There are two common maxims regarding sports nutrition for events: Don’t try anything new on race day, and find the foods and drinks that work best for you. Those are good starting points, but when you spend months training for a goal event it behooves you to put more thought into developing your race day nutrition strategy. Here are some tips for getting your strategy dialed in.
Examine the demands of the event
Your nutrition and hydration strategy needs to be specific to your goal event. How much energy do you expect to expend per hour? What foods/drinks will be available on course or can you carry? Will you need to acquire additional fluids or food during the event or do you need to start with everything you will consume? Will high temperatures or humidity increase fluid needs? There are some general rules of thumb you can use to start out:
- In events shorter than 60 minutes, prioritize hydration and possibly electrolytes over consuming calories. You will start short events with enough glycogen to support optimal performance.
- In events longer than 60 minutes, aim to replenish 30% of the energy you expend each hour, primarily with carbohydrate calories. If you are expending 700 calories per hour, this means consuming about 210 calories, or about 52 grams of carbohydrate per hour. Over time you can adjust this percentage up or down based on how you respond.
- Separate calories from fluids. Fluid intake varies with temperature, humidity, and ultimately, sweat rate. Caloric intake varies by intensity. Having fluid and electrolytes in your bottles and calories in your pockets allows you to adjust your energy and fluid intakes independently.
Find Your Go-To Foods
It is important to go a step beyond “use what works best for you”. You want to develop a core selection of foods you know will always work for you, and then do your best to ensure that selection will always be available. You also want to try foods similar to those foods so you know you can successfully use them if your core choices are not available. If Bonk Breaker Chews are a core food, try a variety of chewables to see if you can successfully make a substitution. For me, the consistency of chewables is a make-or-break issue. Bonk Breaker Chews don’t stick to my teeth and I can get them down quickly. Some other brands are not good substitutions for me because of their stickiness.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, it is equally important to find your “Never Ever” foods. As you can probably guess, these are the foods that lead to bloating or other gastric problems. For long endurance events I also include foods you are reluctant to eat in this category, because when you are fatigued having something you like to eat makes it more likely you’ll actually eat it.
Keep it simple
Once you define your core foods, some good substitutions, and your list of “never ever” foods, the next step is to make your strategy as simple as possible. As Coach Jason Koop, author of “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning” puts it: “If your nutrition strategy requires a spreadsheet, it’s too complicated.” If you are relying on having a precise amount of a specific nutrient at a specific point in a race, you’re imbuing that food or drink with undue credit for either your success or failure. Your strategy needs to be fundamentally solid in that you will have access to enough fluids, calories, and electrolytes to meet your needs for the entire duration of the event, be that one hour or 24. Adding more layers of complexity reduces your chances of executing the strategy successfully. Complexity can make it harder to make adjustments on the fly and feel confident about your decisions.
This ties back into finding your go-to foods. You can consume the energy, fluids, and electrolytes you need a lot of different ways. You can use specially formulated sports nutrition products, sandwiches, fruit, potatoes, rice balls/cakes, etc. The most important thing to remember is that the best food in the world does you no good if you don’t eat it. If it’s the wrong flavor, texture, or consistency and that means it stays in your pocket, it’s useless. Especially in longer endurance events, include sweet, salty, and savory flavors in your choices, as well as soft, chewy, and crunchy textures.
Maximize accessibility and skills
I was working an aid station at an endurance mountain bike event last year and I remember an athlete pulling in – totally bonked – with a pocket full of nutrition bars. I asked why he hadn’t eaten the food he was carrying, and he told me he couldn’t find a place smooth enough to ride one-handed long enough to reach into his pocket, get a bar, open it, and eat. I’ve talked to beginner road racers who finish criteriums with full bottles because they are too scared to reach for a bottle in close quarters at high speeds. For more technical courses you need simple options you can get into your mouth quickly. That’s why you’ll sometimes see criterium and cross-country mountain bike racers tuck a gel into the leg band of their shorts. It’s simple to reach down, grab it, open it with your teeth, squeeze, and get your hand back to the handlebar quickly. If you do this, tuck the wrapper back into the band of your shorts or put it in your pocket. Don’t drop it!
Generally speaking, the longer the event the easier it will be to find opportunities to access the food and fluids you’re carrying. But it’s also important to develop the skills and confidence to reach for food, ride one handed, open packaging, and stow trash on the move, in close quarters, and in somewhat technical terrain.
Train your gut
It is crucial to understand that the gut is trainable. If the demands of your goal event mean you have to consume large volumes of fluid for thermoregulation, you can gradually train your gut to handle high volumes of fluid. And the same goes with calories. There’s good research here and here to back up the effectiveness of training your gut. The American College of Sports Medicine guidelines for carbohydrate intake during exercise is to consume 60-90 grams of carbohydrate per hour. Not only is that often higher than necessary for smaller athletes or athletes in moderate-intensity events, but many athletes who try to consume 80-90 grams of carbohydrate per hour end up suffering from gastric distress. If that much food is necessary to support your performance goals, you have to train your gut to handle it.
There is no magical formula that optimizes nutrition and hydration for every athlete in every condition. That’s why my team and I designed a service called Race Day Nutrition Planning, which is included with Premium and above coaching packages and available to anyone as a standalone service. We will work with you to accomplish all of the steps above before your goal event. If your nutrition and hydration strategies fail, you will fail, no matter how well trained you are. If you are putting in the work to develop great fitness, you owe it to yourself to also put in the work to develop great nutrition and hydration strategies.
CEO/Head Coach of CTS