Whether you are about to race in a long distance race (anything longer than 90 minutes) or training for your first long distance race, I hope you find these tips helpful and useful.
1) Don't overeat on the days leading up to the race - taper forces you to reduce your training. However, unless you consciously think about, you are likely to eat the same quantities as you did during high volume training. Keep your daily diet around 55-65% carbs, 20-30% protein (lean and low fat) and 15-20% fat during race week. Unless you were significantly losing weight on the weeks leading up to race week, you are likely consume an adequate amount of calories on a daily basis. With a reduction in training, your lack of caloric expenditure will allow you to carbo-load (store digested carbs-glycogen-in your muscles) without having to overeat.
2) Don't give into sugar cravings - with all that extra time, you may find yourself snacking on those sweets you bought after your last long weekend of training. No need to throw them away, just enjoy them after the hard work is done (after the race). Considering that all athletes should de-emphasize simple sugars (ex. sweets, ice cream, candy, deserts, bakery items, cakes, sodas), fatty foods and high calorie meals in the daily diet, focus on slow digesting carbs (complex carbs) and low fat/lean protein and healthy fats with every meal. Always add protein to your snacks and don't forget about your fruits and veggies (electrolytes!).
3) Don't forget to eat - traveling, packet pick-up, expo, photos with friends, meet and greet with tri groups, hotel check-in, bike check-in, re-pack transition bag...you got to the race venue at 10am and before you know it is 6pm and you have no idea where to go for dinner. Be sure to include 3 complete meals (around 400-550 calories) and 3-4 snacks (150-250 calories) on the day before the race and two days prior to the race. These same calorie guidelines should be followed on a daily basis to keep your blood sugar stable. Depending on your schedule on the day before the race, you may want to split up your snack calories so that you find yourself snacking (with clean hands of course) every hour or so. Apple, string cheese, granola bar, carrots, nuts/trail mix, PB&J, grapes, low fat yogurt, ripe banana, pretzels, etc. are acceptable snacking choices to keep on hand as you prepare yourself for race day.
4) - Don't go into a meal starving - Although I recommend eating around 5-6pm on the two days prior to the race, be sure not to go into any meal starving, which may cause you to overeat or not store food properly. Having a small veggie, fruit and/or protein mini-snack (around 50-100 calories) such as nuts, cheese, deli meat, apple, pear, trail mix, yogurt, milk, whey protein, hard boiled egg, carrots, celery, grapes or cottage cheese before your meal will keep your blood sugar stable when you eat your carbo-meal.
5) Don't forget to drink - keep that water bottle on hand during the race. Avoid drinking sugary drinks or energy drinks during the days leading up to the race. Don't over drink in order to make up for lost time...Do you find yourself saying "oops, only drank 20 ounces of water yesterday!!! I guess I was too busy to drink." I recommend sipping on 2 x 24-28 ounce sport bottles of water throughout mid morning and mid afternoon and including around 12 ounces water with each meal. You can start your day with coffee but finish off your caffeine fix by 1-2pm in order to ensure a good night rest (coffee or tea are fine on race day morning with breakfast). Avoid diet drinks, especially those with carbonation, which may mask the sensation of hunger, thus causing you to go long hours without eating and may throw off stable blood sugar levels.
6) Don't carbo-load on the night before the race - you will not enjoy eating a pre-race breakfast at 4am if you had a huge dinner on the night before the race. To give yourself plenty of time to digest your "carbo-meal", "carbo-load" on two nights prior to the race. Carbo-load doesn't mean calorie load so keep your meal around 500-550 calories, emphasizing complex carbs (whole grain bread, salad, steamed veggies, pasta, pizza, potato/sweet potato, rice) with lean/low fat protein (fish, chicken, tofu, cottage cheese, nuts, eggs) and healthy fat (olive oil, avocado, nuts). Everyone knows my favorite pre-race meal which is a sweet potato, bread and salad at Outback, whereas on two nights before a race I have thin crust veggie pizza. Avoid fatty and greasy food (always ask for condiments/sauces on the side and for light on the cheese) and be sure to eat foods which you have practiced before a long training session. You can eat similar foods on the night before the race, but keep your meal around 400-450 calories on the night before the race. Remind yourself that eating a lot on the day before the race will not ensure that you will have plenty of energy during the race. So long as you are eating complete and balanced meals, with a respectable amount of daily calories on the days leading up to the race, and you reduced your training volume, you will have plenty of fuel on race day. The best situation you can put your body in is if you eat the right types of foods (in the right quantities) on the two days prior to the race so that those nutrients can be properly digested and absorbed to be used on race day. The last thing you want on race day is to wake up feeling stuffed, heavy and bloated because you ate too much food.
