Fueling for Competition
Fueling for competition is a great way to get an edge over other competitors. I see this all the time at local competitions.
Some athletes have a plan, bring food, and know exactly what their body needs and when, while others are haphazard and fueling inappropriately.
The difference on the competition floor is obvious. Everyone comes out of the gate well on the first workout, but as the events wear on throughout an all day competition those not fueling well look like their legs have turned to concrete.
So what does your body need to stay at optimal performance levels? We will touch on nutrition leading up to competition, what to eat day of, and how to stay hydrated.
Leading up to competition day
First, nutrition for a competition starts 48-72 hours before the first event starts.
For the sake of this article I’ll assume you’re already following a balanced diet of real whole foods, and understand how much energy intake you need including appropriate ratios of macronutrients. The 2-3 days before your competition you should be eating adequate calories and appropriate amounts of carbs to fuel your muscles.
What if I'm on a cut?
If you’re in the middle of a “cut”, stop it 2-3 days out, bring your calories up to a maintenance level, and do NOT neglect your carbs. This will allow your body to fully recover from training in the days prior and to store as much glycogen as possible in your musculature. Muscle glycogen is the most important and immediate fuel source for high intensity exercise, followed by glycogen released from the liver. Both of these “fuel tanks” will be topped up if you’re getting enough calories with the right amount of carbs. We won’t go into the details of “carb loading”, since doing so is unnecessary for most CrossFit competitions.
The night before the competition
Don’t do anything out of the ordinary the night before. Routine is king this close to competition.
Do not try any new foods, eat at a new restaurant, or deviate from your habits in any meaningful way. Eat a normal dinner that you would have any other night before a big training day.
If you usually go to sleep at 11pm, do not change things and get in bed at 8 thinking this will help.
Take all your normal supplements and introduce NOTHING new.
Your secret weapon is your training, your planning, and your killer mindset. An edge will NOT come out of a bottle the day before.
The morning of competition
The morning before competition, wake up with plenty of time to prepare, and eat a large breakfast of real food just after waking.
While time between meals and workouts vary by individual, eating breakfast 2-3 hours before your first event is typically a safe buffer to avoid adverse issues.
Breakfast should contain protein, starchy carbs (not fruit), and a little healthy fat. I would recommend adding 25-50% more carbs at this meal than you would normally have at breakfast, while keeping the other macros the same. This will give you extra fuel for exercise without slowing digestion with fat or protein.
Make sure to hydrate before your first event. Getting in 16-32 ounces of water mixed with electrolytes or a pinch of salt will give you a head start on the day. The salt/electrolytes will allow your body to assimilate the fluid faster, improving your hydration levels. If you wake up thirsty you may need to increase this amount.
Take into account weather conditions. A hotter or more humid environment will dramatically increase your need for fluids before and during the competition.
If you’re in a multi-event competition, the use of a stimulant based pre-workout is not advised, since you will crash at some point during the day and likely long before you’re done competing. If you need a little boost to get things flowing before that first workout, a cup of coffee should do the trick.
High intensity exercise has the side effect of shutting down your digestive system to shunt blood flow to your muscles. The moment you dive into your first event of the day, your digestive system will likely not come fully back online until the competition day is over (dependant upon length of breaks between events). Unless you have more than 2.5 hours between any two events, real whole foods will not have time to digest.
What then should we use to fuel ourselves?
Your body will need primarily three things during the competition day: carbohydrates, protein, and hydration.
These need to be easily digestible and rapidly assimilated by your body to useful for performance and avoid any digestive mishaps.
As we mentioned before, muscle glycogen and liver glycogen are the most rapidly available fuel types for high intensity exercise like CrossFit. To replenish these fuel sources between events high glycemic glucose based foods are essential.
Supplements like Glycofuse, Karbolyn, or Vitargo are excellent for this purpose, however a simple rice based cereal (gluten free to avoid gastric distress) or banana can also work well.
Amount of carbs that you’ll need is variable, based on intensity and duration of the event as well as size of the athlete and individual tolerance. A range for reference:
For smaller athletes (130-150 lbs): 10-50g of carbs between workouts
For larger athletes (180-200 lbs): 25-100g between workouts
To find the specific amount you should intake, base it on the workout you have just completed, not by the workout you’re about to do.
The longer a workout is and the heavier the weights involved, the more carbohydrate should be consumed post workout.
Workouts shorter in duration (5-10min) with lower weights and/or cyclic exercises (running, rowing, etc) require lower amounts of carbs while longer (15-20min+) with heavy weights require more carbs to refuel.
Optimal glycogen recovery requires the presence of protein, not just carbohydrate.
Endurance athletes have long known that a 4:1 ratio of carb to protein works exceedingly well for muscle glycogen recovery (ever looked at the nutrition facts on a powerbar?).
That being said, the intensity- and resistance-based nature of CrossFit calls for a more significant level of protein intake to prevent muscle breakdown.
Whey protein is uniquely suited for this type of scenario because of its ability to be rapidly digested, quickly spike blood leucine levels, and stop catabolic breakdown of musculature.
For smaller athletes (130-150 lbs): 15g of protein from whey between events
For larger athletes (180-200 lbs): 25g of protein between workouts
Ingestion of more whey protein is not necessarily detrimental, however the ability of the body to process more than 25g at a time is unsupported by clinical literature. For much larger athletes (250 lbs+), more protein may be appropriate.
The last piece is hydration and electrolyte balance. If you’re exercising at high intensity, you’re going to sweat. The replacement of this fluid is critical to high level performance.
Athletes should aim for 16-32 ounces of water with electrolytes between workouts.
If you’re thirsty, listen to your body and allow it more fluids. Not only is this necessary to replace sweat, but water must also be present for glycogen to enter a muscle cell.
As mentioned earlier, electrolytes provide the advantage of allowing fluids to be assimilated more rapidly, as well as improving muscle contraction performance and reducing the incidence of cramping. We like Electromix by Alacer, as it contains a much higher amount of active ingredients per dose than many other supplements.
After a long day of competition we all like to reward ourselves with grabbing a big meal with friends to celebrate our hard work. You may be tempted to go completely off the rails and order everything evil on the menu.
While celebration is certainly in order, so is setting yourself up to recover well and not feel like trash the following day.
Make sure to get some healthy animal protein, and feel free to cut loose a little on carbs.
Consider avoiding gut-irritating foods like wheat and beer. Also keep in mind that drinking to excess will dramatically worsen inflammation in your body and can give you an extra nasty hangover the next day.