If I were to give you one tip for the Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race, it would be Food = Happiness. If you get your nutrition right then you will find the race easier and finish it faster. What’s not to like?!

Not only will nutition be important on race day, but it will help your body make the most of your training and ensure you store up energy in the week running up to the race.

This page is more about the types of food you should be eating. If you’re wanting to know more about the logistics of being fed and watered by a support team then visit the support page.

Nutrition during training

Overall, aim for colourful protein-rich food and avoid too much beige stuff (aka bread, pasta, potatoes). Here’s the rationale:

  • Protein builds muscle, therefore you want to keep up your protein levels during the months you are training. Try to avoid long periods without protein and aim to have some protein (e.g a yoghurt or glass of milk) before going to bed. Your body builds muscle really well whilst you sleep so make the most of it!
  • If you can lose some fat before the race then that’s not a bad thing. Simply put, it’s less weight to carry in the boat. Training on no carbs is a great way to teach your body to burn fat, so an easy way to do this is exercising in the morning before breakfast.
  • Reduce the carbs in your diet as this will help you avoid putting on fat. Your body only has a certain amount of space for carbs, so once this space is full it just gets converted to fat. Aim to only eat as many carbs as you can burn off, so an obvious time to avoid carbs is before bed (unless you’re an energetic sleep walker).
  • Eat as soon as possible after training. Your body is very effective at replenishing lost carbs for around 1 hour after finishing exercise. If you don’t eat soon enough then your body won’t replace the lost energy and you will likely feel lethargic and in extreme cases make yourself ill.
  • If you’ve been for a really long paddle, don’t trust your stomach to tell you when you’ve replaced lost carbs. After several hours paddling you may have burnt so much energy that your stomach isn’t able to hold enough food to refuel in one go. Don’t make yourself sick, but just hold in mind that feeling full doesn’t always mean you’ve refuelled.

Make sure you have enough energy when you are on long paddles by following some tips from the race day nutrition advice further down. As much as possible, eat and drink the same food on training runs as you will on the race day to get your body familiar with it.

Nutrition 48 hours before the race

Concentrate on eating beige carb-rich foods 48 hours before the race and avoid fibre in the last 12 hours. Keep yourself hydrated with lots of water. The rationale is:

  • As your body only has a certain amount of space for carbs, you don’t need to build up your energy stores any earlier than 48 hours before the race. If you start carb-loading a week beforehand then you’ll just start putting on fat.
  • Kayaking involves sitting and moving in a way that is awful for digestion. Fibre is a really important part of your diet overall, but you want as little fibre in your system as possible for the race. This will help everything pass through you easily and stop you feeling bloated.
  • Hopefully it’s common sense that you need to be well hydrated for race day, so keep a big bottle of water with you and aim to drink at least 2 litres each day.

Nutrition on race day

In theory, race day is a case of scientfically replacing the carbs you burn off, keeping your energy levels up whilst spending minimal time eating and drinking. In reality this doesn’t happen – especially if you’re a novice just aiming to complete the race. It very quickly becomes apparent after paddling for a few hours that morale is far higher up your priority list than monitoring the grams of carbohydrates you’ve consumed.

As much as possible stick to these guidelines, but be aware that you will crave certain foods and denying yourself those cravings will only make you miserable. Keeping yourself happy should be your first priority as it’s your mood that will make or break you on race day.

  • Have breakfast 2-3 hours before the start of the race, remembering to choose something high-carb, low fibre and to drink water. This will give you a good base of energy and hydration to start with.
  • Have a snack 30 mins before you start the race for a last minute boost.
  • You will be nervous at the start of the race which will make it difficult to stomach food and will also make you need the loo endlessly. Do your best to keep drinking and eating little and often even if you don’t feel you want to. Caffiene will make you need the loo even more so avoid too many cups of tea or coffee in the morning.
  • Avoid fibre-rich foods as you will struggle to digest these whilst paddling.
  • Avoid high-fat foods during the race as this is a more difficult way for your body to get energy. Carbs are much easier to process and use.
  • Avoid excessive sugar as you risk getting a ‘low’ if you have too much in one go.
  • Use energy powders in your water as this is another great way to take on carbs without feeling full. We used SIS Go Energy which was like rocket fuel! I’d definitely suggest watering it down more than the packet suggests though. It was a bit too intense at full strength.
  • Eat little and often in bitesize chunks. Your body can only absorb a certain amount of carbs in a certain time frame. Glucose and fructose are two different types of carbohydrate so vary what you’re eating and your body will find it easier to absorb it all.
  • Have caffeine at regular intervals once your early nerves have subsided. Caffeine is a performance enhancer, but it’s effect will depend on your body’s reaction to it. If you drink 10 cups of coffee each day you may need more than someone who just has a weak tea for breakfast. There’s not really any downsides to caffeine, just that it will make you need to go to the toilet more often (especially when nervous). For the majority of people a coffee/tea/caffeine gel will get their energy up and then slowly fade out of their system without any ‘low’ afterwards. Pay attention to your own tolerance, but the absolute maximum you should have in one go is 500mg (equivalent of 5 cups of coffee).
  • Aim to have some hot food every 4 hours or so – especially through the night. It keeps you warm and will boost your mood. Choose hot food that doesn’t require too much chewing (e.g. soup) as you want to avoid standing around and eating for any more than a few minutes.
  • Finally, think ahead of time about what you’re likely to crave and make sure your support team have access to this. It’s amazing the difference some Haribo can make!

Be warned that even if you follow all of the advice above, you will still have points in the race where you feel miserable. Beyond eating and drinking the right stuff, it all boils down to mental endurance. Even the fittest and most well fed paddler won’t be able to get through DW if they can’t trick their brain into carrying on to the bitter end. For tips and tricks on psychology and motivation click here.

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© S Hicks 2018

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