Your nutrition choices in the run-up to competition will make or break you. Eat too little and you’ll be too depleted to perform. Overeat and you risk debilitating stomach problems. Race day nutrition is tricky. You have to strike delicate balance. Clearing out misconceptions about approaching food on competition days can be a big help. Here are two of the biggest and most surprising mistakes athletes make when eating on race day.
The average athlete burns about 800 calories per hour during high-intensity activity. When they’re in an endurance-paced session, they burn closer to 500-600 calories per hour. People generally believe they need to replace all the calories they burned during exercise to keep the output or hold the pace steady. But that’s a misconception. It’s impossible to process that intake and convert it into a usable fuel source. Truthfully, we really only need to eat about a third of what we burn.
An overloaded gut can’t transport nutrients into the bloodstream fast enough to help the body move and carrying around leftover food in the stomach can cause gastric distress. Your body doesn’t digest efficiently during taxing physical activity, when its core temperature is overheated or when it’s dehydrated. If your gut is already moving slowly, stuffing it with food won’t help. It only makes you feel bloated, sloshy and ill.
Overloading the body with calories slows it down and can cause nausea. Starving it brings you to a halt. Learning what you need to take in relative to your expenditure and your tolerance will help match your intake with your needs and fuel you to the finish.
There is often a disconnect between the way athletes approach nutrition planning and physical training. A dedicated athlete could obsess over every training run and PT exercise, but if they neglect race day nutrition, all the physical training might prove worthless come race day.
With nutrition, the immediate effects are very subtle, and the substantial results come later. Without direct feedback or gratification, it’s challenging to keep the eyes on the prize. But suffering through a “nutrition malfunction” during a long workout or event can be a great learning experience.
Make a race day food plan in advance and test it before the race. If you never try your race-day nutrition routines in training, you can’t expect it to magically work on race day. I recommend using two long runs to practice race day nutrition so you can develop a race day plan. It is during these sessions that you may realize your nutrition preferences are too sweet, too syrupy, challenging to open or eat at higher intensities, or if they turn your stomach.
Because so much is at stake when it comes to race day nutrition, it can be tempting to over-complicate your plan. But it’s not rocket science. The less you have to think about, the better. Keep the nutrition plan simple. When things get too complex, we lose focus on what is important: just getting in enough calories.