As a dietitian who works predominantly with powerlifters and other strength athletes such as strongman competitors and Olympic Weightlifters, I often get asked about nutrition strategies for competition day.
Obviously, your nutrition plan on the day is not going to make a massive difference in comparison to all the work you have done in the lead-up to the event. It can still be the difference between making or missing a lift when it counts though.
I know a lot of competitors who just rock up to the event and hope for the best, trusting that they can just eat the food that is available at the meet. And while this can work, for sure, in my opinion, it is sacrificing an opportunity to maximise performance.
The Goal is to Feel Good on Comp Day
Since optimising your nutrition on comp day is not going to make a massive difference, the first step is to just focus on doing things that make you feel good. Basically, you just want to feel strong.
Depending on the size of the competition, sometimes it can end up being quite a long day. If you do not eat much throughout the day, by the time deadlifts come around you might feel starving. And that is not going to help you feel strong.
You want to eat enough food so that you feel satisfied, but not stuffed full. Feeling overly full is going to have more negatives than positives. Which leads into the next point.
Do No Harm
The number one priority is to avoid doing anything that will potentially hurt your performance.
The difference between an okay strategy and an optimal strategy is pretty small. But a poor strategy could have downsides that can be detrimental to performance.
For example, if you do anything that contributes to gastrointestinal upset, you are going to have a difficult time bracing during squats and deadlifts. This is obviously going to be an issue that could prevent you from totalling as high as you can.
Due to this, my first recommendation is to avoid trying anything new.
Even if a certain strategy seems perfect in theory, I do NOT recommend trialling it on comp day.
At the other end of the spectrum, this is also the same reason why I would not recommend just eating the food that is available at the meet if it is noticeably different to what you normally eat.
I strongly recommend sticking to foods that you eat on a regular basis. You should be emphasising foods that you know digest well and make you feel good, even if it does not perfectly fit in with some of the points I am going to discuss later.
What Types of Foods Should You Consume?
Ideally, you want the majority of your foods on comp day to be:
- Low/moderate fat
- Low fibre
- High carb
- Low/moderate protein
- Easily digestible
This is completely separate to regular nutrition principles. This is not about “healthy eating.” These principles are solely for maximising performance on comp day.
Higher-fat foods digest slower which is why it can be ideal to limit them. This will not be an issue for everybody. For some people though, it means that high-fat meals will feel like they are sitting in their stomach longer.
Higher fibre foods are typically linked with increased gas build-up and bloating, among other gastrointestinal symptoms. Excessive fibre intake could worsen performance in some people. Reducing fibre intake slightly on comp day is typically a good idea.
Carbohydrates are our bodies preferred source of energy, particularly for explosive activities. While not everybody thinks of powerlifting as an explosive activity since the bar speed might be slow, it is still fuelled best by carbohydrates.
Beyond ensuring that glycogen stores are topped up throughout the day, low-fibre carb sources are easily digested. It is also completely fine to have a higher sugar intake on comp day as well since that meets the goal of easily digestible carbohydrate sources.
While most powerlifters typically have a high protein intake since it is important for building muscle, this obviously does not matter on competition day. Your protein intake is not going to matter that much. The goal is just to focus on easily digestible foods, and a higher protein intake may or may not get in the way of that goal.
Another thing to be aware of for those prone to IBS symptoms that could impact their lifting is that it might be a good idea to focus on mainly consuming low-FODMAP foods on comp day and a few days prior. This has been shown to significantly reduce GI symptoms in athletes when it counts in competition.
That being said, it is still important to stick with what you know. For example, if you rarely eat things that are high in sugar, it probably is not a good idea to have >100g of sugar on comp day.
Caffeine is something that is pretty heavily ingrained in the lifting community, which I think is great since it is effective. But it obviously has pros and cons.
One of the great things about meet-day is that it is your opportunity to express your maximum performance. It really doesn’t matter if you have caffeine at a time on comp day that might disrupt your sleep. That matters during your training block since sleep is important, but it does not matter on comp day.
A lot of people just guess how much caffeine they should have and base it on how they feel. But having a strategy can be significantly better than that.
Obviously, everybody is aware that caffeine “hypes you up” to lift, but there is actually evidence that having 5-7mg/kg caffeine is beneficial for improving strength performance. And while I’m not saying it WILL improve your 1RM, it certainly has the potential to help.
Studies involving higher dosages of caffeine have resulted in anywhere from a 3-7% improvement in 1RM performance.
For context though 5-7mg/kg is a lot of caffeine. For a 100kg lifter, that is 500mg, which is the equivalent of roughly 5 standard cups of coffee.
Unfortunately, coffee is not exactly a reliable source of consistent caffeine content. For example, a study measuring the caffeine content of espressos at different coffee shops on the Gold Coast found variation between 25mg and 214mg! That’s a crazy gap.
