With big off season competitions like Granite Games, Wodapalooza, and the East Coast Championships, coming up around the corner, it’s time to begin practicing performing optimally on game day. Just like training allows you to improve your abilities in the gym, competing is an opportunity to learn how you perform optimally for future competitions. Nutrition and fueling is an often neglected aspect of game day preparation and either people forget to pack/prepare their foods OR they try to eat exactly the same way they do on normal training days. We feel that this is a mistake and in the blog post will offer some practical recommendations for you to begin tinkering with your optimal nutritional strategy for game day.
While the actual Fueling requirements for performance in competition are not very different than fueling for one or two training sessions in a day, there are some important differences. The basic components of good sport nutrition remain the same: get plenty of carbs, plenty of protein, and some fats. However the way you fuel for a multi-event competition day will need some adjustments from your everyday-nutrition. There are a number of factors that you need to consider when creating a refueling plan for a competition, including the number of events throughout the day, time between events, and the type of event. Each of these factors will influence the type (whole food / liquid) and amount of each macronutrient (carbs / proteins / fats) needed to optimize event performance and recovery. While many athletes seem to be searching for the ‘magic bullet’ recovery supplement or are wondering what the top athletes are doing, the reality is that just having a plan for refueling puts you ahead of most of your competition. Furthermore understanding competition physiology allows us to create even more effective fueling strategies in order to optimize performance.
Before we dig into practical recommendations for refueling at a competition, we need to review the physiology of performance in a typical event so that you understand why we are recommending the strategies listed below at the end of the blog.
Physiology of Competition
Our bodies operate the same way all the time. But during a competition the physiological responses are essentially turned up due increased motivation, effort, and stress. Some major physiological differences and their implications are expanded upon below.
Heightened Stress Levels
During a multi-event competition, you are constantly in a state of fight-or-flight. That nervous or excited feeling that you get before you take the competition floor actually has a host of physiological effects, including shuttling blood away from your digestive system, shifting your primary fuel source from fats to carbohydrates, and putting your body into a catabolic state. Humans have evolved this ‘fight or flight’ mechanism as a way to ensure that when our lives were threatened we had the best possible chance to escape or defend ourselves (or our families). Competition is obviously not life threatening (for the most part….) however it tends to be an experience that we perceive as ‘threatening’ both from a physical (pain) and psychological (ego, fear of failure, desire to succeed) standpoint. As athletes we need to learn to harness this system in order to control our arousal, however for the purposes of refueling we simply need to understand that (1) we need more carbohydrate than normal (2) our digestive system will be working slower than normal (3) our bodies are breaking down everything they can (stored glycogen, triglycerides, and muscle tissue) to provide fuel for performance.
A note on cortisol: cortisol, a stress hormone, has been vilified in the strength and endurance training community. While elevated cortisol levels have been connected with impaired recovery from exercise, suppressing cortisol can actually leave athletes feeling flat with an impaired ability to access their full potential. Arousal is not bad. Top performers do not experience less nerves or excitement than other athletes. They just perceive that as ‘being exciting’ versus ‘being nervous’ - our perception of our feelings has an impact on our physiological responses. People who have a negative perception about their nerves generally try to suppress them, which depending on the event could be a huge mistake. For events that require maximal effort or extremely high energy-system power-output, harnessing that fight/flight response can lead to huge PR’s. As a result many athletes will try to take nutrients/supplements that will drive cortisol (and other fight-or-flight hormone) levels down during training in order to improve their adaptive ability or reduce their perception of stress. This process should be avoided during competition in order to maintain healthy cortisol/stress hormone levels. While prepping for competition we want to optimize stress hormone levels, one way to achieve this is by increasing our dietary carbohydrate and decreasing our dietary fat intake leading into competition. Another important caution is to not to turn your normal training environment into a constant competition where you are harnessing this arousal / stress hormone system too frequently. Competing is much more stressful than an average training session, which is why you shouldn’t compete all the time and year round.
