Eating to Compete!

The foods and fluids consumed close to competition can have an important physiological and psychological effect on sporting performance.


For short duration events (less than 90 minutes) and intermittent events, the priority is to begin exercise with full muscle glycogen stores (carbohydrate) and in a well hydrated state. This generally involves ensuring an adequate carbohydrate intake during training i.e. approximately 5 to 7 grams of carbohydrate per kg bodyweight each day and on the day prior to the event, in addition to plenty of fluids.

Prior to endurance events, it has been demonstrated that the dietary technique of ‘carbohydrate loading’ can be beneficial to prolong time to exhaustion. Today’s regime of carbohydrate loading involves 3 days of a very high carbohydrate diet (between 8-10g/kg bodyweight) in conjunction with tapered training. This allows for glycogen stores to be almost doubled prior to competition, therefore providing a greater fuel base for the exercising muscles. The majority of carbohydrates should come from nutrient-rich carbohydrate foods such as breads, cereals, rice, pasta, fruit and vegetables. Many athletes will also require carbohydrate in the form of honey, jam, glucose confectionery, sugar, jellies etc. to meet their elevated carbohydrate needs. The day prior to competition should include low fibre foods to minimise stool bulk. Fluid intake throughout the three days should be increased significantly.

Some recent research suggests that there may be some benefit in manipulating fat intake prior to endurance events to improve the body’s ability to utilise fat during the event. A sports dietitian is able to provide more information regarding this and how to apply it to an individual pre-competition eating plan.

Pre-competition meal:

The foods you eat before your event are the final step in preparing fuel stores and maximising gastrointestinal comfort. It is important to always experiment with a variety of foods before training to determine which foods are most suitable prior to exercise. Some guidelines to consider include:

  • Eat between 2 to 4 hours prior to the event to allow time for the stomach to empty.
  • Eat enough food to feel comfortable – not overfull.
  • Keep fat intake low – fat slows food emptying from the stomach.
  • Make the meal high in carbohydrate.
  • Eat carbohydrate foods rather than protein foods.
  • Moderate dietary fibre intake to avoid bloating, diarrhoea and discomfort during the event.
  • Include plenty of fluids. A person may feel more comfortable with a liquid meal (e.g. smoothie or commercial liquid meal supplement) if they cannot face solid food.

There has been some research suggesting that low glycaemic index foods included in the pre competition meal can assist in delaying fatigue during endurance exercise. More studies are required to confirm this. However it may be useful to experiment during training by including low glycaemic index (G.I.) foods before exercise and monitoring the effects. Some low G.I. options to try include pasta, baked beans, rolled oats and multigrain bread.

During competition:

In events such as long distance triathlons, ultra endurance marathons, some cycling events and cross-country skiing, supplementing with carbohydrate during the race becomes an important priority. High glycaemic index foods are the best choice at this time, although food selection will be very much individually based. In events lasting more than 90 minutes, the aim should be to have between 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrate each hour of exercise. This can be achieved through a combination of food and fluids, although fluids are often preferred as these empty more quickly from the stomach. Again, during training, practise with different foods and fluids to find the foods that do not cause discomfort. In situations where there are several events over the day, it is important to consume high carbohydrate foods and fluids at intervals between competitions.


It has been shown that ingesting carbohydrate within approximately 15 minutes after strenuous exercise can greatly facilitate muscle recovery. This is important to remember and plan for after long training sessions and competition. Although there may be food and drinks provided after a race, it may be inappropriate, there may be a long wait, or it may not be what you feel like having at that time. Bringing your own recovery food to training and competitions is always advisable. The same is true after long training sessions unless you are able to have breakfast, dinner or another meal very soon afterwards. Ideally the aim should be to have between 50 to 100gms of carbohydrate from high-glycaemic index foods soon after finishing exercise.

Some examples of high-glycaemic index recovery foods include bread, rice bubbles, cornflakes, scones, rice cakes, baked potatoes, steamed rice, jelly confectionery and watermelon.

Pharmacist’s advice

Ask your Pharmacist for advice.

  1. Low fat commercial liquid meal replacements and sports bars may be useful prior to, during, or between some events.
  2. Sports drinks are useful to consume before, during and after strenuous exercise, and when exercising in warm conditions to help maintain fluid and electrolyte levels.
  3. Oral rehydration solutions are appropriate for rapid rehydration after exhaustive exercise where significant dehydration has occurred.
  4. It is important to test different foods and fluids during training to find the most appropriate foods for your individual needs.