The Art Of Competition Nutrition And Saying No
The art of competition nutrition planning is extremely complex, high specialised and to achieve optimal results should be individualised to the athlete. The needs of the body in a performance setting are far removed from what you will see recommended to the general population for the promotion of optimal health, where we really do tap into an analogy we are renowned for pioneering at Enliven Nutrition, the “Food As Fuel” mentality
To fully understand the needs of an athlete to enable the development of a highly specialised competition nutrition plan, you need your source of information to have the following:
- Accredited Sports Dietitian status (Acc.SD), which is the peak professional qualification for sports and performance nutrition in this country (there is a reason the Australian Institute of Sport and all peak professional sporting bodies only work with us!)
- Additional knowledge of anatomy, physiology, and the body’s response under the stress of movement (preferable an Accredited Strength and Conditioning Coach or Exercise Physiologist).
As both a sports dietitian and strength and conditioning coach my career pathway has gravitated towards the strength and power dominant sports, with many CrossFit athletes seeking my assistance to optimise their health, performance and body composition. The athletes have been from all over the country, and through countless hours of experience I feel somewhat qualified to write this article today in response to a request for assistance from some on my most loyal clients who are again preparing for a CrossFit competition.
Now while I cannot provide a meal plan or competition nutrition plan that is “one size fits all” that will benefit all of these athletes I can discuss the principles and areas of need that you should be looking at for this event, including the inherent dangers associated with getting things wrong. As always it is recommended to trial any performance nutrition strategy within the safety of a training environment so that you have the utmost confidence in the plans you have in place.
So let’s look at some of the areas you should be paying particular attention to:
- The rule of 3: It is always recommended in and around times of heavy activity that you actively work to minimise the loading on your gut to digest and absorb foods. This is due to the fact that the blood-flow at these times is very much prioritised to be sent to your working muscles and not your gut to break down these foods.
To assist this, ensure that your food is low in fat, low in fiber and liquid in form if needed .
Remember that both fat and fiber are very labour intensive on your gut to break down and absorb, so if you wish to ignore this make sure there are some toilets close by! Of all the rules, this is a must for competition nutrition plans. Some people may be able to tolerate these foods in a solid form, therefore the recommendation for liquid sources is for those that have poor appetites or uneasy stomachs during times of heavy activity.
- Watch some sugars: It is always a great idea to be mindful of the fact that the body has a lesser ability to process large volumes of the sugars fructose (found in fruits primarily) and lactose (found in dairy products). This is not to say do not have them, but these should be classed as nutrients consumed “to tolerance” as every athlete is different.
- Know the best sugar combo: Sucrose is where it is at in regards to the best fueling combo of sugars you can get. Sucrose is a combination of glucose and fructose sugars, and is absorbed as a combination 50% better than those consumed individually.
This is why you will see sucrose as a main ingredient in things like sports drinks, there is actually science behind these, not just a desire to dump a huge amount of sugar into a product to get people hooked on sugar!
- Hydration: The most underrated area of your competition nutrition guaranteed. Around 2% losses in your bodyweight from sweat can equate to 30% losses in performance. Accredited sports dietitians can conduct hydration testing to determine your sweat rate and therefore incorporate appropriate hydration into your competition plan to avoid this after determining your individualised sweat rate.
- Supplements: If there is no chance of drug testing, the risk of inadvertent doping is not a concern for you and therefore you really can take advantage of the convenience aspect of sports supplements for your competition nutrition. Things like rapidly digested carbohydrates such as maltodextrin for fueling, or whey protein isolates for recovery could be a benefit to your performance. And don’t forget caffeine. Whilst exceeding 300mg of this is linked to adverse health effects in the long term, a one-off hit of around 6mg/kg of your body-weight for the day can be beneficial. For a 80kg individual, this is 480mg for the day, or 5-6 shots of espresso coffee should you like your brew. Also consider encapsulated forms such as No Doze for those that aren’t ruled by coffee!
So that’s the main areas you should focus on, now let’s look at the risks of getting your plan wrong and the two main reason I have refrained from putting up performance meal plans for you to follow:
- Fat Gain Risks: The focus should be on carbohydrate as a nutrient for your competition day, and being low in fat and fiber there is a very real chance that you will be eating “refined carbohydrates” such as white breads, white pastas, white rice, glucose based lollies and so on. Now these do the job in terms of fueling high intensity performance (if you don’t believe me please spend 5 years between a University system and the AIS to understand why and how) . Have too much though, and they will be very easily converted to and stored as body fat which is not something desirable for just about everyone I meet.
This is the value of getting a personalised competition plan. It meets your exact requirements, and does not put you at risk of gaining fat, or feeling sick in the stomach which can lead to emesis or diarrhea.
- Gastrointestinal Upset: Remember how I said to trial everything in training first? If you have too much of one sugar type, consume too much fat, fibre, overload on amino acid supplement or fluids there is a very real chance that it will be exiting your body faster than what it went in, and this could be from either end!
Putting it all together for competition nutrition
You need to think of your carbs as your fuel foods, and put them in and around your times of heavy activity making sure they are low in fat, fibre and liquid form if needed. Save your proteins for between events to start the recovery process should your events be spaced out more than 2 hours from each other. If they are closer than this, switch your priority back to carbs to refuel your fuel tank of high-performance fuels. Don’t neglect that hydration either with generous amounts throughout the day.
The day before you compete you should focus on general healthy eating principles with a predominance of slow burning carbohydrates (whole-grains, fruits, sweet potato, basmati rice and so on) with a good amount of hydration. Proteins and fats are allowed at these times with your high vitamin and mineral foods (veggies).
Throughout my career I have been lucky enough to meet hundreds of genuine people assisting them to enhance their performance or body composition goals. The area of “saying no” is something I feel needs a special mention and a good dose of perspective in regards to the provision of services from any nutrition professional (Accredited Sports Dietitians specifically). Through the relationships built with clients, there have been friendships and fantastic results that follow.
The most difficult part of my job comes when one of those past clients will contact me and ask (“I have a competition coming up in a few days, what should I eat?”) One thing I would like to remind everyone, is that any Dietitian is a “Knowledge Worker”. We do not sell products, we sell our professional expertise, and this is the very thing we use to support our families and put food on the table. To put that request in a little bit of perspective, consider the following scenario:
You have been taking your car to your mechanic for several services to enhance its performance and maintain its functional capacity (health) as best you can.
You have decided that you would like to put your car on the racetrack, and realise that this will require your car to be re-tuned, and even have re-mapping of your entire engine management system to get the best performance from your car on the race track.
Would you really approach your mechanic and ask them to do this for free??
This is exactly the situation you place your Sports Dietitian in when you pose this question. So please understand that when we say “No, I am sorry I cannot do that for you for free” it is not because we do not want to help you, it is because what you are requesting to develop a competition nutrition plan takes a great deal of time, effort, planning and expertise on our part to get perfect for you to avoid unwanted fat gains or gastrointestinal upsets.
Saying no really is the most difficult part of our job!
If you would your very own personalised competition nutrition plan, or would like to register your interest for our soon to be released Performance Essentials Nutrition Education Video Series, be sure to contact us at Enliven Nutrition today!