Game Day Macros
The fueling requirements for a 1RM Snatch are going to be different than for a 24min Chipper. Our pre and post event refueling strategies should take the event type and duration into consideration as well as the fueling requirements of any subsequent events in order to ensure that the right nutrients are supplied in adequate amounts. For the sake of simplicity I’m going to lump events into three categories:
Strength/Power (1RM’s, Ladders, etc)
- rely primarily on the ATP / CP system to supply energy
Primary fuel: Creatine Phosphate
recovery between lifts requires a recycling of CP stores by the aerobic system
Pre-event - BCAA’s / Water / *Caffeine (for experienced athletes)
Post-event - Carbohydrate / Protein / Water
Short & Fast (Fran, Randy, under 5min)
- rely primarily on the anaerobic glycolytic system to supply energy
Primary fuel: Carbohydrate (glycogen/glucose)
results in significant increases in blood acidity that must be balanced to return to baseline
Pre-event - Carbohydrate / BCAA’s / Water
Post-event - Carbohydrate / Protein / Water
Longer Endurance (Chippers, Most Open workouts, 5-30min)
- rely primarily on the aerobic glycolytic system with some contribution from the anaerobic glycolytic and aerobic oxidative system
Primary fuel: Carbohydrate (glycogen/glucose) with some Fats
Pre-event - Carbohydrate / BCAA’s / Water / *Caffeine
Post-event - Carbohydrate / BCAA’s / Water
All ‘types’ of events rely on different combinations of each of the energy-systems. The key takeaway points here are that: (1) carbohydrate is the primary fuel source for MOST events in the sport of fitness with very few exceptions, (2) the recovery process from every event regardless of type relies on the aerobic system to recycle fuel substrates. Knowing this information helps to give us a framework to create an effective refueling strategy which we will layout below in the practical applications section.
During a multi-event or multi-day competition, you are breaking down muscle tissue throughout the entire day. Every time you contract a muscle under load (think: performing even 1 butterfly pull-up or 1 heavy clean & jerk) there is a small amount of muscle-damage that occurs. During training this micro-damage is a good thing as it stimulates the repair and growth of muscle tissue leading to improvements in strength. This process is relatively slow and occurs over the course of days not hours. Therefore, during a competition, you want to minimize the impact of muscle-damage as it negatively impacts subsequent events by impairing our ability to effectively product force. Couple this with the elevated stress hormone levels (discussed earlier) and you can see how mitigating muscle-tissue breakdown would be a very high priority for athletes in a sport which relies on various aspects of strength for optimal performance. We can accomplish this by keeping our intake of protein high throughout the day, particularly the BCAA’s.
Now that you understand why you need to change and practice your game day fueling strategies compared to your typical training day, we’re going to layout some of the major changes you can make in your next competition or competition simulation to test out how you perform.
Remember that increased stress hormone levels during a competition day lead to a slowing of our digestive processes making whole-foods more difficult to breakdown and absorb. Therefore, simple, easy to digest foods and drinks are your best option. When your body starts diverting blood-flow to your muscles, your digestive system can’t extract nutrients from your food very easily. Through personal experience and working with TTT athletes in competition, I’ve found that utilizing liquid nutrition (protein shakes, fruit juices, BCAA drinks, and carbohydrate-electrolyte powders), eating fruit (a great source of simple, easily digested carbohydrates), and baby food, mashed up carbs (like sweet potato mash, baby food packets, etc) works very well both after and between events to supply essential levels of carbohydrate and amino acids. Some athletes (Travis Mayer) have experimented with all-liquid competition day diets with tremendous success, however other athletes that have tested the same strategy struggle with the feeling of having an empty stomach from 8am-5pm. If this is something that you’re planning on implementing then make sure that you test this in a competition simulation BEFORE the actual event.