7) Don't over or under eat on the morning of the race - depending on your race distance, pre-race nutrition will vary. However, the majority of races require around 150-400 calories before the race. For a 70.3 distance race, I recommend around 300-400 calories, 3 hours prior to the race. Do not eat at the race site, eat in your hotel/room. Nerves and excitement can disrupt digestion and may lead you with an upset stomach. Do not fear fiber, as it will be your friend when you go to the bathroom for the first (of many) times on race day morning. Oatmeal is a great way to start your morning prior to a race. However, once again, if you haven't practiced with it, eat something which you know will digest well. Plan ahead if your accommodations for the night don't accomodate your typical pre-race breakfast. You may find yourself eating oatmeal out of the coffee pot without a spoon because you brought your oatmeal but forget the spoon and bowl.
Most people don't consume enough fiber on a daily basis (recommended 25-35 grams) so unless you are trying new high fiber foods on the days leading up to the race, you don't need to worry about the runs or having GI upset during the race. You may be surprised that a large banana has more fiber (3.5g) than Apple and Cinnamon Quaker Oatmeal (2.8g) or 1 plan bagel (2.5g). Be sure to add a little protein and fat to your pre-race meal. The purpose of the pre-race meal is to top off glycogen stores, keep your blood sugar stable prior to the start and to prevent hunger during the race. Overeating before the race will NOT give you lots of energy during the race and under-eating before the race does not ensure that you will prevent GI problems during the race...or, for those aesthetically concerned, will not make you look "lean" at the race start. By balancing a little protein (PB, yogurt, egg) and fat (nuts) with your complex carbs (bagel, english muffin, oatmeal, bread, cream of wheat, granola, ripe banana) you will have a perfect balance in your body to keep you energized during the race. After breakfast, NO more solid food. You may sip on a maltodextrin sport drink (around 80-130 calories mixed in 20 ounces water), in addition to drinking 12 ounces of water with breakfast, if you do not feel like drinking only water (20 ounces) during transition set-up. For the majority of long distance races, I recommend taking in a maltodextrin gel (hammer) 15 minutes prior to race start with 4-6 ounces water. If you can't take in the whole gel, have half.
8) Don't overdo it on supplements - everyone loves the placebo affect but to save you money before the race, don't buy every supplement targeted to triathletes in order to race like the professional athlete you aspire to be. Supplements I recommend: 2 electrolyte endurolytes on the 3 days prior to the race and 2 race day morning. 2 hammer endurance aminos on the 3 days prior to the race and 2 on race day morning. 1 tsp glutamin, 1-2 hammer tissue rejuvinator OR 1 fish oil on a daily basis, but highly recommended on the 4 days prior to a race. Maltodextrin sport drink (ex. Hammer) during the race to ensure stable blood sugar during the race.
MY BIGGEST TIP FOR ATHLETES DURING LONG DISTANCE RACES!!!
9) Food does not equal immediate energy!!!!
You will have good moments, bad moments, happy moments and sad moments. You might not remember the bad moments when you set a PR but when you walk or ride through an aid station during a low moment, eating and drinking everything in site is not recommended. Whenever you have a low moment just slow down. So what if you are riding at a fast pace, chasing down an age group athlete. Who cares if people see you walking for a few minutes during the run. DO NOT add more calories if : you are lightheaded, you are bonking, you are hungry, you have a cramp, you are bloated or you feel tired. Pouring down the sport drinks and eating a gel, 15 minutes after you just had one, will not do the trick. Your body is asking you to slow down because your body is working harder than you trained it to do and/or because you are pushing harder than your nutrition intake will allow. Your body can only take in so much nutrition, at a specific heart rate, to give a steady stream of energy to the working muscles. More so, eating too much may make matters worse by causing bloating or GI upset. By slowing down, your body will quickly turn to fat for fuel. If you are running, just start walking. If you are riding, just spin the legs. Do this for a few minutes and see if the feel passes (it probably will). Next, listen to your bod and rethink your nutrition intake. Taking in 4 electrolytes per hour will not prevent cramps (I recommend 1-2 per hour) and if anything, will likely cause GI pain. If you are cramping, maybe it isn't nutrition related. Maybe your muscles are just tired and overworked. If you are lightheaded or feeling bonked, slow down, take in a sip of sport drink or a gel and give your body time to get back to its pace. Jog for a few minutes and before you know it, you will be able to get back to that sustainable HR that you forget to stay at during the race.
In long distance races, it is likely that some nutrition-related problem will occur. However, the worst situation is if your nutrition-related problem prevents you from reaching the finish line. There are many scenarios that may occur during a race that are also training related, and not nutrition related. But by planning out your nutrition prior to the race, sticking to a plan during the race and then listening to your body when situations arise, you will find yourself reaching the finish line without any major nutrition problems.
10)Have fun - Trust your nutrition and trust your training. The more stressed, overwhelmed and worried you feel about having "perfect" nutrition before and during the race, the more likely you will forget the little things that make a great race. Stay positive and be in the moment when it comes to your nutrition during the race. As for before the race, put your Type-A personality to good use and just race your plan and stick to your own schedule.