And since 5mg/kg is a LOT of caffeine and technically the upper limit is not much higher, it’s probably not a good idea to overshoot it. The negative effects of going over would likely outweigh the small positive outcomes.
Due to this, you want a reliable measure of your caffeine intake. In my opinion, the best way to achieve this would be to use a supplement such as pre-workout, NoDoz or Revvies Energy Strips. This way you KNOW how much caffeine you are getting and have minimal risk of over/underdoing it.
Also, as always, stick with what you know works for you. If you are super sensitive to caffeine, get gastrointestinal symptoms from it, or rarely have it in general, going up as high as 5mg/kg would be silly.
While the research suggests that >5mg/kg, that’s just a guide to aim for. If you know that ~3mg/kg is likely to have negative effects for you as an individual, obviously cap it at a lower point, rather than blindly following numbers laid out in the research.
Rehydration/Replenishment if You Have Done a Weight-Cut
Even at the top level of powerlifting, I think a lot of weight cuts are done poorly, in terms of people using inefficient strategies to drop weight, cutting too much weight, or not cutting at all (which is a disadvantage by itself at the top level). But beyond that, I think people often do not have a good understanding of how to rehydrate and replenish themselves after the weigh-in.
That being said, I typically would not recommend a weight cut for somebody going into their first meet.
If you have a 24hr weigh-in, obviously the process starts the night before. I have a blog post on weight-cuts that covers the whole rehydration/replenishment process, which I highly recommend reading.
Some key things though:
- Optimal rehydration/replenishment allows you to get back to peak performance or as close to peak performance as possible, following weigh-in.
- Glycogen re-synthesis is a crucial part of this process but is capped at roughly 1-1.85g/kg/hr. Therefore, you likely want to consume 50+g of carbs every two hours for the first part of the process.
- Water storage seems to be capped at around 1L per hour, therefore it is probably wise to consume around 1L per hour.
- Going significantly above these numbers directly following your weigh-in is not only not helpful, but could potentially be detrimental due to increased excretion. Going below these numbers means you are not optimising your recovery rate.
- A rehydration process I use with clients to optimise rehydration/replenishment involves 250ml protein shake (30g whey protein or equivalent) + 3g creatine, 500ml Gatorade/Powerade, 250ml Hydralyte every hour for the first few hours. And it is best to sip slowly on these drinks rather than downing them quickly, as a slower intake will help improve absorption.
If you have a shorter weigh-in, such as a 2-hour weigh-in then I would likely just use that rehydration process for the first hour and then eat/drink as normal after that.
Timing of Food
I think it is smart to have a rough plan in your head for when you plan to eat stuff. But I strongly recommend overpreparing and having more food if you get hungrier. This will likely take some trial and error over multiple competitions.
Obviously, a meet is laid out into –
You have 3 attempts at each lift, and each flight will take a certain amount of time in total. If there are multiple flights, there will be a longer period of time between events.
To use a specific example, let’s say there are two flights of lifters – so you do squats, then the second flight does squats, then you bench etc.
If this starts in the morning at say 10am, it will could go through until 3pm.
If you follow a pretty standard meal pattern, you are likely to have at least one solid meal in that timeframe on a regular non-comp day. So basically I would likely pack quite a few snack options as well as at least one meal.
Obviously, you should only pick foods that you have consistently but let us pick some options as an example. For most people I like to limit the options a bit and have more of the same foods, assuming they are foods that are digested well.
On the day you could pack something like 2x pieces of fruit, 2x Powerades, 1x tub of pre-workout, 1x tub of yoghurt, 2x muesli bars, some lollies. In addition to that you could add a meal that is made up of 2 cups of cooked rice, 150-200g lean meat, ½-1 cup of vegetables and whatever you like added for flavour.
Then the day could look like:
7-8am – have your normal breakfast
30-60 minutes pre-squat – 150-200mg of caffeine from pre-workout
Throughout squats in between attempts – 1x muesli bar, 1x piece of fruit + some lollies
Post-squats – 1x Powerade and 1x tub of yoghurt + 150-200mg caffeine
Throughout bench – 1x muesli bar, 1x piece of fruit + some lollies
Post-bench – have that meal and then have 150-200mg caffeine
Throughout deadlifts – maybe some lollies
Throughout the day just drink water to thirst. Aim to avoid drinking too much so that you feel bloated, but it is important to avoid dehydration since that has a clear impact on strength.
Obviously for some that might seem like too much/little food. Or it would not be the foods you select. That is all cool. It all depends on what you personally would prefer to do. You can also adjust on the fly if you are hungrier/fuller.
This stuff is simple and mainly just requires trial and error, but if you nail this, it can help your day go more smoothly and allow you to express your strength to its fullest potential.