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Sports and Accredited Practising Dietitian, former Australian lightweight rower.
What nutrition do power athletes need on the day of competition?
It’s a tough call – your tummy is nervous, you need to feel light and fast, but you often need enough energy to sustain you through hours of hanging around rudely interrupted by very short bouts of explosive activity. Here are a few tips to see you through comp day.
In a number of athletes we’d cut down the fibre content so they’re not weighing as heavy. Pre-event, there’s also a lot of intestinal comfort in power sports and when you’re competing, you don’t want to have a lot of blood in your stomach trying to digest your food.
At high intensity, you burn 100% carbohydrates, so if you were doing repeated lifts or sprints/jumps, etc. you would find that very hard to do in a carbohydrate-depleted state.
Carbohydrate can relax you, so you wouldn’t give someone just pasta and tomato sauce because they might fall asleep. I would put in a little bit of protein and make the carbs fairly low GI (glycaemic index) so they’re being released slowly and you’re not getting the relaxation effects from the carbohydrates.
Some people say that they get nervous before competition and they find it hard to stomach proteins such as meats or eggs. One solution might be to have some white sourdough toast and a milk drink to go with it – both will be quite low GI (slow releasing) but not too high in fibre, plus you won’t go to sleep on that.
Ideally, you would eat 2.5-3 hours before the event, then have little bits of carbohydrate during the event – that may be just sipping an endurance sports drink if it’s hot or a regular sports drink if it’s not. If you feel like eating rather than drinking, you might try something like a Torq Bar, which are a squishy kind of carbohydrate bar, so you can pull bits off that to nibble on.
Avoid fats on comp day. Fats tend to delay absorption of food, so they are not going to give any benefit when you’re competing.
Of course, all power sports are going to have some muscle damage associated with them, so you need to aim to have about 20g of protein in the recovery meal straight after your event. One thing that is very popular is skinny hot chocolate or skinny cold chocolate milk. Milk has a lot of electrolytes in it and cocoa is an antioxidant, then we get the whey protein and casein (another type of protein) in the milk.
Then there’s the dehydration factor. I’m a big fan of electrolyte tablets – they’re high hydration and low in calories. The cheap and original version is Gastrolyte, which was originally used for people with cholera. We started by using it with sailors and golfers and they complained about the taste, but now they’ve made nicer-tasting versions. They’re basically a sodium and potassium replacement, then you can also use a product called Shotz, which are basically a nicer-tasting version of Gastrolyte with a bit of magnesium in them. They’re great for skiing or hot weather or if you don’t need the calories. However, if you’re someone who burns a lot of calories and/or your event drags on over a long time – and especially if you’re exposed to the heat – then I would recommend a sports drink with a higher level of electrolytes (such as Gatorade G Series), which would help the absorption of fluid and provide some carbohydrate between bouts of activity.
One thing that power athletes can use – but should use with caution – is caffeine. Caffeine tells the brain that the body is less tired than it really is. The problem is that a lot of athletes use it without practising, so they get the shakes or worse – it can increase their anxiety or their coordination suffers.
Athletes are often a bit gung-ho on caffeine, and they’re not always great with it. In most power sports, there’s a lot more time to be nervous – and caffeine can exacerbate that.
Then I’ve had big footballers who have had people give them caffeine tablets and then they can’t catch a ball. The trick is to use the smallest amount that will be beneficial. To achieve this, you need to practise with it and know what your tolerance is and then use the form of caffeine that you are familiar with – so if you’re used to coffee, use that in competition, don’t have a coffee then follow it up with a whole 100mg No-Doz tablet.
Caffeine can be very beneficial if your competition goes over a couple of hours or more, but once you start using it, you keep at it every hour. So you wouldn’t just have one before you start, because you can start to slide away (“crash”) over the next 2.5-3 hours.
I always ask athletes, “When do you think you’re going to flag?” Caffeine usually kicks in) after 30 minutes and peaks after 90 minutes, so you work backwards with that (although this depends on the compound it is in – coffee, straight caffeine in a tablet, guarana – this is where it pays to practise with it in training).
We might work on 90mg per hour (i.e. espresso-style, or a generous instant coffee – a 250ml can of Red Bull has 80mg), but if you’re sensitive to caffeine, it might only be 45mg per hour or even less. Work out what dosage works for you.
SARAH CONSULTS IN ST LEONARDS, SYDNEY CITY AND BONDI JUNCTION