This weekend Sectionals are going on up in the Pacific Northwest. This is an exciting time for athletes, coaches and families and countless lifetime bests come out of the meet. It’s a chance to showcase all the hard work athletes have put in all season long. It’s for this very reason I was pretty surprised to get an e-mail from a family I’ve known for quite some time mentioning how their child “felt better than ever” going into the meet, but didn’t swim a single personal best. They were confused as to how this could be and related that their coach was also clueless. After some back and forth it seemed pretty clear to me that the main culprit was an unfortunate nutrition plan before competition.
Without going too far into a single athlete’s learning experience, I’m instead going to take the opportunity to discuss an old, yet still important, lesson: If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it. Translated to your pre-race nutrition program: If you haven’t eaten it before, don’t start eating it now.
The biggest complaint that people of all athletic abilities have when introducing new foods into their diets is gastrointestinal distress. I’ve seen many cases where athletes who weren’t aware of a gluten sensitivity or who hadn’t figured out they have a relatively significant issue with lactose, experience quite a bit of discomfort when trying out new meal plans. Generally this is discovered and adjustments made over a matter of days to fix the problem. As you can imagine though, if you try something you “heard” was great right before a race, you might discover it doesn’t quite work for you at the worst possible time: While you’re racing.
Everyone wants that little extra edge going into a race, but believe me when I say that the real edge in pre-race nutrition is sticking with what has always worked for you. What energizes you through all of your grueling workouts will carry you well through your most important races, too.
You may very well be surprised at how uncommon it is to stick with the common principles of fueling your body at your biggest events. You can check this out yourself by just gazing around the pool during regular workouts. Most people see plenty of water bottles and Gatorades during training, but at a meet you’re more likely to see cans of Red Bull and Monster and a dozen different types of gel packs and energy shots. If you’re not used to those stimulants, you’re setting yourself up for the jitters or discomfort you just don’t need.
As I’ve long talked about in my column, nutrition is an evolving process and finding what works is very individual. What works for one person may not work for another, so just because you see someone slam back a Red Bull before a race doesn’t mean you should, too. I absolutely advocate trying new foods throughout the season and listening to what your body tells you it likes, but I strongly suggest that come race time, you use what works. There’s a small chance that a new “superfood” suggested to you just might make you feel like Superman during that big event, but there’s a far greater likelihood of your body not being used to processing it, and making you feel bloated or uncomfortable.
Believe in your training, your coaching and your consistency in the gym and the kitchen, and you’ll always get the best out of yourself.