Nobody would think about running 10km as preparation for an Olympic weightlifting meet. You should be polishing off your lifts and throwing in some max days to simulate competition day. This should translate seamlessly to nutrition. However, many athletes overlook their nutrition strategy and show up to competition with no plan. Eating for training and competition require the same amount of thought.
If you are planning to participate in any kind of sporting event, from amateur to elite-level competitions, you should have a nutrition strategy in place. This includes non-competitive events such as martial arts gradings.
As you will see below, your nutrition strategy is unique to you because it depends on many physiological and exercise factors.
Technically, the time before the event includes all the time from weeks or months in advance up to the seconds before the competition. This is perhaps the most important period of time for your nutrition strategy.
Get a plan
Whether you get a nutritional plan for the event from a sports dietitian or you make it up yourself, you need a plan for before, during and after the event. What goes on the plan depends on multiple factors, including:
- Gender: In general, women use more fat than carbohydrate as fuel and therefore should eat less carbohydrate (about 15% less than men).
- Age: Young athletes tend to have lower sweat rates and get overheated faster than adults. Therefore, hydration strategies need to be adjusted accordingly.
- Weight: This is important for calculating the amount of total energy, protein, fat, carbohydrate and fluids you need. If you compete in a weight-based sport such as weightlifting, martial arts, boxing, etc., you might need to cut weight before competition. The timing of weigh-in depends on the sport and the rules for the specific event. In general, you want to weigh in as light as possible so that you can compete in a lower weight category. For example, if you are a female weightlifter who weighs 60kg, you will want to lose 1kg and compete in the 59kg category rather than staying on 60kg and competing in the 64kg category. This is because you will have a strength advantage over lighter competitors in the lighter category. In weight-based sports, nutrition strategies are focused on cutting weight without compromising performance first, then on recovering nutrients and fluids post weigh-in.
- Body composition: Your body composition will determine if you need to tweak your macros and/or energy intake to achieve better performance.
- Type of event: In general, the main distinction will be between endurance vs power sports. Performance in endurance sports such as medium to long-distance running, swimming, cycling, rowing, etc., are usually dependent on carbohydrate fuelling. This is mainly because using fat as fuel takes longer and it depends on the ability of the athlete to switch fuel sources. Power sports such as weightlifting, power lifting and martial arts depend more on explosive power that comes from phosphocreatine. This is a fuel source that is constantly re-generated in your body, provided you have the right building blocks. Good creatine levels help. Creatine is obtained mainly from animal protein and can be purchased as a supplement. Supplemental creatine seems to be more effective in vegetarians/vegans and older people due to their low dietary creatine intake.
- Training program (session type, duration, intensity): Hard, long sessions will require more energy intake than shorter, easier ones and days off. Meal timing and composition should also be manipulated depending on training sessions.
- Gastrointestinal tolerance: Calculating nutrient requirements can easily turn into a Maths exercise and we forget that there is a person who is supposed to have all those carbs/fluids and complete a hard event at the same time. Gastrointestinal distress is very common among athletes, in part because their bodies are busy with performing at their best and digestion is not the priority.
- Dietary requirements and preferences: Needless to say, your meal plan should suit any dietary requirements and/or preferences you have.
- Food/fluid availability on the event: Some endurance events are sponsored, so you can expect brand X products available at the feeding stations. This should be specified in the info pack. If the food/drink availability does not meet your needs, you should be able to bring your own.
Test the plan
“Everything works on paper”. Even the most carefully designed plan may not work in practice. You need to test the plan in advance and in similar conditions to game day. This means:
- Test weeks or months in advance.
- Test in similar ambient conditions (temperature, humidity, altitude).
- Use similar training conditions. Choose sessions within your training program that closely resemble the event (e.g. approximately the same intensity and duration).
- If possible, test at the same time of the day that the event will take place at.
Trial the protocol and see how you go. Check for the following:
- Was your performance better or worse?
- Did you have nausea, heaviness, stomach cramps, bloating, etc.?
- Did you have muscular cramps?
- If you do a weight-based sport, was your weight on target?
- Did you like the taste and texture of the products or foods you consumed?
- If you ate and/or drank anything during the event, were those foods and fluids easy to consume?
You might get things right the first time but you might need to tweak the protocol a few times. Perhaps there was nothing wrong with your performance or digestion but you simply didn’t like the products you used. Perhaps the same foods work well in winter but not summer, or vice versa. Test different brands until you find the one that works for you.
Stick to the plan
Once you have your plan dialed in, don’t mess around with it. Use it in every key session. Use the same foods, same brands, same timing. Let your body know what is going into it on the day of the event, so that it only needs to focus on performing at the highest level.
Prepare for disaster
If you can afford to have spares, do so. If you’re packing food in ziplock bags, double-bag it.
On the day
- Depending on the type of event, you may or may not want to have some food, fluids and/or supplements just before go-time.
- Don’t experiment with a food or supplement you have not tried before.
- Don’t overhydrate as excess water can sit in your stomach and impact performance. Hyponatremia (low sodium concentration in blood) is also a possibility.
Regardless of the competition result, your priority now is to refuel, repair and recover. Fluids, carbohydrate and protein are essential for this.
- Fluid intake should aim to replenish fluids lost, mainly through sweat. This can be estimated with simple equations, e.g. (weight before competition + weight of fluids to be drank) – (weight after competition + weight of leftover fluids). If competing in a weight-class sport and restricting fluids before weigh-in, fluids should be strategically ramped up to normal intake.
- Carbohydrate is a key nutrient to replenish, especially when competing in endurance and other glycogen-depleting activities. Even if glycogen stores do not need to be replenished, carbohydrate aids in muscle recovery.
- Last but not least, protein is essential post-event to repair the tissues that have been damaged during the event.
A note on alcohol: even though is very common to celebrate the end of an event with one or five drinks, alcohol is likely to have a negative impact in inflammation, the immune system and sleep quality. In addition, alcohol consumption might impair the ability to build muscle.