Eat (well), drink (well), and be merry- for tomorrow we race!

The night before our island to harbor 7km swim three weeks ago, one of my swimmers asked my opinion about what to eat that morning before the race.

Some of my Tri and Ultra-distance friends would no doubt have some great input on this question. I admitted that I have not studied the subject as intensely as I study others so I could not offer scholarly advice. What I do have is 25 years of endurance training and am pretty pleased with what works for me. So I shared my personal convictions that I’ve developed over the years:

HYDRATION

Completely hydrating the day before the event is far more effective than drinking during an event. Since we likely go with a day or less off-days between practice days then that means a daily habit of hydration is the most effective norm.

In 25 years I can’t recall ever having a water bottle waiting for me at the edge of the pool during a practice. Nor have I ever carried a water bottle during a run. I have relied on pre-event (including practice) hydration completely for under-3-hr events and its worked fine for me.

In my college days, while an Olympic-distance triathlete, I used to work in the heavy construction industry in the hot sun all summer, then go tri train after work- I learned how to acclimate my body and metabolism to handle the conditions it needed to perform in- for work and racing.  I just drank a ton all day, before my practice and afterward- but not during. This is the way I raced, so this is the way I trained. During the race I was going at too high an intensity level (especially on the 10k run) to drink more than a mouth-wetting during even the hottest races. (And I loved the heat because I knew everyone else hated it.)

Caffiene is an enemy of hydration (unfortunately) and any drink with processed ingredients is not treated by the body the same way as pure water. (I would seriously fear for my life if I ever touched one of those energy-boost drinks to my lips.)

I generally avoid all sugary energy drinks. I don’t want chemicals in my system. And I don’t want my body in endurance situations dependent on quick- sugars for fuel. Instead I have a great thirst quencher mix- a cup full of water with a dash of salt and squeeze in half a lemon. This pleases my tongue and avoids the intake of processed sugar. I eat fruit to get natural sugars if needed.

FOOD

I have an interesting ability to swim or run long distances in the morning without fueling before. I correlate this to my metabolisms lower demand for sugars and a preference for fat fuel- by morning my food is all digested and slow fuels geared up to go. I eat that way and train that way. Pump sugars into the body all day and during practice and guess what the body will be trained to look for under high demand activities- then wonder why you bonk in an hour!

I can’t stress the warning about sugars enough. Please read (what was formerly titled) The War On Insulin, which only reinforces and further educates me about what I’ve suspected for 20 years.

I don’t eat anything special before the race- I am not so concerned about eating meat the night before or excited about getting extra carbs unless that is what I feel like eating. I trust my body to tell me what it needs and go for it. I am training several days a week with longer swims. For these regular events my body needs the right kind of slow-burn fuel as a normal part of my diet- so I go with that diet for the race as well- after all, this is what I have doing the training for!

And the morning of the race? A’normal’ breakfast about 2 hours before- either Turkish-Mediterranean style (avoiding meat products), or my standard big bowl of plain yogurt, honey, wheat bran, dry oatmeal and some fruit of some sort on top. My digestive system gets no surprises on race day.

I am hoping to get my normal two bowel movements before the event (or practice) so I am feeling free inside and packing minimal weight. (Hey, we’re athletes here!) This is also dependent on good hydration- digestion requires water- not enough water? Then digestion is slow. My food is through my system in 24 hours or less when I have good hydration. I should only be packing around my breakfast below my stomach by race time.

TRAINING IS A LIFESTYLE

The point I wanted to make to my swimmer was this- I shape my engine and train my metabolism every single day of the year. What I am doing all those months before the race is far more important than what I do the day before because what I eat every day of the year is part of the preparation for that race. The day before, the night before, the morning before the event is just a continuation of the habit I already have in place.

And experimenting with new foods, drinks, or energy-bars during a race is not a good idea. If you don’t train with them, DON’T RACE WITH THEM. My other friend and swimmer in our group at this 7km race told me how he passed out during his last running race because of just that- he wacked out his system by eating energy bars with sugar and chemicals it was not used to dealing with. We agreed he would eat nothing strange before our 7km swim!

Although I believe my friend who asked the original question was already astute about diet (he is a doctor after all), as a coach to my swimmers I wanted to be clear about the warning that people who only pick up the training mindset a few weeks or days before some athletic endeavor will often suffer greatly and run great risk of injury. I advocate that we should live and eat in such a way each day that we are generally prepared for any day that comes. Training is a lifestyle not an event.

If I am hydrating continually as a habit, eating foods that are well suited to my activities, and avoiding those that are not, and normally exposing myself to the condition I will do my activities in- guess what? The body will prepare itself to use those resources for those activities it is familiar with.

And I would repeat my mantra- form follows function. The body will reflect the lifestyle we impose upon it. If every day we give it good fuel, give it good activity, frame that activity in a positive, motivating storyline then we’ve got a good solid strategy for getting the body and the performance we want.

So, the nutshell advice I gave was: if you are eating and drinking well already, and it has been doing a good job for you in your practice, just keep on doing that before your next event. If not, then I can’t tell you how your body will react to your spontaneous dietary experiment.

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