Mastering your optimum race day nutrition plan can quite easily be the extra 1% that gets you over the line first, or conversely if overlooked can cost you a vital placing. Months of preparation and hard work in the off-season goes into enabling yourself to play at your peak when it comes to race day. With all the pre-race tension, good nutrition practices can become the last thing on a triathlete’s mind. However, don’t let all that hard work go to waste by not having a sound nutrition plan to follow leading up to game day and your big match.
In general, the most important nutrients to consider are protein, carbohydrates, calcium, iron and hydration.
Protein is the macronutrient primarily responsible for assisting with building muscle, recovery, preventing muscle breakdown and fatigue, and maintaining strength and power. In the off-season, ensuring you are consuming adequate protein at evenly spaced intervals throughout the day means that you will maximise your muscle building potential and ensure you are at your strongest once the season begins.
On race day, adequate protein intake becomes less about building muscle and more about ensuring adequate recovery, especially if you are going straight back into training the following day or are playing back-to-back races. A good high protein breakfast on the morning of, and high protein meal after the race will allow your body to immediately start repairing and rebuilding any damaged muscle tissue. Most triathletes will push themselves to their limits in the spirit of winning a race, so this becomes especially important to prevent fatigue, injury and muscle breakdown.
Carbohydrates are the body’s major energy bank, especially during exercise that is high intensity and requires bouts of maximum effort/movement (e.g. sprinting). In the off season, maintaining sufficient carbohydrate intake will ensure that your muscles are adequately fuelled to handle a program that forces you to adapt to new training loads. That way, you enter the season knowing you’ve made the greatest possible gains in strength, power and speed.
Carbohydrate needs on race day (and possibly in the days prior) will largely depend on the type, intensity and duration of exercise. As long as you are not participating in a weight-based sport, fuelling should start as soon as you wake up. Opt for lower GI carbohydrates at this time for a sustained release of energy over the day. As you come closer to race, carbohydrate choices should be easier to digest so they are quickly available to be used as an energy source for muscular contraction.
During the race, carbohydrate drinks or gels may be used if energy levels are running low, but generally for any sport lasting <90 minutes, good nutrition before and after the race should be sufficient. Again, it is important to eat a good amount of carbohydrates after the race to replenish muscle glycogen stores in preparation for your next training session or race.
These are two incredibly important nutrients in any athlete’s diet, and not just in and around race day. It is important to maintain adequate levels of both throughout the year to optimise bone health, strength and oxygen transport around the body.
Prolonged inadequate calcium intake can result in weakened bones, and consequently an increased risk of stress fractures. Considering most sports involve some sort of contact force, sudden impact or heavy loading, there is a much higher risk of performing an activity that can lead to such injury. Reduced bone density also means that much less force or impact is required to cause an injury to your bones.
The best sources of calcium are dairy foods such as low fat yoghurt, milk and cheese. The benefit of including dairy foods as part of your nutrition regime is that they serve as a rich source of calcium, good source of protein and contain the electrolytes and carbohydrates needed to assist with maintaining hydration.
A component of iron called haemoglobin is responsible for the transport of oxygen around the body through the blood, and is therefore essential for maintaining energy levels. Triathletes are more at risk of iron deficiency due to increased losses through sweat and “heel-strike haemolysis”, which occurs when impact during running damages the red blood cells in your feet, reducing overall haemoglobin concentrations. Females are also more at risk due to losses through menstruation.
Symptoms of iron deficiency include fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness and unusually dry or damaged skin, hair and nails. As a triathlete, the first three symptoms are critical in determining how well you can perform during training sessions, and the intensity at which you can compete. Iron levels take weeks to months to restore to normal levels (without supplementation). It is not enough to eat an iron-rich meal every so often and care must be taken to incorporate iron rich foods such as red meat, eggs and iron-fortified breads and cereals into the diet every day.
Putting all this information together, a sample race-day nutrition plan might look something similar to the meals below (note that quantities of foods can only be determined once the age, gender, weight, height, intensity of exercise, duration of exercise and type of exercise have been taken into consideration):