Presented by Suunto
If you ask 10 athletes about their pre-race meal you will probably get 10 different answers. Often pre-race nutrition depends almost entirely on the continental breakfast of the hotel they stayed in the night before the race. This meal can make or break your race, and needs to be planned out and practiced ahead of time and not left to chance. Not everyone responds the same, but below are some general guidelines to get you prepared for that breakthrough training session or to the start line ready to race.
The main purpose of a pre-race meal is to top off muscle and liver glycogen stores after a night of fasting so you have enough reserve to push hard past that 90-minute mark. If you have a shorter race such as a 5k or 10k run, eating too much too close to a race can be detrimental and it is more important to have blood flow where you need it (working muscles) instead of where you don’t (digestive system). However, most triathlons last much longer than one hour so having adequate carbohydrate stores is critical. Someone following a low carb diet might only have enough reserve to last 60-90 minutes at high intensity, whereas someone on a high carbohydrate diet can have over double the carbohydrate stores.
The Early Riser (3-4 Hours Before Race Start)
This can depend on your start time, but the optimal time to consume a pre-race meal is 3-4 hours before the race. This timing allows you to eat more and digest before your start. Your main goal is to restore liver glycogen stores, store carbohydrates in the muscle and store some carbs in the gut for absorption and release during exercise. The pre-race meal should be primarily made up of dense low fiber carbohydrates such as pasta, rice and processed grains such as bagels with a portion of the carbs coming from liquid sources. High fiber, high protein, and high fat can cause bloating and GI issues. As a general rule, for every hour you allow yourself before race start, you can consume up to half a gram of carbohydrate for every pound you weigh. So, an athlete that weighs 160 pounds could consume close to 320 grams of carbohydrates or 1,280 calories (1 gram of carbs = 4 calories). Yikes, I know this sounds like a lot and it is. You wouldn’t want to do this before a sprint triathlon, but if you know you are going to be out on the course for 4+ hours you might get close. Although still a wide range, a more practical amount is 400-1000 calories taken 3-4 hours before race time. Some athletes will wake up, eat their meal 4 hours prior to the race start and then take a short nap so that they can get in their ideal pre-race meal.
Your Average Joe (2-2.5 Hours Before Race Start)
If you’re like me, you end up eating closer to 2-2.5 hours before race time. This would put me at 1 gram of carbohydrate per pound of body weight. In this scenario, I would consume close to 600 calories. This might mean one large bagel (300-360) with peanut butter (75-90), a banana (100-120), and a bottle of EFS Pro (120). Some people do not handle protein and fat well so you might want to substitute jam for the peanut butter. A little bit of protein and fat is okay and will help to lower the glycemic index, resulting in a slower release. I try not to take in more than 10 grams of fat or 10 grams of protein within 2 hours of a race.
My Alarm Didn’t Go Off (1 Hour Before Race Start)
Unfortunately, this has happened to most of us at some point. Your alarm didn’t go off, you had the wrong start time, your car broke down, or you decided to stay out a wee bit too late the night before and now you’re scrambling. With only 60 minutes until race start you only have time for about 60-75 grams of carbohydrates or 240-300 calories. A small bagel or single instant oatmeal packet and a bottle of sports drink will put you just under 300 calories. A sports nutrition bar with water works well with only one hour until race time.
The Last 30 Minutes
If you executed your pre-race meal plan by eating 2-4 hours before race start, you still may want to take in another 100 calories of carbohydrate 10-30 minutes before race start. Some people can handle a banana or small bar this close to a race, but I can’t. I opt for a sports gel or carbohydrate drink this close to the start. If you take in calories within 15 minutes of starting exercise, there is not enough time for an insulin response and once you start exercise those calories will be used directly from the bloodstream. The misconception is that gels or sports drink give you instant energy, but you have plenty of glucose in your bloodstream for that. Topping off your glycogen stores at this point just delays when you start depleting muscle glycogen and can help ensure that you finish strong in races lasting 2+ hours. Remember the goal is just to delay fatigue, depletion, and dehydration past the finish line.
Practice, Practice, Practice
For a pre-race meal plan to work on race day, it needs to be something that you have practiced often in training under race simulations. Never try new foods or caloric timing on race day unless you have tried it in training first. Nailing down your pre-race meal in training will help you execute higher quality training sessions which will result in faster times on race day.
- The closer to race time the smaller the meal.
- For your pre-race meal, .5 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight, for each hour before race start.
- Consume high carbohydrate low fiber foods.
- Practice your pre-race meal in training.
- Never try something new on race day.
Josiah Middaugh is the reigning XTERRA Pan America Champion and the 2015 XTERRA World Champion. He has a master’s degree in kinesiology and has been a certified personal trainer for 15 years (NSCA-CSCS). His brother Yaro also has a master’s degree and has been an active USAT certified coach for more than a decade. Read past training articles at http://www.xterraplanet.com/training/middaugh-coaching-corner and learn more about their coaching programs at http://middaughcoaching.com.
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