Competition Knowledge Base Nutrition

Race Nutrition

Before a big event there is often a traditional pasta party. We show why this is not good and suggest a better strategy for feeding before and during a competition.

race nutrition

Purpose of race-feeding

  • The first one is to get to the start line with the optimal storage of glycogen in your muscles and liver.
  • The second is to prevent hypoglycemia (low blood sugar level) during the effort.

In two steps we need first to optimize our potential to store, and to then to release stored energy effectively.

I. STORE (or loading)

Super Compensation


Over the past decades, Scandinavians have used a method, which consisted in a week long special regimen. It starts with an exhaustive training session one week before the race, while athletes consume a low-carbohydrate diet, yet continued exercising, to totally deplete muscle glycogen stores. Then, 3 days before competition, athletes rest and eat a high-carbohydrate diet to promote glycogen super compensation.

This regimen has many drawbacks:
  • the long training sessions necessary to reach a complete depletion of stores, while at the same time the athlete is already in a carbohydrate-low phase, can hardly be done with a pace close to that of the competition, therefore a sufficiently selective depletion of muscle fibers can not necessarily be obtained.
  • considerable side effects such as nervous tiredness, hormonal disturbances, muscular breakage, can prejudice a successful race.

This has led to the insight that the super compensation of glycogen reserves can be obtained by limiting the diet to the carbohydrate-rich phase and still gets an optimal performance.

We know today, that endurance training is the primary stimulus for increased muscle glycogen synthesis. Endurance training increases the activity of the glycogen synthesis, and the enzyme responsible for glycogen storage. But timing is equally important! Today we know to have some very specific body adaptations, some metabolic windows.

The Window

It should be known that the starchy foods and leguminous plants (principal sources of carbohydrates in our food) can be stored in a greater proportion, in the form of muscular glycogen, after a significant depletion of stores. In the few hours (there is a 4 to 6 hours optimal window after the end of the effort) following a long and/or intense effort, which will have drawn largely from the muscular glycogen reserves, the conditions are thus favorable. When the glycogen reserves under these preconditions are exhausted, the muscular cells will then much more easily restore glycogen.

The Solution: 2PEAK Loading

Assuming race day is a Sunday. ( road race, 10k run, X-C ski , marathon, triathlon or whatever endurance sport) here is how we should proceed in detail:

  • Wednesday: a long workout (one to three-or more- hours, depending on your sport, try to include 1-3 intervals at competition pace). Make sure to avoid starchy foods (carbohydrates) the night before in order to maximize the drain of your glycogen stores. As soon as you are back from your long workout, a recovery drink will enable you to start to replenish glycogen while re-hydrating the muscle cells. Then, the first solid food will be introduced, between 1 and 2 hours after the end of the effort* This meal will have to be also rich in carbohydrates and possibly alkaline (in order to bind the acids, dried fruits or bananas for example). The following meal or two will have to be carbohydrate dominant, potatoes (very alkaline food) and leguminous plants (rich in fiber and mineral) will be very welcome.
  • Thursday, Friday and Saturday will be used to relax in every sense. After each, even recovery workouts, athletes will consume a light carbohydrate meal. All meals will still be carb predominant. But, during these last three days we will avoid too many fiber-rich foods to prevent any digestive disorder.
  • Hint: lots of pasta on Saturday evening (pasta party etc.) would be at the same time useless and prejudicial for the performance on the following day. Especially for well-trained athletes who have exceptional and specific body adaptations. Your were pasta-partying since Wednesday, on Saturday evening you are too late for the dance!! We explain: indeed, not having carried out long and/or intense training this day, you would store only a small proportion of your starchy foods or other carbohydrates in the form of glycogen, but, in addition, the carbohydrates would be transformed then into fat, causing a long and arduous work to your digestive system. On top of this, because every gram of carbohydrate carries 2.7 grams of water with it, you will perturb the venous and lymphatic pressures and thus all the extra cellular circulation of your body, by modifying the oncotic pressure. Not only you would get to the start line the next morning with a few more grams of fat but also with one or two kilos of additional dead weight, retained in the form of water in the extra-cellular tissues because of the sudden modification of these famous venous and lymphatic pressures. Cyclists know this phenomenon perfectly when they get up in the morning feeling to have “two posts” in the place of the legs.

*It takes sometime before enough of the blood volume gets back to the digestive territory. Before getting a high carb meal after any kind of hard/long effort, you have to wait for about 1 hour after the end of hard effort itself. If you finish a hard training and then slow-down for 15′, then you can start your meal 45′ after the end of the slow-down.

