Have Your Best Race Day: Part 2
May 18, 2018
By Nick Whitbread
Have Your Best Race Day (Cont.)
On race day we all want to do the best we can. That can mean different things to each of us. A new PR, finishing in a certain placing or just a feel good, problem free run. Whatever your best is, race day is the culmination of all the training and effort you put in throughout the season. When you stand at the start line you can't do anymore than you already have. What can we do before we get there to ensure we have the best race day outcome?
Part 2. Nutrition
There are many theories on what is best to eat before a race, just like there are many theories on what's best to eat every day. We are going to share our point of view and let You decide if you think it might work for you. Ultimately there's the science and then there's experience. No one knows your body better than you so take what works for you and leave the rest behind.
For the trail running races we do ranging from 5k and up our body is primarily using its aerobic system (requiring oxygen). Depending on the level of exertion the body can use glycogen (sugar) or fat. The closer the athlete is to their Vo2Max (the maximum amount of oxygen able to be utilized for physical activity) the more the body is relying on the glycogen as fuel. The level of fitness and the way the athlete has trained also affect this. At around the 90 minute mark of intense exercise the body's glycogen stores are almost exhausted and the body then switches to use primarily fat as a fuel source.
The human body requires glycogen to run the brain, liver and kidneys. It's for this reason that if the body's glycogen stores are coming dangerously close to complete exhaustion that it goes into survival mode. It begins to shut down systems that are not essential to maintain life. At this point vision can become blurry, maintaining equilibrium becomes difficult, dizziness may occur,the body's temperature regulation becomes difficult, cramping may occur also the mood changes accordingly. For this reason it's important to consume sugar during an event that will be around or longer than 90 minutes. Glycogen is an important part of having a good race day.
Every time we hear someone say I'm "carbo-loading" we cringe. Do you need to stuff yourself full of grains, potatoes and pasta up to three days before the event? We don't think so. Most carbo-loading regimes focus on the 24 hours prior to the race. Most of the foods commonly used for carbo-loading are complex carbohydrates. The problem with complex carbohydrates is, well they're complex. They are more difficult to break down, use more energy and water for your body to extract the glycogen from them at a time when it's best to be reducing stress and possible dehydration on the body. Many of the common foods used for carbo-loading (grains, pasta) are also foods that can cause inflammation in the body right before we place a large amount of stress on the body during the race. These foods if eaten the night before are often still being digested in the stomach when the race begins and this adds an unneeded stress which can affect performance on race day.
If you eat enough carbohydrates in your regular diet your glycogen stores will most likely be topped off ready for race day. If you feel like you're a little behind on carbs try to eat unprocessed complex carbohydrates (sweet potatoes are a good choice) and also think about the way you decide to prepare them. If you take any food and bake it or process it, you are removing the perfect natural amount of water that the food contained. Your body then requires more water to break down the food to extract its nutrients. Preparation methods like boiling or steaming maintain the foods water content. Eating these foods early in the evening the day before your race will also give your body the best chance of having their glycogen stored away and ready to go for race day.
If you have experimented with carbo-loading and it works for you, that's great. If you haven't tried it before, it goes to the old adage "nothing new on race day". Try it in training before you try it in a race. We prefer to stick to our regular diet and foods our body is familiar with and knows what to do with. The simpler and less processed the foods the better.
We spent all that time on glycogen, now the fat. Fat is the ultimate endurance fuel. Regardless of the body fat of the athlete we always have enough. Although Fat requires more energy to convert into fuel, it is a more efficient fuel source for endurance events. Our ability to use it efficiently is determined by how we train. Long, low intensity runs train the body to be able to utilize fat for fuel more efficiently.
So what's the best thing to eat on race morning?
If you race is less than an hour in duration, even at maximum effort you really don't need to eat anything. Your body has enough glycogen stored to carry you through. Having said that we are creatures of habit and we eat breakfast every morning...right? So if you just wanna eat or your race is longer than an hour eat something. If your race ranges from an hour and 15 minutes and over, you will be consuming calories throughout the race so you don't need to fill yourself with a big heavy meal. Stick with something that your body is used to and something that is light. A small fruit smoothie with spinach is a good go to if you are used to it. Use water instead of milk and sweeten it up with dates. However if you aren't someone who eats a lot of fibre it can be a disaster. You have to think about what you usually eat. What is your body used to? You want something that will not leave you feeling hungry at the start line but at the same time not have you still digesting breakfast at the finish line wishing you hadn't eaten it. So think light and simple for your stomach to break down.
Coffee does what it does so if you're a coffee drinker make sure you know your window to have your cup and also have a great race.
The tall and short of it is that you are your own science experiment. You have to figure out what works for you. The only way to figure that out it some trial and error so best figured out during training, not on race day.
Hydration is the other important factor in pre race nutrition. We'll save that for next time.