Pre-Event Meals – Optimum Sports Nutrition Before Competition


Without a shadow of a doubt, the food you eat leading up to an event can determine your performance on a run, on a ride, or on the playing field. While it may be as easy as eating toast and a banana, the food you eat before an endurance event will help you to put a strong foot forward.

Carbohydrate Loading Before The Event
Because exercise diminishes and possibly depletes the energy stores of the body, it is important to buildup energy stores to be successful in an endurance event. The time to exhaustion (TTE) is directly related to the amount of stored energy (glycogen) present in the body before exercise. The more energy you have stored, the longer you can go.

Researchers have estimated that a 150 pound person stores 5 mega joules (approximately 1,000 calories) of carbohydrate in the blood, muscles, and liver. That’s enough fuel for roughly 90 to 120 minutes of vigorous cycling.

Glycogen super compensation, also known as carbo-loading, is an accepted method of preparing for an endurance event. Coupled with the tapering of daily exercise, increasing daily carbohydrate intake for a six-day period has been shown to improve exercise performance. During the six days prior to the event, exercise is modified to fit the following schedule: 90, 40, 40, 20, 20, and 0 minutes a day of moderate-level aerobic exercise, respectively. During the first three days, the diet should contain 5 grams carbohydrate/kilogram (g carbohydrate/kg) body weight per day, and during the next three days, the diet should contain 8-10 g carbohydrate/kg body weight per day. This regimen has been shown to increase muscle glycogen 1.6 times the glycogen concentration that is found in trained athletes consuming a diet containing only 5 g carbohydrate/kg body weight per day without increasing the amount.

These calculations can seem daunting. Divide your weight in pounds by 2.2 to convert weight to kg and multiply that number by the carbohydrate coefficient. For example, if you weigh 140 pounds and you need to eat 5 g of carbohydrate, your calculation should look like this:

  • 140 ÷ 2.2 = 63 kg
  • 63 X 5g = 315g of carbohydrate

Fortunately, nutrition labels list carbohydrate content in grams, and the information can be taken directly from food packaging.

Protein Before The Event
interval-training-workouts-3Protein consumption should remain the same throughout this pre-event period: 1.2-1.5 g of protein per kg of body weight for endurance athletes and strength athletes (for more details, read my article about how diet can boost performance.) Adequate caloric consumption derived from low-fat, whole foods should guarantee this protein requirement. Protein supplements should be avoided because concentrated doses of protein increase the pressure in the kidneys and may eventually lead to kidney damage.

Food Sources
carbohydrate and protein are available in many foods. To maximize both athletic performance and health, carbohydrate and protein should be derived from plant sources, i.e. vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, and nuts. In addition to the macronutrients (carbohydrate, protein, and fat) that supply calories for exercise, the micronutrients contained in these foods help to keep the body functioning optimally. Foods derived from animal sources contain cholesterol, saturated fats, and limited vitamins and minerals, and they are relatively devoid of vital antioxidants and other phytochemicals found in plant-foods such as spinach, blueberries, and nuts.

The Pre-Event Meal
Many athletes compete in events that begin in the morning after an overnight fast. This period of consuming no calories will reduce both liver and blood energy levels, and as a result, exhaustion occurs more quickly. It is important to refuel energy stores after an overnight fast. The consumption of sports beverages (4% to 8% carbohydrate) may benefit athletes who exercise in the morning when liver glycogen stores are low, especially when time does not allow for the digestion of a whole foods meal. Whether or not the consumption of sports drinks prior to or during exercise improves performance of exercise lasting one hour or less has been controversial.

Studies have reported 12% and 18% increases in total work with a carbohydrate meal one hour before endurance exercise and three hours before exercise, respectively 1. It is believed by some that the addition of quality protein to the pre-event meal may stimulate muscle growth after exercise. An acceptable pre-event meal may consist of wheat-sprouted toast or an English muffin with fruit or oatmeal with oat or almond milk and berries.

By consuming additional quality carbohydrate days and hours before your event, you boost energy stores and prepare for the demands of the endurance activity. Added carbohydrate and probably added protein can also speed recovery to help prepare you for your next event, as well.

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About Author

Peggy Kraus

Peggy Kraus, RCEP, MA has a Masters degree in Professional Physical Education from New York University and is an American College of Sports Medicine Certified Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist. She has worked in both cardiopulmonary rehab and in commercial fitness, and she has more than 15 years of experience in guiding people to better health through positive lifestyle changes. See my profile page for more information!

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