The Last Meal

meal before competition

Athletes know it, there is a minimal time to respect between the last meal and the beginning of the race. This time is obviously variable according to the individuals and especially of their anxiety level, but also variable depending on the intensity of the effort at the start and during competition.

For some of us, nothing seems to pass on race day morning. For others, two hours after the end of the meal, the stomach feels totally empty. If the start of the race is very early morning it will then be necessary to choose more or less specific types of food according to whether you belong to one or the other of the categories. For those individuals with a tied stomach, a liquid food will be perhaps most suitable. For the others, a low glycemic index starchy food (to prevent any hypoglycemia) plus a slight protein contribution approximately three to four hours before the departure is most appropriate.

If the athlete does not compete at a very high level or if the early part of the race does not require a high output or if the race starts in the evening, then the athlete should get a normal breakfast and a pre-race meal, like those below, 3-4 hours before the start. This will be followed by a pre-race drink which the athlete will absorb at a rate of a mouthful approximately every twenty minutes.

These strategies will enable everyone in every situation to approach the departure with a light stomach and the hepatic glycogen (which ensures the maintenance of the blood sugar level, which thus warns you of hypoglycemia) at its best level.

The last meal: 2 solutions

1) A traditional meal: cereals like millet, spelt, cooked amaranth or just soaked in some soy milk, rice- or any other non dairy drink , and slightly sweetened with fructose, will make the deal perfect. You might choose to prepare cereals the day before and to consume them at ambient temperature.

2)A specific pre-race drink

II. RELEASE (race fueling)

The Purpose

Blood glucose level have to be extremely consistent for an important reason. Glucose is the fuel for the nervous system including the brain. That’s why hypoglycemia leads to dizziness! For an athlete a small decrease in the blood glucose level and the brain turns down all the “racing functions” and installs a safety system to protect the main organ: itself.

The goals of fueling during the effort is, first and foremost, to prevent hypoglycemia (decrease of the blood sugar rate by depletion of the hepatic and muscular glycogen) and re-hydration, and then to delay the reduction in stores of muscular glycogen and also to prevent a sharp reduction of branched chained amino acids in the blood.

A significant modification of these parameters automatically involves a reduction in the physical capacity and thus in the intensity which the athlete can support, and also on the easiness of his recovery. The contribution of a well conceived combination of pre-race supplements and energy drink and/or gel must satisfy the various needs enumerated above thus insuring an optimum effort until the very end of the race.

The Limitations

During a race effort, the digestive system gets less blood stream. In addition, it is also necessary to take into account the capacities of the stomach to drain a given quantity of liquids, liquids whose concentrations in nutritive elements and minerals can also be very variable. To solve this equation, we must pay attention to certain principles of digestive physiology.

The stomach lets a liquid pass through its wall more quickly if the concentration of mineral element of the liquid is lower than that observed in blood. This principle is governed by the difference in osmotic pressure. A drink intended to be absorbed during the effort must thus be hypo-concentrated compared to the blood concentrations. But we also know that a minimal contribution in carbohydrates is essential to maintain the level of performance. Note that a rising concentration in carbohydrates involves a deceleration of gastric draining as a consequence. A solution of glucose slightly osmolar (139 mmol/L) leaves the stomach in 20 min, whereas the same volume introduced with a osmolarity of 834 mmol/L requires close to 2h!

After many studies, we now know that the maltodextrins do not seem to be absorbed more quickly, on the other hand the fructose with reasonable concentrations appears to be absorbed more quickly than glucose. We also know, that a liquid food taken by small regular mouthfuls shouldn’t cause digestive troubles contrary to the solids which, for the efforts above 80 % of VO2max see their assimilation very disturbed. In other words, bars sandwiches etc. are a no go (ask your stomach!) for efforts above 80% of VO2max.

The Solution: 2PEAK Fueling

Where does this leave us? The only way out is a sport drink with little pronounced taste, containing fructose, glucose and maltodextrins, in concentrations from 40 to 80 g/l (depending on the temperature), hypotonic on mineral (especially sodium), absorbed at the rate of 50 to 80 cl./hour**. This quantity of liquid can appear low, however it is still a higher than average quantity of liquid absorbed according to a survey carried out with non-professional endurance athletes. Although this represents only one small mouthful every 10 to 15 minutes it is by drinking it that you fuel your engine, not by carrying it around on your bike or fuel belt…!

** Water can of course be consumed on top of these suggested guidelines, provided it is PLAIN water.