Essential Sports Nutrition


Common race day nutrition mistakes

Don't you love it when everything comes together on race day and you feel incredible at the finish line? Ha - as someone who has raced 12 Ironman events, 4 Ironman World championship events and countless half IM events, I wish I could say that everything always comes together on race day. Some of my "best" performances have included race day mishaps and obstacles to overcome in order to reach the finish line.

For endurance athletes, it's rare to hear of an athlete who never experiences nutrition problems on race day. While not every nutrition issue is a limiter to performance, it seems as if athletes are quick to blame nutrition when a race performance goes wrong.

Recognizing that endurance events place extreme stress on the human body, the athlete who develops, fine-tunes and perfects a fueling and hydration plan in training and practices in key long workouts and low priority races will naturally be at a competitive advantage come race day for nutrition is a critical component of race day success. Keeping in mind that your "fastest" performance in an endurance event is when you can slow down the least, the importance of proper fueling and hydration before and during an endurance event can not be overemphasized. 

Here are some common race day nutrition mistakes that I see athletes making over and over again, but specifically in early season races: 
  1. Overfueling - Knowing that others are watching and you have placed a tremendous amount of pressure on yourself, there's the sudden need to fuel - a lot. Athletes will eat every carb in sight leaving the belly full and the body heavy and lethargic. The athlete fears running out of energy during the race and takes every preventive measure to load up on sport nutrition before and during the race, which causes massive GI distress and nausea. This is the classic case of the athlete who underfuels in training but overfuels on race day. Remember that the gut needs to be trained to tolerate sport and daily nutrition in large amounts (ex. carbohydrates). Trust what worked in training. If your training nutrition fails you on race day, consult with a sport RD for help.
  2. Excessive sodium intake - Worried about the hot race day conditions, you worry about your high sweat rate and being unacclimated to the heat. For preventative measures, you load up on sodium before the race, drink copious amounts of water before and during the race and pound down the salt pills during the race. Although active muscles will generate more heat than at rest and your body has to produce more sweat in order to assist with the evaporative cooling processes, your body has to adapt to these demands to control core body temperature. Simply focusing on sodium and water will not keep your body "cool" and functioning well. While both are important, don't assume that just because you are taking salt pills during a race that you can push hard in hot conditions. You should have an effective plan for fueling and hydrating on race day (before and during all parts of the race) to ensure optimal gastric emptying and fluid/electrolyte delivery. Additionally, if you know your body doesn't do well in the heat, dial back the effort to prevent overheating.
  3. Misreading body signals - Athletes love to have a race plan. While a plan is great going into a race, any successful athlete knows that racing is dynamic and you need to be an active participant during the race. You can't turn into a robot to match your detailed pacing and nutrition plan for racing is a process that requires a lot of decision making. In early season races, it's likely to misread your body signals for it's been a long time since you have been in such a stressful environment. As an example, thinking that a normal low moment on the bike is bonking or feeling low in energy in the first mile of a run means you need more fluids. It's normal to have waves of emotions, moods and energy levels throughout an endurance event. Use your previous training sessions to remind yourself of similar feelings and how you navigated those symptoms without giving up on yourself. Because many conditions have similar symptoms (ex. dehydration and low blood sugar) and without experience, it can be difficult to read your body signals, it's recommended to consult with a sport RD to analyze your race day nutrition plan before and after a race to help you perform to your abilities on race day.
  4. Anti-inflammatory usage - Racing hurts. Don't rely on anti-inflammatories to try to minimize the soreness, niggles, aches and pains that occur on race day. Whether you think you need them or use for preventive measures, you need to break this habit immediately. NSAIDs (ex. ibuprofen) work to suppress inflammation but attempting to dull the pain/aches of endurance racing, there are serious side effects such as kidney injury (elevated creatinine), blood pressure changes, stomach isssues and reduced ability to recover post race. So no to anti-inflammatory pills and while you are at it, pass on the energy boosters (caffeine pills, energy drinks) as well before the race.
  5. Upper GI issues - GI issues are very common in athletes on race day. Upper GI issues include belching, vomiting, bloating and heartburn and cramping. Address the possible culprits to these uncomfortable race day issues to see if you are susceptible to upper GI problems on race day. It's very typical for athletes who experience upper GI issues to suffer from aerophagia (excessive air swallowing), which result when swimming from rapid/ineffective breathing, tense or short breaths (especially while running), eating too fast, drinking carbonated beverages (or chewing gum/sucking on candies), using a straw-based hydration system on the bike and gulping fluids.
  6. Lower GI issues - Most athletes have experienced lower GI issues on race day or in training, typically while running. Passing gas, diarrhea, loose stools, abdominal cramping and side stiches. Although not necessary lower GI related, nausea, dizziness and headache are also common as they can result from poor gastric emptying of sport nutrition, increasing the risk for dehydration and low blood sugar. Typically, athletes who consume overconcentrated sport nutrition products, lack a solid sport nutrition plan to consume well-formulated drinks to optimize gastric emptying, wait too long to fuel/hydrate (instead of fueling/drinking on a schedule) and don't train to drink while running (ex. utilizing a hydration belt/pack) are most likely to suffer from lower GI issues. Nerves, stress and poor pacing may also be to blame.
  7. Nutrition blame game - Let's get real. A lot of things can impact your race day performance. Consider the training that you did and didn't do and assess your current level of fitness, the environmental conditions, the course/terrain and where you are in your season of athletic development. As simple as it may be to blame your performance on nutrition, sometimes nutrition is not the reason for a race performance that didn't meet your expectations. Endurance racing is unpredictable and requires a lot of training, trial and error and a process-driven mindset. Accept that not every race is going to be great, a PR or a showcase of previous training. Remind yourself that racing is a test of your current fitness but it's also a day (or a few hours) of self-exploration, body appreciation and the ability to work through situations and overcome obstacles. Sadly, you can't blame everything on nutrition.