Only one week until your big race.
You’ve made it. You’ve survived the training. You’ve started to taper. But what should you eat now?
There’s plenty of conflicting advice out there to confuse most anyone.
There’s “to carb load,” there’s “to carb starve,” there’s reducing calories, adding calories, and more. Clear as mud.
Taper week is not the week to be confused. You need clarity. You need peace of mind. You need confidence in your racing, training, and nutrition plan.
So, here it is:
Philosophy: First, let’s set the stage.
Really, you’ve thrashed your body into a lean, mean, cycling machine during the last few months.
Now, you’ve got a chance to recover, rejuvenate, relax a bit and prepare.
Think of this week as the time to flood your body and mind with nutrients that promote muscle growth and repair, antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, and more.
Healing should start at the cellular level on up. And, while philosophies are great, let’s move onto the specifics.
Here’s a taper week nutrition timeline.
One week out: Focus on consistent meals, snacks, anti-inflammatories and antioxidants.
Consistent Meals: Eat as normal for everyday meals and snacks.
Don’t starve yourself simply because you’re not training.
Of course, you don’t need the extra training fuel, but you still need healthy meals and snacks throughout the day (it’s easy to incorrectly think you don’t need to eat adequately simply because you’re not training – but, this will NOT promote overall recovery, energy, and strength).
Every meal should include whole-food carbohydrate sources such as baked yams, fruits, dairy (if tolerated), whole grains, protein sources such as meats, beans, legumes, nuts, eggs, dairy, loads of vegetables, and healthy fats such as organic coconut oil, chia seeds, avocados, olive oil, hemp, and more.
Snacks between meals should include protein and whole-food carbs.
Reach for whole, colorful, healthy foods.
Meal Examples: 5 Power House Breakfasts
Supplements for Joint and Muscle Recovery and Health: Although I like to mostly use whole foods, supplements certainly have their place for any athlete who’s pushing his or her limits.
- 2000 milligrams ginger from supplements (usually 4, 500 mg supplements per day). I recommend this as a daily supplement throughout the year, but it’s possible to get benefit from it beginning just one week out.
- 1000-2000 mg DHA/EPA from fish oil. The idea is to increase your ratio of omega-3 fats to other fats consumed. Since our diets are much higher in omega-6 fats and omega-9 fats, supplementing the omega-3s can help, and thereby increase the production of anti-inflammatory hormones and processes in the body while decreasing the pro-inflammatory ones.
- 5 grams L-glutamine each night. This amino acid often becomes deficient in endurance athletes since it’s used heavily by the muscles when training. If not supplemented, it may be chronically low and affect both muscle recovery and digestion (it’s also used by the gut cells). I generally add it in for after-training recovery throughout the on-season, but increase it to every night for a taper.
- High-quality multivitamin: Although it seems like a copout for not eating properly, I recommend a multivitamin to my endurance athletes. Most of them, especially while trying to control eating to maintain a lean weight, will be at least slightly deficient in magnesium, copper, iron, B-vitamins, and more. Even with an extremely healthy diet. Blame the soil quality, blame pollution, or blame whatever you’d like. These athletes simply “use up” more nutrients than they can throw down with foods alone.
- Iron: Especially if you’re a female athlete, you are at high risk of low iron. Even when a client comes to me with superb eating habits, it’s rare that her serum ferritin is at or above 30 ng/dL, a level that generally affects performance, without supplementation. It’s best that iron levels are optimized early in training, but still optimizing them beginning seven days before a race is better than not at all. With your doctor’s or nutritionist’s individual recommendations in hand, reach for a slow-digesting or gentle-on-the-stomach iron supplement. I often recommend Slow-Fe and Hemaplex.
