Eating and Competing!
You have your training nutrition down to a fine art. It’s fuelling you to go harder and faster and you have never felt better. You are ready to compete. But the question is, what should you eat on competition day to make sure you perform at the top of your game?!
Part 1: Multi Event Strength and Conditioning Events aka CrossFit Comps
The optimal fuelling strategy is driven by the length, intensity and duration of the competition, as well as the sporting discipline you are competing in. Because of this, I am not writing a single catch all competition blog – this is going to be a series, each addressing a different competition discipline. In this first blog, I look at fuelling for a typical CrossFit style competition, i.e. a strength and conditioning multi-event comp across one or more days.
So, how ‘should’ you fuel for such an event (‘should’ being dependent on your individual tolerance to food, particularly when nerves are high!) …
The night before
This principle is common to pretty much any sporting event and discipline … fuel up!! For a CrossFit event, a high carbohydrate meal will load your muscle and liver with the glycogen your body needs to fuel the high intensity short duration power and speed events you will be smashing out on the floor the next day. Choose ‘complex’ carbohydrates with a low glycaemic load to avoid spiking blood glucose and promote sustained release of energy into the blood, and eat these with a moderate amount of protein and fat to support the steady release of fuel into the blood and provide sustained energy for use before the event. Keep fibre relatively low to reduce the risk of gastro issues on the competition floor!
As an aside, if you are susceptible to gastro distress (from discomfort to the full works from either end!!), it may also help to gradually reduce your fibre intake by up to around 25% for the 2-3 days before the comp. You don’t want to reduce it so much you end up constipated, but by switching to ‘white’ pasta and rice, and from higher to lower fibre fruits and veggies such as tomatoes, carrots, green beans, aubergine, melon you can lower the fibre in your system.
Typical ‘night before’ meals include:
· Spaghetti Bolognese
· Chicken, rice and avocado
· Baked potato, butter and baked beans
· Pizza, with just a little cheese (yes really!)
All with added salt, and taken with at least a large glass or two of water.
Again, the principle is to fuel up and to hydrate!! Aim to consume 2.5g carbohydrate per kg bodyweight in the 2-4 hours before your first event. As with dinner the night before, choose carbohydrate combinations with an overall relatively low glycaemic and low fibre load to ensure a controlled and steady release of glucose into the blood upon digestion. And this time, keep protein and fat low so as not to slow digestion and so slow you or give you a stomach ache on the competition floor!
In terms of hydration, it is a fine balance between ensuring you are sufficiently hydrated and not over-hydrating on water alone, which can lead to hyponatremia. This is where you have too much water in your blood compared to electrolytes (most notably, sodium), causing loss of energy, confusion, headaches, muscle weakness, nausea and – at its most severe – seizures, coma and even death. The risk is typically higher in endurance events where athletes are sweating out electrolytes over an extended period and may not be refeeding with sufficient salts and sugar, however it is still worth being aware of. We will talk about how to help maintain your blood’s so-called ‘osmotic balance’ during the competition later, but for breakfast it is important to ensure you consume some salts as well as your water.
As many as 50% of athletes have reported an upset stomach before one or more of their competitions. If this is you and nerves and stress make a solid meal impossible, go for a liquid breakfast. And if you cannot stomach enough to get your 2.5g/kg of carbs, be extra sure to eat well the day before and perhaps even get up earlier on the morning of the event to give you time to spread breakfast over time, and more time for it to digest before you compete!
Caffeine is an ergogenic aid that I am sure many of you use. Caffeine sensitivity, i.e. speed, duration and size of response to caffeine, varies so much from individual to individual and this means it is hard to say when you ‘should’ drink your coffee or caffeine drink pre-event. Experiment in training and see what timing and dosage serves you best!
Typical ‘morning of’ meals include:
· Large bowl of oatmeal, with salt and some honey
· Toast with avocado and salt
· Smoothie made with oats, banana and milk, and a pinch of salt
Taken with at least a large glass or two of water.
Through the day
In a typical CrossFit comp, you are going to be expending a lot of energy in short bursts as you move from event to event through the day. If you can stomach it, try and consume some carbohydrate to replenish blood glucose and muscle and liver glycogen after each event to fuel you for the next event. A small amount of protein through the day may also help support muscle maintenance and recovery after the event – look for fast digesting proteins such as whey and whey hydrolysates that will not slow the digestion of the carbs you take in. Importantly, keep fat low to avoid slowing digestion and feeling sluggish and nauseas as you go out for your later events!
