Tips, Tactics, Techniques and Procedures for proper nutrition
Home>>Tips and Techniques: Proper Nutrition for Optimal Performance
Optimal nutrition is as important as proper hydration prior and during endurance sports racing and training to ensure your best performance.  Unfortunately, there is a great deal of misinformation in the press concerning proper diets and especially in the context of an endurance sports athlete.  The article below written by Steve Born the senior technical advisor to E-CAP provides concise guidance on the basic questions: what to eat, when to eat, and how much.  The article is based on research conducted by Dr. David Costill and other exercise scientists and while there is an obvious product focus you can simply substitute your favorite energy gel or bar and gain the same results.

This nutrition web site provides a side-by-side comparisons of most of the popular endurance sports energy drinks: Hammer Nutrition's Heed, Gatorade products, Accelerade, Cytomax, etc...

Train as you race.  It is important to note that what may work extremely well with one athlete may make another athlete sick or require a unexpected bathroom break.  You should determine what works well for your personal digestive system keeping the suggestions for optimal performance listed below in mind.

By: Steve Born

How many times have you had a bite from an energy bar, taken a swig from an energy drink, or eaten some type of meal an hour or two prior to lining up at the start of your race? Big mistake! This practice is totally counterproductive and will hurt your performance. In the potentially confusing world of sports supplementation and fueling, perhaps nowhere is there more confusion than in regards to the pre-race meal. Why? Maybe it’s because far too many times athletes, lacking the proper guidelines, have chosen the wrong foods and consumed them at the wrong time. Truth be told, there are no real heavy secrets to the pre-race meal, just some wise strategies and guidelines, which are outlined below. These can and should also be employed prior to workout sessions as well.

The pre-race meal goal

The goal of the pre-race meal is to top off liver glycogen stores. Muscle glycogen stores, the first fuel recruited when exercise commences, are topped off when complex carbohydrates are consumed immediately after workouts. Stores of muscle glycogen are unaffected, even after a nightlong fast, until the next exercise session or race. During sleep or fasting, it is liver glycogen stores that are used and depleted to maintain proper blood glucose levels. Knowing how and when to properly replenish them prior to workouts or races is a key factor in optimizing performance.

Sports nutrition expert Bill Misner, Ph.D., advises a pre-race meal should be “an easily digested high complex carbohydrate meal of between 200 – 400 calories with a minimum of fiber, simple sugar, and fat.” According to Dr. Misner, fat slows digestion and has no positive influence on fuels metabolized during an event. He further states that a pre-race meal that is high in fiber may “create the call for an unscheduled and undesirable bathroom break in the middle or near the end of the event.”

Food Choices

One study suggests that athletes who drank a pre-race meal consisting of both carbohydrates and a small amount of protein had better performances than when they consumed just an all-carbohydrate sports drink. This would make a pre-race meal of SUSTAINED ENERGY (which contains both complex carbohydrates and soy protein), or a combination of SUSTAINED ENERGY and HAMMER GEL not only incredibly quick and easy, but highly effective as well. At the end of this article a couple of suggested pre-race meal recipes using both these products are listed. If solid foods are desired, high starch foods such as skinless potatoes, bananas, rice, pasta, white bagels, low-fat active culture yogurt, tapioca, and low-fiber hot cereals are good choices.

Three Hours or More. Why?

Just as important as what you eat is when you eat it. Our bodies are incredibly complex structures, and allowing our bodies to operate most efficiently requires taking proper steps so that we don’t interfere with normal body mechanisms. When it comes to the pre-race meal, several authorities such as Dr. Misner, Dr. Michael Colgan, and Dr. David Costill all agree that the pre-race meal should be eaten 3-4 hours prior to the event. Dr. Misner suggests the athlete “leave three hours minimum to digest foods eaten at breakfast. After breakfast, drink 10-12 ounces fluid each hour up to 30 minutes prior to the start (24-30 ounces total fluid intake).”

Why three hours? Colgan suggests it is the amount of time necessary for digestion to avoid intestinal distress. Costill’s landmark study [Costill DL. Carbohydrates for exercise. Dietary demand for optimal performance. Int J Sports 1988;9:1-18] shows that complex carbohydrates taken 3-4 hours prior to exercise raise blood glucose and improve performance. But it’s Dr. Misner’s argument that has proved most compelling to me.

Dr. Misner’s Rationale

Within a few minutes of ingestion of carbohydrates, insulin is secreted as a natural reaction from the body. In simple terms, insulin is a type of sugar-carrier to the cells. Its function is to aid in transporting glucose from the blood stream into various tissues in the body, mainly the muscles and liver. It’s a simple sounding process, but like most bodily functions, the intricate processes behind it are anything but simple.

According to Dr. Misner, while both complex maltodextrins and simple sugar-based foods have corresponding high glycemic indexes that elevate blood glucose and insulin release at similar rates, one of the keys to the pre-race meal is the avoidance of simple sugars. This is because simple sugars tend to cause sharp peaks and quick, dramatic falls in blood glucose levels, which can result in the all-too-common condition known as “bonking”. Conversely, complex carbohydrates, such as those found in both Hammer Gel, Sustained Energy, and Perpetuem, while also quickly elevating blood glucose levels, allow for a much gentler and slower rate of blood glucose level declination. In other words, complex carbohydrates elevate blood glucose levels quickly but provide a longer, more consistent supply of energy with a much gentler drop in blood glucose levels than simple sugars do. Another major benefit of complex carbohydrates is that they provide a greater volume of calories to be more efficiently digested and available to the body versus the calories provided from simple sugars. For these reasons, starch-based foods or long-chain (complex) carbohydrates are preferable over simple sugars at all times, especially prior to and during endurance exercise and races.

