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Pre-Competition Nutrition and Fuelling Strategies

Historically, the pre-race/match meal has been shrouded in importance. Shunted on to a pedestal, to ensure that you sit down before the competition, and shovel down as much carbohydrate as you can handle. Potato waffles, beans on toast, copious portions of pasta – whatever it is, you need as much on board as possible right? Wrong.

The heavy lifting when it comes to carbohydrate loading should be done in the day(s) prior to the event, and other than a little top up beforehand to boost liver glycogen stores, and optimise blood sugar, we should be ensuring that the stomach stays light. Think muscles full, belly light! Carbohydrate is rightly the key player here, and for pretty much all forms of competitive exercise, it should be the cornerstone of your pre-competition strategies for ensuring that you are ready to perform at your best. By no means are fat and protein, irrelevant, but when it comes to fuel, carbohydrate is king and low glycogen (stored form of carbohydrate) stores at the start of exercise will most likely result in reduced exercise capacity and performance.

On the day of the event, that last fairly large meal should be consumed 3-5hrs prior to competition. In most cases, this tends to be breakfast, which carries increased significance due to the overnight fasting period, in which time the liver will be depleted of glycogen. This meal boosts carbohydrate availability in both the muscle and the liver, whereas any intake beyond this (in the hour prior to competing) won’t impact muscle glycogen, but will affect liver glycogen, and increase the delivery of carbohydrate to the muscle during exercise. Such meals should be carbohydrate rich, and should also tailor to both preference and familiarity for the athlete. Bread and jam or honey, cereal, porridge, bananas, canned fruit, and fruit juice are all carbohydrate rich options that can be easily digested in time for performance to benefit.

Intake 60mins prior to the event is best avoided. The potential onset of rebound hypoglycaemia, as well as gastrointestinal stress & discomfort, are heightened if food is consumed within close proximity to exercise, hence the importance of getting it right in the days leading up to the event!

An alarmingly high proportion of athletes in a variety of sports report that they have suffered from gastrointestinal problems at some stage during competition. There are a multitude of potential contributing factors, including those mentioned above, but here’s a few more that are worth keeping in mind:

  1. Avoid products that contain lactose in the 24hrs prior to exercise, as even mild intolerance can cause problems during exercise.
  2. Avoid high fiber foods the day of, or even in the days prior to competition. Fiber is not digestible, which inevitably means increase bowel movements after ingestion, increased fluid loss, and potentially a significant increase in discomfort.
  3. Avoid anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen, as the increase the permeability of the intestines, and are likely to increase the incidence of gastrointestinal complaints.
  4. Avoid high fructose foods. This is where label checking comes in handy as some “sports drinks” contain exclusively fructose as the carbohydrate component. It is digested far more slowly than glucose, and high intakes can lead to cramping and diarrhea beyond the onset of exercise.
  5. Practice any new strategies. You don’t want to be trying something new when it matters most,