What do I eat the night before a race? Do I have to have a special meal or follow a strict diet the day before? Do I ever have a beer or a glass of wine?
I get asked these questions a lot. Mostly the people asking are not as interested in what I eat or drink, but secretly hope that their pre-race pizza and lager will be justified or that their lucky steak and chips the night before is the secret to a good race.
So do you really need to join the queue at the pasta party or pester the waiter at the local Italian restaurant as to why they don’t include sports drinks on the wine list? The short answer is no. And the slightly longer answer is a provisional no.
The elements of performance include genetics, training and fitness, nutrition and mental state. Each of these is important on its own, and each influences and interacts with the others.
For instance, for one athlete, knowing she has had ideal nutrition going into her race can boost her mental confidence, but for another, state of mind may be influenced more by his ability to relax and socialize. Similarly, good nutrition plays a role in ensuring one’s ability to achieve optimal training and recovery, yet perfect nutrition will do nothing for performance without dedication and a willingness to work hard.
Still, all of these amount to nothing without at least some natural ability and genetic disposition. The reverse is also true—the world is full of talented athletes who have never gotten off the couch. So the key to performance is to get as many of these elements in sync at one time while recognizing the unique qualities of the individual athlete or situation. So yes, good nutrition is important, especially for racing. But it is not the be-all and end-all of performance and must be put into perspective.
There’s a large scientific basis for preparing well nutritionally for a race. If the race is two hours or longer, there is a benefit to having loaded muscle glycogen (“carbo-loading”), being well-hydrated and making sure to consume foods that your body can easily digest without causing any gastrointestinal upsets or surprises. However, a wide range of foods can meet these needs—the list extends well beyond pasta—and will also depend on your individual needs. Gender, size, fitness, environmental conditions, nutritional status leading into the event and nerves play a role in what and how much you need to eat the day before a race.
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Additionally, while you can store up glycogen in the days leading up to an event, the pre-race breakfast is really the key to ensuring that your muscles are fully stocked and ready to go. So what you plan on eating before the race the next morning and during the race is more important than the previous night’s dinner. If you are dedicated enough to get up early to eat a decent breakfast and have a good race nutrition plan in place, the second and third bowls of pasta the night before become less of a good thing and more of a burden you’ll have to carry around the course with you the next day. In fact, with a reduced training load the day or two before a race, it is highly likely that you will be sufficiently carbo-loaded without even having to think about it for events lasting up to a couple of hours. (Ironman is a different beast when it comes to fueling.)
But the power of food and nutrition extends well beyond the physiological effects. As long as you meet some of the recommended nutritional guidelines, the psychology of food can be far more powerful. If you truly believe that you have a lucky dinner without which you simply cannot race, it really will not matter nutritionally what it is. Of course, if it happens to meet some nutritional needs, then all the better. I know of one professional triathlete who must eat salmon the night before a race, another needs a stout beer and yet another must have a burger from a particular fast food place. I have also heard of pizza (no cheese) and pad thai being necessary components of race preparation. Of course, this psychological phenomenon can be beneficial, as it helps you feel prepared to race or calms you because you don’t have to figure out what to eat for that crucial meal.
However, it can also backfire if you are not prepared to be flexible. What if, due to travel or limited availability, you can’t find that favorite and now-necessary food? Do you panic? Refuse to race? Instead, move on to Plan B, knowing that you can get the necessary nutrition from many other food sources. Remember, too, how many times you have had a good training session even though you probably ate something different for dinner the night before on each occasion, some of those meals more nutritionally balanced than others.
Besides accounting for food and nutrition the evening before the race, it’s also important to relax and socialize. No matter what level athlete you are or how important the race is, being relaxed is paramount to performance. If a glass of wine or a beer helps put you in a positive frame of mind for the day ahead and give you a good night’s sleep, go for it. Nutritionally, you will not ruin your day. Of course, by the time you move onto the second bottle or the fourth pint, it may be a different story.
Whatever you eat, aim to consume some carbohydrates, some lean protein, not too much fat, and something that you know will not cause you to wake up feeling queasy or full of regret. Don’t try anything new. Outside of that, indulge your food superstitions and compulsions. If you are convinced that they will make you race faster, relax you or just put you in the mood for a race, go for it. But also be flexible enough for Plan B.
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Pip Taylor is a registered dietitian and professional triathlete. Her new book The Athlete’s Fix is available now.
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