The Importance Of The Pre-Competition Meal For Endurance Athletes

The two most important nutritional practices associated with optimal race performance in endurance exercise are:

  1. To eat a high carbohydrate diet (8-10 grams per kg body weight/daily) in the days leading up to a competition when the intensity and duration of workouts are reduced.
  2. To drink liquids at regular intervals (16-20 ounces of fluid containing 30-60 grams of carbohydrates an hour depending on conditions) during the competition.

Consistent with the information above, the purposes of the pre-competition meal are the following:

  • To provide adequate hydration
  • To provide carbohydrate to “top off” already high carbohydrate stores in the muscle and liver
  • To avoid the sensation of hunger on a relatively empty stomach
  • To minimize GI tract problems (gas, diarrhea)
  • To allow the stomach to be relatively empty at the start of the race.

Unfortunately, the type of pre-competition meals eaten by endurance athletes may rely more on tradition than nutrition. Problems arise when the pre-competition meal is responsible for poor performance because of its own characteristics (high fat and protein for example) or the inability of the endurance athlete to tolerate the meal without vomiting or experiencing diarrhea due to the emotion associated with competition. The latter events would cause dehydration, a condition inconsistent with optimal performance. It is clear that beyond what is recommended in the nutrition of a pre-competition meal, the ability of the endurance athlete to tolerate it must be considered

To achieve the purposes of the pre-competition meal, the following guidelines are provided:

  • Sufficient fluid should be consumed to maintain hydration (see this article for recommendations).
  • Carbohydrates should make up the majority of the meal, but large amounts of simple sugars, especially fructose and maltodextrin, should be avoided because of the potential for GI problems such as diarrhea.
  • The meal should be low in fats and fibers to facilitate gastric emptying.
  • Protein should make up a small part of the meal because the metabolism of protein increases the acid load that must be buffered and finally excreted by the kidneys.
  • The foods should be familiar to and well liked by the endurance athlete.

The table below presents two pre-competition meals that meet these considerations. These meals should be eaten about 3 hours prior to competition.

Meal A Meal B

Glass of orange juice

One bowl oatmeal

Two pieces of toast with jelly

Sliced peaches with skim milk

One cup low-fat yogurt

One banana

One toasted bagel

One ounce of turkey breast

One-half cup raisins

In sum, the pre-competition meal should provide for hydration and adequate carbohydrate to “top off” stores while minimizing hunger symptoms, gas, and diarrhea.