As discussed above carbohydrate is our primary fuel source for most events in our sport. Additionally our bodies are using carbohydrate at an accelerated rate due to increased stress hormone levels. Make sure you’re getting carbohydrate early and often. It is extremely important to ensure that you’re getting adequate levels of carbohydrate throughout the day, especially during multi-day competitions. Many people fall-flat on the final event and chalk it up to “accumulated fatigue” or something wrong with their training, when in reality they probably didn’t take in enough carbos throughout the day to provide energy for 3-5 events. Some of the things that I’ve found that help: as soon as your event is finished eat 1-2 bananas (easily digestible source of simple carbohydrates) + mix yourself a carb-electrolyte-protein drink (carbohydrate powder + protein powder) and start sipping that over the next 30-45min. This will make sure that you’re getting your carbohydrate in at the right time (immediately after your workout) as well as keeping your carbohydrate stores topped off. Between events make sure that you’re continuing to replenish carbohydrate stores by eating and drinking simple carbohydrates. Remember that during a competition day you’re burning more carbs even at rest so you may want to add an additional 50-100g throughout the day.
Emphasize easily digestible PROTEINS
Muscle-tissue breakdown is accelerated from the increased intensity we bring on game day, the volume of muscle-damaging contractions in an event, and increased tissue breakdown brought about by elevated stress hormone levels. Drink your protein and drink your amino acids. You probably won’t be able to eat grilled chicken breast or a nice flank steak between the events and even if you could, your body wouldn’t be able to digest or absorb many of the amino acids in the meat (think blood-flow / fight-or-flight). As a general rule of thumb try to do the following: after an event drink protein (~30g), 60min before an event switch to BCAA’s (15g). This should keep your muscles in a “repair” state versus a “breakdown” state between events and give you the added performance benefit from the BCAA’s for your next event.
Cut the FATS
Fats are essential nutrients on any given day. However on competition day they take a backseat role to carbohydrate and protein. They are not your primary fuel source for (most) events that you’ll see in competition and they tend to slow digestion even further. I’m not saying to avoid fats entirely, they just aren’t your primary concern during a multi-event competition. At the end of the competition day plan on eating your fat requirements during your post-event dinner. This will ensure that you’re avoiding the digestion slowing properties of fat between events while still getting adequate fat intake to support recovery for the next day.
Time and dose Caffeine
Caffeine has consistently been shown in clinical research to improve both strength and endurance performance. However, the timing of caffeine ingestion is critical. Caffeine exerts its maximum performance-enhancing effects about 30-45min after ingestion (shorter for men longer for women). It will also help you more early in the morning and later in the day due to its ability to stimulate the CNS. Research suggests that the threshold for performance enhancement from caffeine is somewhere between 200-600mg depending on body-size and exposure. Since many athletes are habitual coffee drinkers a reasonable strategy would be to finish your coffee (~200mg caffeine) about 45-50min before your first event and then drink a second one about 45min before your final event. This will ensure that you’re getting the alertness boost from your caffeine at the right times to maximize performance. For some athletes, particularly those early in their careers, caffeine may create too extreme of a fight-or-flight response and cause them to crash and burn. For these athletes, adding stimulants into your pre-workout strategy would not be optimal. As you get more in control of your anxiety and competitions are more ‘normal’ for your psyche, then you should start to play with your caffeine dosing.
- Simple is better - liquid might be best (depending on personal preference)
- Carbohydrate is the most important nutrient during competition - eat it or drink it ALL DAY
- Protein and amino acids can help to protect muscle tissue and stimulate the recovery process - eat it or drink it ALL DAY
- Fats are less important - don’t worry about them, you’ll make up for your fats at the end of the day.
- Caffeine = performance booster for some, too potent for others - but timing matters!
People are extremely variable and all have unique physiologies and psychologies. As a result game day nutrition, like normal nutrition or training, should be individualized. However, the current research and our coaching experience can help you create more precise strategies for experimentation. Remember as you experiment not to associate changes in food with performances. It’s possible that you just were not prepared properly, had ineffective training, or got overly anxious and couldn't’t control your nerves. The variables you should be paying attention to on game day with regards to fueling are digestive disturbances, overall energy levels throughout the duration of the competition, mental clarity, and easy access to nutrients. Performing well is a skill and nutrition is just one piece of the puzzle. So, make sure as you enter your next competition you are putting preparation and thought into your fueling requirements. Good luck…