Appropriate nutrition for the competition

7. September 2017

Right at the outset it’s important to remember: both the type and amount of the food and drinks consumed during sports have a different effect on each individual athlete. Some athletes can tolerate practically everything, whereas others are extremely sensitive to unfamiliar routines or new products they don’t know. 

When it comes to nutrition during endurance competitions, this needs to be systematically incorporated into your training the last days before the event. The rules for this are generally quite simple: 

  • If the focus is on a demanding performance where the exertion lasts longer than around 45 to 60 minutes, then the carbohydrate reserves should be well stocked on day X. 
  • This is done by ensuring your diet is rich in carbohydrates the last two or three days before the competition, whereupon the carbohydrates can also be ingested with fluids or sweets. 
  • The last two meals should be easy to digest (no more fibres, salad or vegetables) and the body should be adequately supplied with fluids beforehand.
  • The last meal should be taken at least two and a half to three hours before the start and no later to ensure the stomach is not overloaded in the competition.

Basic points about nutrition in a competition:

  • Digestibility is crucial: The stomach needs to be put under as little stress as possible in the competition itself, as it is not uncommon for the stomach’s micro-climate to get into a muddle due to the athletic ordeal. The less the stomach needs to work, the better the other systems can function to maintain the athletic performance. Therefore, digestibility is paramount when it comes to nutrition in a competition. Everything else merely plays a role.
  • Fluids are easier to digest than solid foods: For liquid and semi-liquid food, the following applies: intensive exertions slow down digestion, whereas an increase in volume speeds up digestion. The latter does not mean, however, that you should drink litres of fluids. It means that a couple of decilitres of fluid are digested more quickly than almost no fluid at all.
  • The longer the exertion, the more difficult it becomes: When it comes to long periods of exertion, you should start your energy intake early on so you don’t experience a deficit. At the same time, the longer the race lasts, the more sensitive the stomach becomes and the more important it is to know what you can and cannot tolerate! This applies to both the composition of the nutrition as well as the intensity of the exertion. Stomach problems are often put down to overdoing it.

Nutrition and the duration of a competition:

  • Under 30 minutes: For a duration of up 30 minutes, you don’t really need to watch out for anything apart from making sure you have a sensible diet beforehand. You can manage 30 minutes at even a high level of intensity without any food, fluids, or loss of performance.
  • 30 to 60 minutes: In a competition with a duration of up to one hour, it makes sense to drink something now and again. However, this could only be water as you still don’t need any carbohydrates to maintain your athletic performance for more than an hour.
  • 60 to 120 minutes: After one hour of exertion you should intake sufficient carbohydrates in addition to enough fluids on a regular basis. Around 30 grams per hour are recommended, which roughly corresponds to a 50-g gel tube, for example. A 30-gram gel should therefore be ingested roughly every 40 minutes. It’s important that you always wash these down with plenty of water.
  • 2-3 hours: As the duration of the race increases, the carbohydrate intake becomes more and more important – around 50-60 grams per hour are recommended. Salt should also be ingested for exertions lasting several hours, especially during hot weather.
  • 3 hours and more: At this stage, the carbohydrates stored in the muscles are completely used up, therefore making a further carbohydrate intake crucially important. You will now even need around 60-80 grams per hour.
  • 4 hours and more: In competitions that last around 4 hours with high levels of intensity, fat, protein, and dietary fibre is not required because they slow down digestion if ingested in any significant amount. But since the level of intensity somewhat automatically decreases in exertions lasting several hours, ingesting fat can also make sense as the duration of the race increases. However, a high carbohydrate intake remains key.
  • The following generally applies: the amounts specified should be tested individually. Some athletes can ingest up to 100 grams of carbohydrates per hour, others considerably less. As the duration of the race increases, the highest possible energy absorption becomes increasingly important. Normally, more energy can be absorbed cycling than when running.

Nutrition and intensity:

  • The more intensive the exertion, the less the stomach should be stressed. Digestive problems in a competition are thus rarely due to the fact that the athletes ingested something that didn’t agree with them, rather the level of intensity was too high and the stomach didn’t have the capacity to absorb anything.
  • At high levels of intensity, sports drinks and sports gels are the most agreeable form of nutritional intake. If you want to eat solid food, then this is best done in small to very small portions. 
  • The more ingredients a product contains (caffeine, vitamins, etc.), the greater the risk of intolerance, which is why everything needs to be tested beforehand. In the case of moderate exertions, such as a bike tour or a hike, solid foods (bars, sandwiches, biscuits, etc. together with water) can be eaten without any digestive problems occurring.

Nutrition and sport

  • Running: When running, the nutritional intake is extremely restricted due to the constant jolting and strains placed on all the systems. The rule of thumb for drinking is 0.4-0.8 litres per hour, which corresponds to a carbohydrate intake of around 30-50 grams.
  • Cycling: The intake capacity is better on the bike than when running, so you can therefore drink a good litre of fluids per hour.
  • Cross-country skiing: In winter, lukewarm drinks are absorbed the best. Despite the cold, the body needs sufficient fluids and energy in winter, even though it may not feel like it.
  • Triathlon: You should take a tactical approach to your nutrition in a triathlon. It’s best to fuel your energy level in each of the transition areas and during the bike split shortly before the transition area so you have enough energy to start the run split.
  • Swimming: The absorption of energy is hampered when swimming, so when doing a triathlon, make sure you fuel your energy level after the swim split and ensure your reserves are full (fluids too) when you start the competition.