We know that typically you don’t want to eat less than 2 hours before exercise, and certainly not less than 60 minutes before an intense training session. This is to avoid the risk of rebound hypoglycemia, where the combination of insulin in response to feeding and increased cellular uptake of glucose to fuel exercise results in a severe blood sugar and energy crash (see Wikipedia for a great summary!). However, in a situation such as a multi event competition where you are using energy in high intensity bursts throughout the day, you need to refuel even if it means taking in energy less than 60 minutes before your next event – otherwise your blood sugar will likely drop low anyway!! It is a similar principle to consuming carbs during endurance events! The trick is to take in enough to refuel, but not so much that you feel over full or over spike your blood sugar for your next event.
If your next event is more than an hour away, try and consume up to 1g/kg bodyweight of high glycemic load carbohydrate, such as banana and honey. For many this is easiest and most palatable in liquid form. If you get more than an hour break across lunch, try and eat a little of more complex carbs such as potato or rice and a little of a lean protein source such as chicken – these will support a more sustained and steady blood sugar release. Typically, don’t try for these foods if you have less time between events however, as they will sit in your stomach and slow you down.
You are likely to be sweating buckets out there as you give the floor your all! Drinking 50 percent more fluid than you lost in sweat will enhance rapid and complete recovery from dehydration; aim to sip fluids regularly through the day – as this will retain more fluid in the body than gulping large amounts in one sitting. We have already spoken about the fine balance of hydration and over-hydration. Many athletes find that the easiest way to do this to drink electrolyte sports drinks instead of pure water, as these are designed to mimic the electrolyte concentration of the blood once consumed … thus keeping you the right side of hydrated!
Typical ‘during the comp’ eats:
· Whey protein shakes
· Pureed fruits and sweet potato aka ‘baby’ food
· Low fat yoghurt and honey
· If you have a lunch break: chicken, sweet potato and tomatoes!
I am sure that for many of you, this is going to be a meal of indulgence as a reward for the hard work of the day and potentially strict nutrition leading up to the comp. Go for it!! The key principle post competition is to eat enough carbohydrate to replenish muscle and liver glycogen and enough protein to support muscle repair and recovery.
Before you dive into a full meal, consume 1g/kg bodyweight in high glycaemic index carbohydrate and up to 40g fast digesting protein within 60 minutes of your final event. A fruit and whey shake is one way to do this! After this, continue to eat your typical training day intake of carbohydrate, protein and fat spread at regular intervals across the following 24 hours (see position statements by the American College of Sports Medicine, the International Olympic Committee and the English Institute of Sports for commentary relating to energy intake in general, and its division across the macronutrients). It is important to reintroduce fats to ensure you take in the full spectrum of micronutrients needed for repair and recovery from the competition.
As in the competition, it is also important to ensure you continue to take in salts immediately after and in the ensuing hours and days post competition, to restore and maintain your blood electrolyte balance. It can take the body 24-48 hours to replace all that was lost in sweat, and so do pay attention to drinking frequently for the next day or two, to help your body recover from any dehydration.
If you did reduce your fibre in the days leading up to the event, reintroduce it just as gradually to avoid gastro distress.
These are general principles! Every body is different, with a different rate of digestion, capacity for fat versus carbohydrate utilization and different energy output during exercise. For these reasons it is important that you take these principles and experiment with them to find what works best for you, and what works best for you on days where nerves and stress cause your stomach to behave quite differently your typical training day!! To learn more about the principles behind fueling for training and competition described in this post, check out the textbooks and references in the further reading section below!
And one final thing – if your competition spans multiple days, repeat the night before, morning and in event fueling across the days of the competition – making sure you have a serious refeed each night, particularly if you struggle to eat during the competition days!
Further Reading …
McArdle, W, Katch, F, Katch, V. Exercise Physiology, Energy, Nutrition and Human Performance. 8th Edition. Wolters Kluwer Health, Philadelphia, USA. 2015.
Macnaughton, LS, Wardle, SL, Witard, OC, McGlory, C, Hamilton, DL, Jeromson, S, Lawrence, CE, Wallis, GA, Tipton, KD. The response of muscle protein synthesis following whole-body resistance exercise is greater following 40g than 20g of ingested whey protein. Physiol. Rep. 4(15):e12893. 2016.
Phillips, SM, Chevalier, S, Leidy, HJ. Protein “requirements” beyond the RDA: implications for optimising health. Appl. Physiol. Nutr. Metab. 41:565-572. 2016.
Schoenfeld, BJ, Aragon, AA. How much protein can the body use in a single meal for muscle-building? Implications for daily protein distribution. J. Int. Soc. Sports Nut. 15:10-15. 2018.
Wilmore, JH, Costill, DL. Physiology of Sport and Exercise. 3rd Edition. Human Kinetics Publishing. 2005.