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Q: I was thinking about going to a liquid pre-race meal given that I have had stomach issues, mostly due to pre-race nerves. I try to calm down, but it doesn’t work. This makes it hard for me to test pre-race meals in training, as everything works in training. So, do you think a liquid meal would digest better?
A: Race-day nerves can play havoc with your digestive system; those butterflies can feel like they are alive, leaving no room for that much needed pre-race meal. Skipping out on that meal, though, is not an option, so the goal is to find something that is easily and readily digestible, will sit well even on a nervous stomach and fuel you for the race ahead.
Pre-race nutrition can also play a role in creating calm through familiarity and also reassurance that you have a plan in place. Plan out other aspects of race day so it is not overwhelming, formulate a routine and think through any other logistics. And avoid caffeine, as this could stimulate further anxiety.
In terms of the pre-race meal and the consideration of solids versus liquids, it really comes down to what you prefer and are comfortable with. In regard to energy for fueling you through the race, your muscles will not know the difference. The benefit of something solid is that it is satisfying–your brain and stomach both perceive they have had more of a meal and so you are less likely to feel hungry. However, many athletes are more comfortable with a liquid meal as this is easier to get down, especially when you’re nervous, and it can also help meet hydration requirements. Liquid meals are also convenient, and most can even be packed for travel to a race away from home.
Liquid meals will empty from the gut faster than solid meals, which means that they could also be consumed a little closer to the start time. Whether you are going for solids or liquids, make sure they are low in fat and high in carbohydrate but also contain a little protein. Not only will this add to the available energy and keep you satisfied, it will also slow gastric emptying slightly, meaning a greater sustained release of energy. Steer clear of high-fiber foods, opt for bland over exciting and be sure to adequately hydrate, especially if you have chosen a solid meal.
The amount of carbohydrate and calories you consume should depend partly on what and how much you will consume during the race itself. Aim for about 1.5-4 grams of carbohydrate per kg of body weight (or about 100-250g total). —As for timing, four hours to 90 minutes before race time is the best window.The earlier you eat, the more likely it is that pre-race nerves has not quite kicked in yet, making it easier to eat. The size of your pre-race meal should also depends on timing; the earlier you are able to eat, the larger a pre-race meal you will tolerate. If you choose to sleep in a little more and are eating only 1.5-2 hours before the gun, then eat (or drink) a smaller meal and also be prepared to take in more fuel during the race. If you are racing Ironman distance, I would recommend some solid foods, both in your pre-race meal and during the race. You are going to need a lot of fuel, and if you try to rely on liquids alone, you are likely to fall into the boredom trap and stop eating and drinking altogether.
Personally, I like to have a combination of solid and liquid calories as part of my pre-race meal, which I have 2.5 hrs before a half-Ironman and 3 to 3.5 hours before an Olympic-distance race. My menu generally consists of two or three slices of toast (or an English muffin) and jam and a 24-oz. bottle of Accelerade, which contains some protein. I follow this up with two AccelGels an hour before the start.
Other good options include cereal and a banana; sports bars, liquid meals or sports drinks with protein; toast or a bagel with honey or very small amount of peanut butter; waffles or pancakes with a small amount of syrup or honey; and oatmeal.
Both solids and liquids can deliver all of the energy you need. If you are suffering from race-day anxiety, then a liquid meal or sports drink may be an option to deliver energy as well as hydration conveniently. However, if your race-day anxiety becomes overwhelming, then getting adequate nutrition is not your only concern. Find ways to manage the nerves and make them work for you rather than work against you.