It’s All in the Timing

The other important key is the timing of the pre-race meal. If high glycemic carbohydrates such as simple sugars (or even the preferred complex carbohydrates/maltodextrins) are consumed within 60 - 120 minutes before exercise the following less-than-optimal or possibly negative effects on performance can be expected:

#1-Rapid rise in blood sugar incites insulin excess, leading to hypoglycemia, an abnormally low level of glucose in the blood.
#2-High insulin level inhibits lipid mobilization during aerobic exercise. (Our fat burning capabilities are hindered)
#3-High insulin-induced blood sugar influx into muscle cells causes a higher rate of carbohydrate metabolism, hence rapid carbohydrate fuel depletion. (We deplete muscle glycogen stores too quickly).

The Bottom Line

The insulin-induced blood sugar level disruption from a pre-race meal lasts about three hours before hormonal balance is restored so it is important not to eat within an hour or two prior to races. If hormonal balance is not restored metabolism of both existing muscle glycogen stores and carbohydrates consumed during exercise, as well as fatty acid metabolism are negatively affected. The combination of these three problems is devastating to performance.

Fat Burning

Remember that our bodies can only return 240-280 carbohydrate calories per hour back into the energy cycle, even though we are burning many more calories than that. A very important part of our performance is determined by our ability to utilize stored fatty acids as energy, which is why we can continue to exercise on so seemingly few ingested carbohydrates during exercise. However, as noted in #2 above, fat utilization for use as fuel is inhibited if insulin levels remain high prior to the race.

Muscle Glycogen & Carbohydrate Metabolism

As noted in #3, if our hourly carbohydrate expenditure is increased due to consuming a pre-race meal at the wrong time, we are putting ourselves at a metabolic disadvantage. This is because we end up depleting muscle glycogen stores more rapidly and metabolizing ingested carbohydrates too quickly. Muscle glycogen stores are the first fuel recruited once exercise begins. This supply of fuel is limited so it’s essential not to deplete them too rapidly. Additionally, since the body can only return a maximum of 280 carbohydrate calories per hour back into the energy cycle, metabolizing those limited replenishment amounts too quickly is a definite disadvantage. The combination of rapid depletion of muscle glycogen stores and increased metabolism of ingested carbohydrates will inhibit optimal performance and is all caused by improper timing of the pre-race meal.

Fructose Fails

One final thing to note is that the metabolic pathway and caloric donation generated from fructose exclude it completely from consideration as an efficient or required carbohydrate prior to, during, or after energy expense. Therefore, the pre-event meal should consist of 200 – 400 calories from complex carbohydrate maltodextrins (definitely not glucose, sucrose or fructose), and should be completed at least three hours prior to exercise.

Sleep or Eat?

But what if your race starts early in the morning? Should you wake up early just in order to eat? The answer to that is “no.” It’s much more important to be as well rested prior to the race so don’t sacrifice sleep just to eat. Remember, muscle glycogen stores, the fuel your body will use first and foremost once the race begins, remain unaffected even after a nightlong fast. The fit athlete, one who has been replenishing carbohydrates immediately after each exercise session, has approximately 60 – 90 minutes of this premium fuel available. As long as you begin fueling shortly after the race begins, perhaps 10 – 20 minutes after the start, your performance will not be affected negatively. If you start fueling shortly after your race begins, it’s actually OK to start your race a little on the hungry side.

Another Alternative

Athletes such as Ironman distance triathletes have a disadvantage when it comes to both a pre-race meal and consuming food shortly after exercise begins. First, their events usually start very early in the morning, which means they would have sacrifice sleep just to eat a pre-race meal. As mentioned earlier, because it’s more important to obtain adequate rest prior to a race, this is not a viable option. Also, since they’ll be in the water, swimming for up to an hour or more immediately after the start of their race, consuming food during this time is not possible. What to do?

For these athletes, or any athlete who feels they absolutely must eat prior to the start, it’s acceptable to consume 100 – 200 calories approximately five minutes prior to the start. By the time these calories are digested and blood sugar levels are elevated you’ll be well into your race. In this regard, good choices are one or two servings of Hammer Gel or a generous drink from a premixed bottle of Sustained Energy or Perpetuem.


You work so hard throughout your training, making sure your diet, supplement program, training, and recovery is the best it can be. By following these steps regarding your pre-race meal, you can put the final touches on all your hard work, giving you the best advantage possible for your important race.

Pre-Race Meal Suggestions

Any of these pre-race meal suggestions will keep you in the preferred 200 – 400 calorie range:

Three scoops of SUSTAINED ENERGY

Two scoops of SUSTAINED ENERGY plus one serving of HAMMER GEL

One scoop of SUSTAINED ENERGY plus three servings HAMMER GEL

Two to two and a half scoops of PERPETUEM

One white flour bagel and 1/2 cup active yogurt

One banana and 1/2 – 1 cup active yogurt

Cream of Wheat or Rice, sweetened with a serving of HAMMER GEL

One soy protein-enhanced pancake, sweetened with a serving of HAMMER GEL

1/2 baked, skinless potato and 1/2 cup yogurt

Steve Born is the senior technical advisor for E-CAPS with over a decade of involvement in the health food industry. He is a three-time RAAM finisher, the 1994 Furnace Creek 508 Champion and 1999 runner-up, the only cyclist ever to complete a Double Furnace Creek 508, and the holder of two ultra- marathon cycling records. Most recently, Steve was awarded a nomination for induction in the Ultra Marathon Cycling Hall of Fame.

© 2003, Endurance Marketing Group. This information is copyright protected. Please feel free to distribute this information as long as the copyright notice, phone number, and/or URL are included. Content must remain unchanged and original authorship acknowledged.