Nutrition: Preparing Your Body For Race Day

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Professional triathlete and sports nutritionist Pip Taylor addresses an issue that many athletes feature on race day: How do you keep your stomach calm throughout a long-distance race?

Here is my problem: I can eat anything during training, but I have tremendous problems during racing. I always end up with an electrolyte problem, and I’m not sure how to solve it. My stomach problems typically become more pronounced as the weather gets hotter.

Typically, in an Ironman, I take anywhere from two to six electrolyte tablets per hour on the bike and keep taking them on the run. I can’t stomach flavored drinks when I race, so I have tried CarboPro in my water bottles or just a lot of gels. Although I don’t have an appetite on the bike when I race, I still eat and follow a plan to ensure that I get sufficient calories for my weight. I drink about one 750mL bottle of water per hour. On the run I switch to water, gels and electrolytes. This is generally where it all falls apart. Somewhere in the run I will start to feel my shoulders tighten, like they are starting to cramp, my stomach goes, and unless I can get salt in me, I feel nauseated and light-headed and my legs start to cramp. At this point, no matter how many electrolyte tablets I take it doesn’t matter. Is there anything I can do to help my stomach?

Evan Baergen,
Vancouver, Canada

Hi Evan,
That your nutrition problems arise only in races and never in training is important to acknowledge and consider.Is there anything that you do significantly differently in training than you do in racing? Note timing of eating in relation to training, type of food, quantities and caloric intakes. Certainly racing will always add another dimension. Race-day nerves, changes in routine due to travel, tapered training and a disrupted “digestive clock” can all contribute to your digestive system being slightly out of whack and more sensitive. A familiar nutrition plan can reduce some stress in this area. Just because it is a race does not mean that you have to change everything you normally do and certainly do not follow someone else’s plan no matter how well it works for them. Sports nutrition guidelines, even those based on sound research, are still generalizations, and the most important thing to remember is that nutrition is individual. My first suggestion for you is to go back to basics and take note of what you are doing day to day and try to apply this to race day. It is entirely possible that you are concentrating too much on trying to do things by the book and following all the nutrition recommendations but are losing sight of what obviously works for you in training.

From the disastrous race experiences you have described, it sounds as though you simply might be trying to consume too much. Yes, you need fuel during triathlons (and any race of more than 90 minutes), but the consequences of over-fuelling can also spell trouble. Taking in too many salts and too many calories might be causing all of your dehydration, cramping and nausea issues. The art is getting the right balance of carbohydrates, calories, fluids and salts. Your system can only handle a certain amount before it will shut down. During exercise lasting more than 90 minutes, you should be aiming for 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour—shoot for the lower amount if you are a smaller athlete, well-trained and used to racing over that distance and toward the higher amount if you are larger, stepping up to a new distance, or racing at the beginning of the season after a bit of a break, or have not managed to fuel up adequately pre-race. Any more will simply not be absorbed, which in effect means that although you have eaten a lot of calories, your body cannot use them, so they will sit in your gut and make you feel nauseated. Stick to things that you know are easy to eat. And remember to count the calories and carbohydrate content of not only the foods and gels but also any drinks you are consuming. If you are drinking a sports drink as well as eating gels/bars, then it is easy to overdo things, and if you are picking up extra foods and drinks at aid stations along the way, you need to be good at keeping a mental checklist of how much you are eating/drinking. As soon as you start to feel nauseated, start sipping on only water until you feel better. In addition to actual race nutrition, take note of both pre-race breakfast as well as consumption the day before. You can definitely eat too much the day before a race. Carbo-loading is beneficial, but this does not equate to huge plates of pasta, muffins, breads and cakes, which will leave you feeling stuffed and heavy. Too big a pre-race breakfast will be just as disastrous. In fact, with a reduced training load, carbo-loading may actually mean eating no more than your usual diet or perhaps adding an extra sports drink or two. Your nutritional status and how you eat before a race also influence what you might require during the race itself.

Regarding sodium, I think triathletes are more conscious than any other athlete about the dangers of drinking too much water without electrolytes. And hyponatremia (low blood sodium levels) is a genuine concern, especially among endurance athletes racing at a slower pace because they can consume large volumes of water, potentially flushing their systems of electrolytes. Thus, salt tablets can be effective and convenient. However there is still the danger of overdoing things. Because you can ingest salt tablets without tasting them, you can consume large volumes of salts without any of the sensory feedback from taste buds. This can be a problem if you are unaware of your needs, of the exact contents of the tablets, if you are not keeping close track of how many you are having or if you don’t know the salt content of other foods or drinks you’ve been consuming. Most sports drinks, gels and bars have at least some electrolytes added to them, , so it is important to factor all of them into the equation so as not to overload. You are not necessarily aiming to replace all of the sodium you lose during the race, and there are many factors you must consider sweat rates and concentration, which are influenced by environment, pace changes, fitness, altitude and nutritional status. in estimating how much you have lost. Giving you a specific recommendation on an amount is virtually impossible; I can only suggest that you think about what you are doing in training and if your race day plans are too far away from this in terms of salt intake.

The other part of the equation is, of course, fluid intake. Dehydration will lead to slowed gastric emptying and feelings of nausea as well as impaired performance, mental and physical fatigue and elevated heart rate with compromised ability to regulate body heat. Giving recommendations for fluid intake, though, is also difficult and depends on so many individual and environmental factors. The best advice I can give is to be well hydrated going into a race start drinking early and continue to drink often. Perhaps you can get an idea from your body weight before and after training about fluid losses and aim to replace most of this—you don’t need to try to replace all of your losses and certainly don’t want to be heavier after a race than before. Take advantage of the bike portion as being the best opportunity to get fluids in.

Get back to basics – take note of training and nutrition routines that work and remember that guidelines and recommendations are not individual prescriptions. And remember that you can have too much of a good thing in terms of caloric intake.
Good luck, Evan! I hope this helps and that you can devise a good plan that works for you come race day.

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