So you've arrived at the week before a race: taper week, with all its perils. You’ve done all the training (in fact, at this point too much training might actually hurt your race), and now you worry about injuries or illness popping up. It can be a frustrating and anxiety-provoking time period, but there are things you can focus on instead of fretting: proper nutrition and adequate rest!
What is the key to pre-race nutrition? Well, nutrition professionals don’t always agree on the specifics about the “right” way to do things, probably because there isn’t one perfect way. However, conventional wisdom calls for carb loading for endurance activities lasting greater than two or three hours, and this is the protocol I typically follow, as it seems to work for me. Some registered dietitians and athletes have experimented with fat loading instead of carb loading and have had success, particularly with ultra endurance events. It’s important to find out what works right for you based on your sport, special nutritional needs, and preferences.
One thing most nutrition professionals will agree upon regardless of where they stand on fat vs. carbs is this: do not try anything new or different the week before the race. This is not the time to check out that new Indian buffet down the street! Continue eating foods your body is familiar with to avoid any GI distress.
If your event will last longer than two or three hours, consider upping your carbohydrate intake for two or three days prior to the event. Avoid the fallacy of the pre-race pasta binge; eating one giant carb-packed meal the night before the race won’t help you maximize glycogen stores, and it may cause stomach upset. Proper carb loading requires increasing your carb intake to up to 10 grams per kilogram (4.5 grams per pound) of body weight for two to three days leading up to the event. If you carb load correctly, you will gain some water weight, as each gram of carbohydrate (like glycogen) is stored with 3 grams of water. Just make sure to cut back slightly on protein and fat during this phase to avoid exceeding your energy needs and gaining true weight.
The type of carbs you choose to fill up with can vary with preferences. A mixture of whole grain and processed carbs is okay during this time, as too many whole grains may cause GI issues due to the high fiber content, and too much white bread and processed carbs can lead to blood sugar highs and lows (and their accompanying symptoms). My carb loading days include lots of oatmeal (mix in pumpkin for a tasty bonus!), bagels, French toast, pasta, sweet potatoes, fruits, low-fat yogurt, and cereal. It’s fun for a couple of days to splurge on carbs, but if you do it right, you’ll likely be sick of them by day three!
As I mentioned above, your body stores carbohydrates with water, so it’s important to drink adequate fluids during this time, as well (although water is important all the time!). Carbohydrate drinks can be used to meet carb and fluid needs.
For the morning of the race, the guidelines for carbohydrate intake prior to an endurance event are 1-4 grams of carbs per kilogram of body weight 1-4 hours before the event. The closer to the event you eat, the less you’ll want to consume (i.e., 1 gram carb per kg body weight if you eat one hour before). How early before the event you eat depends on what time the race is, how early you're willing to get up, and how long it takes for your stomach to feel digested before an intense workout. Most athletes aim for 2-3 hours before the start of the race.
A sample pre-race nutrition plan tried and true for me (I’m not saying I recommend it for everyone) is the following: about 1.5 hours pre-event I’ll eat a bagel thin with 1 tablespoon of peanut butter and 1 tablespoon of honey, half a banana, coffee, and about 4-6 ounces of beet juice. Then 30-45 minutes before the race, I take one packet of Generation UCAN made with 12 ounces water. I’ve tried all these things before, and they seem to work with my digestive system.
To sum it up, good nutrition, lower training volume, hydration, and good sleep will prepare you for a good race!
What's your pre-race nutrition routine?
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Jen Sommer is a registered dietitian, a certified specialist in sports dietetics, a former NASM certified personal trainer, and a self-appointed mountain girl. As a cyclist, skier, hiker, and runner (among other things), she knows firsthand the importance of proper nutrition and training. She offers nutrition coaching and consulting through Peaks Coaching Group. Find more great tips, recipes, and articles at Jen's blog, Mountain Girl Nutrition and Fitness.