- Beetroot Juice as a Performance Aid: Without going into the whole (long) story, I’m confident in recommending beetroot juice in a 6-7 day protocol, or a single-dose race day protocol. You’ll likely get slightly more benefit from the full 7 days, but either will work and the one-day single shot is more cost-effective and simple. Beets contain nitrates that the body uses to form nitrites which improve oxygen delivery to the cells by dilating the arteries, and improve oxygen uptake by the cells. Most marathoners will take that! To use it, drink 500 mL (16 oz.) every day for 6 days leading up to your race, and then one more dose just 2-3 hours before the race. You can also use organic beetroot powder in an equivalent of 16 oz. juice. Confirm amounts and equivalents with individual manufacturers.
One day out: Now you’ve set the stage for a great race with healthy, consistent eating and supplementation throughout the week, and you have the opportunity to “load.”
Zone in on two nutrients the day before your race: carbohydrates and sodium. But don’t just wing it.
If you go into the loading phase with the plan of an all-you-can-eat carbohydrate and sodium buffet, you may over-do it and feel heavy, sluggish, and stuffed on race day.
Instead, add approximately 30 grams of whole-food, long-lasting carbs to each of 3 meals the day before the race.
Examples of 30-gram-carb add-ons include: 8 oz. honey milk, 1 large piece fruit or 1 medium banana, 1 cup unsweetened applesauce, 1 100% whole wheat English muffin or small bagel, ½ small bagel with 1 Tbsp. low-fat cream cheese and 1 Tbsp. honey/jam, 1 slice toast + 1 Tbsp. honey or jelly, 8 oz. yogurt, 1 large yam/sweet potato, 2/3 cup cooked wild or brown rice, 2/3 cup cooked quinoa, or 1 cup whole-grain pasta.
Next, add about 1200 milligrams extra sodium throughout the day before your race.
Use electrolyte drinks/supplements, pickle juice, pickles, or simply add salt (1/2 tsp. = 1200 milligrams sodium).
In my opinion, the drinks and pickles are easiest because they are usually not foods athletes normally eat on a daily basis, so they truly are “add-ons.”
What’s more, any vinegar you get from pickle juice just may reduce your risk of cramping on race day.
Race Day Morning: It’s finally here.
Make sure to have a plan in place before you jump out of bed, as it will greatly reduce stress and build up your confidence.
Before your race, you’ve got a balancing act to perform.
Your goal is to feel energized and well-fueled, but still light and nimble with nothing in your stomach.
I recommend about 100 to 150 grams of non-bulky, low-fiber carbs for most athletes the morning of a big race.
If you’ve never done the math, this may seem like a lot; maybe too much food. And I know how scary it can be to put foods and drinks in your stomach before your race.
First, this should never be done for the first time on race day – you’ve got to practice with it during training.
My favorite option for pre-race is a smoothie.
Since it’s liquefied, your body has one less task in digestion.
This means faster, more efficient digestion, absorption, and metabolism.
In fact, you can drink your smoothie just 2 hours out and skip the 4 am breakfast wake-up call.
Here’s an example of a balanced, easy-to-digest smoothie and nutrition plan for race morning:
1 (6”) banana (30 gm. carbs) + ½ cup cooked rice (23 grams carbs) + ½ cup berries (10 gm. carbs) + 2 Tbsp. honey (30 grams carbs) + 1 scoop protein powder + 1 tsp. organic coconut oil + ¼ tsp. salt + any needed water/ice for desired consistency = 95-100 grams of carbs, about 500 calories.
If you’d like to use beetroot juice or beetroot powder (my preference), either drink 500 mL (16 oz.) juice or add 4-6 tsp powder to your smoothie.
Make sure to hydrate up until 60 minutes before your race.
Then, just an hour or so out, you can sip any favorite sports or electrolyte drink until 30 minutes out, but don’t overload your bladder.
Make sure you give yourself a chance to empty it before racing.
Lastly, get a jump start on your during-race nutrition and consume a quick-acting, easy-to-digest carb source just 15 minutes before the gun goes off.
These carbs should be similar to what you’d eat while training.
Many of my clients use gels, small bars, honey, or 2 dried dates for the remaining 20-25 grams carbs.
It will take 10-15 minutes for these to hit your blood stream, just in time for a great start to your race.
Now, ready, get set, pedal (and stick to your during-race fuel plan)!