By Thomas Hall
When it comes to performance, nutrition may be the most personal of all training elements. Experience may teach some that milk before a hard paddle is a bad idea; some types of bars make our stomachs do unpleasant things; and that caffeine stimulates more than just energy levels. But for some a big glass of milk before going all out may be just what they need to perform. Nutrition is highly personal, but it is critical for getting the most out of a given activity.
There are a few schools of thought when it comes to sport nutrition, and I never adhered to any of them for more than a few months. For the 15 years I represented Canada as a sprint canoeist, I was told to increase my protein intake, consume creatine, eat less bread, avoid too much fat and on and on. These suggestions were made in good faith and based on research; however, none of them worked--for me. Over time, I realized that many supplements don't agree with me, and that I preferred simple food. So I didn't use many powders or pills, but I also know many successful athletes that supplement like crazy. Rather than give any prescriptive advice on diet, here are some general guidelines that may help you find what works for you.
First, plan your meals based on what your body needs/can tolerate. To me, properly fueled means eating something that will give you energy while allowing you to complete your activity without throwing up, or worse. So plan your meals and snacks around the intensity level and duration of an activity.
During heavy training cycles when we would have four intense workouts a day, I would eat multiple small meals. I learned to love snacks like Clif Bars. I also drank Gatorade when necessary. This type of supplementation--bars, energy drinks, etc.--is an easy way to add necessary calories when you're working hard. But most of the time I didn't need extras; I simply needed to make sure I got enough of everything in my meals throughout the day.
Race-day meals consisted largely of oat bars and white toast with Nutella. During high-stress times (three to five hours before a race) I ate food I knew I could stomach. But the night after racing I would make sure I got all the protein and veggies I needed to A) recover and B) have enough energy to see me through the next day.
The second thing to consider is when to eat. Three hours before a really strenuous activity was my rule of thumb. But again, I developed that window over years through experimentation. If the activity is a long and steady slog, eating throughout will probably be necessary. Just try to avoid eating right before something super intense. Drinking is also critical. In many ways, being hydrated is more important than being well fed.
The real key is experimentation. While indulging in a brand new type of snack the day of a big race is a bad idea, don't be afraid to try different things at noncritical times. Play with different foods at home during training season or while messing around at your local play wave. In no time you'll have a pantry full of the food you need to perform at your best.