The only difference between a good race day and a bad race day is how you feel about it. You have the power to overcome the obstacles, push through the pain, and remain mentally strong, or to fall victim to negative circumstances. The training you do up until that start line can 100% determine what happens both on the course and after. Physical and mental training are a huge part of getting you there, no doubt, but nutrition is often the missing piece that can make or break your performance.
When it comes to gear, athletes spare no expense. From the most comfortable jersey and shorts (and undergarments), to the right shoes for the job (trail v. OCR v. road, and even cycling), to the accessories of face paint, headbands etc… You’ve trained in it, raced in it, and know it backwards and forwards. But can you say the same for your nutrition?
More often than not, athletes are rushing the morning of the race and don’t get in enough nutrition for the event they’re about to embark on. There’s a common misconception about what to eat the night before and morning of a race (carb-loading), and so much conflicting information from fellow athletes, trainers, fads, and the web that can hinder or distract from what your body knows it needs. Doing anything outside the norm can confuse your body, and harm you more than help you during your race.
Let’s dive into the science behind nutrition for just a second. On a basic level, your body burns calories for energy, just by existing; it takes calories to breathe, talk, think, etc. It takes more calories to go on with our daily lives, like moving around and working, and even more calories to keep up with our training. Your body looks internally for calories first, typically from stores of carbs and fats it creates during meals. Those stores have to be completely gone before your body goes into a “catabolic state,” or essentially starts eating itself for more energy. When this happens, your body is burning calories to make calories, and you often end in a deficit. As soon as food hits your system, your body enters “starvation mode” and will store extra calories, because it’s not sure if you’ll ever feed it again. Bad news.
To keep your body from “bonking” during races (depending on the length and amount of effort exerted), and to maintain proper fueling when your body is working extra hard, you need stores of calories and also a constant intake. There is no secret recipe or plan that you can follow that will guarantee you’ll feel great or avoid the crash, but there are a couple tips and tricks you can use to help you figure out what works best for you.
1) If you want to play around with your macronutrients and see if high protein, high carbs, or high fats is better for you personally, do so at least two weeks prior to race day. Monitor your body’s hydration, rest, and energy levels - these metrics will show you what works best.
2) Use the same nutrition on the day before and on race day that you’ve used during training. Don’t go crazy carb loading with pastas and potatoes, and don’t drown yourself hydrating. Maintain what you’ve been doing, and if anything, eat just a little bit more.
3) On race day morning, eat 3 hours prior to exercise, a normal sized breakfast meal, and then snack on something delicious about 30-45 minutes before you toe the starting line.
4) For shorter races, eat and hydrate every 1.5-2 miles to keep up your energy levels. For longer races, eat and hydrate every 3-5. Your training should mimic race day – keep that in mind during your day-to-day get-up-and-go moments.
5) Properly recover after your race. Even if you’re racing for that finish line beer or cider, make sure you intake the protein, fats, and carbs (and water!) that your body needs to replenish what you just used. Otherwise, you risk injury and poor recovery which will reflect in the next week of training.
Proper nutrition and hydration can be a challenge to those just starting out, but once you understand your body on this new level, you’ll notice a big improvement in performance and recovery. Remember, what you put in your body is just as important to your performance as what you put on it. New shiny jersey? New comfortable shoes with extra drainage for OCR? New diet plan with adequate caloric intake and hydration to push you over that plateau. Get after your race day in a whole new fashion.
For more information on macronutrients, avoiding the cravings while clean eating, and how to improve performance by changing your diet, sign up for the Live Unbreakable 4-Week Virtual Challenge for custom macros and workouts that can kickstart your metabolism for the new year!