods and equipment (as well as a recovery drink or bar and food for afterward) no later than the night before. If feasible, fill drink bottles (or another hydration system) the night before so that you can just grab them in the morning (and so that during warm weather you can freeze bottles beforehand).

Pre-Event Dinner

When it comes to eating the night before a long-distance race, rest assured that no magical or preferred prerace dinner exists. The only rule is to stick with familiar foods that you enjoy. This is not the time to be adventurous because you want to avoid making late-night trips to the bathroom. Although you most likely know to feature carbohydrate-rich foods like pasta, rice, and potatoes, keep in mind that endurance athletes have competed successfully after eating all kinds of foods, including pizza, steak, and Mexican food! (For carbohydrate-rich meal ideas, see chapter 4.)

Stuffing yourself with carbohydrate isn’t necessary at this time. In other words, don’t feel obligated to get your money’s worth at the traditional prerace pasta feed. (Serious competitors, in fact, may do well to avoid eating in public places with crowds.) Don’t be afraid to include reasonable-sized portions of meat or other protein-rich foods as well as some fat at this meal. These foods have staying power and can help you sleep through the night. Most athletes do fine having a glass of wine or a beer if it’s part of their regular routine. Eat at a reasonable time for you, consume appropriate-sized portions, and know that eating again before bedtime (for example, a carbohydrate-rich snack such as milk and cereal or an energy bar) is more productive than stuffing yourself now.

Some athletes become consumed with having the perfect prerace meal or eating exactly the same thing each time. Keep your stress level in check by becoming comfortable with eating a variety of foods at prerace meals, especially if you travel to races; otherwise, you waste precious mental energy that compromises your performance. The goal is to be open-minded and flexible, which translates into being able to eat as many different foods as possible. If you firmly believe that certain foods will enhance your performance, by all means, eat them!

Finally, remind yourself that your success the next day hinges on numerous factors, and that this last supper is only one of them. Focus your mental energy on how you plan to fuel yourself during the event or race. What you do (or don’t do) the next day, when you’re on the move for several hours, has a much greater effect on your stamina, your morale, and ultimately the outcome, than worrying about eating the perfect meal the night before.

Continue to drink plenty of familiar, well-tolerated fluids, but don’t overdo it by drinking bottle after bottle of plain water or other sodium-free beverages.

Morning of the Event

Plan to eat a carbohydrate-rich breakfast a few hours before the start of your endeavor or race, especially for a late-morning or midday start. Although you may be able to skip breakfast and do well in shorter-range events and races, the odds aren’t in your favor as you move up in distance. If you don’t eat breakfast, how many waking hours, as well as total hours, will have passed since you last ate? What will happen if the start is delayed?

Eating breakfast helps settle your stomach and ward off hunger pangs as you wait for the race to begin. (Many athletes find that they feel satisfied longer by eating earlier and including higher-fat foods like peanut butter or cheese.) More important, eating breakfast refills your liver glycogen stores (which can be almost gone by morning), which are critical for maintaining a stable blood sugar level during prolonged exercise. These carbohydrate reserves help to power hardworking muscles and fuel your brain so that you can make wise decisions while on the move. If you’re simply too nervous to eat on race morning, drink your breakfast in the form of a breakfast shake or meal-replacement product. (As a last resort, eat a substantial late-night snack before going to bed.) No concrete recommendations exist; however, most people do well by consuming .5 grams of carbohydrate (2 calories) per pound of body weight (1 gram or 4 calories per kilogram) if they eat 1 hour before their event (for example, a canned liquid meal or energy bar that provides 100 to 300 calories) or up to 2.0 grams of carbohydrate per pound 4 hours before (for example, a substantial breakfast that holds you).

Keep in mind that liquid foods clear the stomach faster than solid foods do. If coffee or tea is part of your usual preexercise routine, go with it. Most athletes do best sticking with what they know (and ideally have confirmed by experimenting before long training efforts). If in doubt, leave it out.

Continue to hydrate with plenty of water or a familiar sports drink up to 2 hours before the start. Doing so will give you time to urinate any excess. Drink another cup of water or a sports drink 5 to 15 minutes before the start. For athletes who consume an energy gel before the start of a prolonged event, this is also the time (as close to the actual time of the start of the activity) to consume a packet with a few gulps of water.


Read more from Endurance Sports Nutrition, Third Edition by Suzanne Girard Eberle.



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Packed with plans for short, long, ultraendurance, and multiday events, Endurance Sports Nutrition, Third Edition, focuses on the nutrition needs of endurance athletes, including runners, cyclists, open-water swimmers, and triathletes. Included are strategies that top endurance athletes have used to reach the pinnacle of success in their sports.
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