Whatever your event may be, the goal is usually to cross the finish line as quickly as possible while feeling strong and confident along the way. To help you get there, I’ve put together a few important tips to make sure your nutrition is doing its part.
The pre-race mealIt is ideal to have your pre-race meal two or three hours prior to the start of your event. If you’re doing a running event, duathlon, or triathlon, aim for closer to three hours prior to the start in order to minimize the chance of feeling too full on the start line. I usually recommend that athletes eat a high-carbohydrate (CHO) meal low in glycemic load before a race. I also recommend they make sure to try the foods before simulated race workouts to make sure the chosen dishes are tolerable to your GI tract.
Whether or not you’re an avid coffee drinker, you might benefit from caffeine ingestion of 3-6 mg/kg on race day, but taking any more than that doesn’t appear to result in further performance gains. My recommendation is to start your morning with a caffeinated beverage of your choice with the goal of getting 3 mg/kg into your system before starting the race. Depending on you and your race, it may also make sense to include caffeinated drinks and/or gels as part of your fueling plan (up to 6 mg/kg total intake). The good news is that you don't need to avoid caffeine in the days leading up to the race to attain its performance benefits on race day.
Warm-up nutritionOnce you start warming up, it can be beneficial to take in some additional CHO in the form of your favorite sports drink and/or a gel or chews with a few sips of fluid according to your thirst.
Fluid intake during the raceIt's a good idea to formulate your hydration strategy during the training phase so you have a clear plan on race day. Always arrive at a race well hydrated and, if the event is long enough to warrant fluid intake during the race, aim for ingesting somewhere between (depending on your body size, pace, and environmental conditions) 16-24 ounces (473-710 ml) per hour of a sodium-containing drink. Adjust the amount based on your thirst.
CHO intake during the raceWhether or not you train with low or high CHO intake, it’s a good idea to include some high-CHO training sessions so you’re confident your gut can handle the carbohydrate load on race day. For optimal race performance, up to 30 grams of glucose can provide a performance benefit in a race less than an hour in length. For events lasting up to two hours, 30-60 grams of glucose per hour is recommended, and for events longer than two hours, you may be able to utilize around 90 grams CHO (glucose + fructose blend) per hour. Sports drinks and gels are the most convenient types of race foods, but for longer events, low-fiber bars and other solid food can also be used in conjunction with drinks and gels.
Fuel up well, and good luck!
Burke et al. Caffeine for Sports Performance. Human Kinetics, 2013.
Ormsbee et al. (2014). Pre-Exercise Nutrition: The Role of Macronutrients, Modified Starches and Supplements on Metabolism and Endurance Performance. Nutrients (6): 1782-1808
Stellingwerff and Cox (2014). Systematic Review: Carbohydrate Supplementation on Exercise Performance or Capacity of Varying Durations. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism: 10.1139/apnm-2014-0027