For a powerlifter, when it comes to food and how it relates to strength, there is usually one answer: the more you eat, the better! And inherently this approach will work- the more food you consume, the more energy you’ll have, the more mass you’ll have, and thus the more weight you’ll move. But should this be your approach on the day of your competition?
On competition day, assuming you’ve already made your weight class, your food and drink choices should revolve around these 3 needs:
The best way to supply energy and focus via your nutrition is no secret: caffeine. It’s proven to enhance performance and is safe in the doses you find in most drinks. But how much should you take?
This depends on the individual. The easiest answer is: whatever you are used to. If it usually takes 100mg of caffeine to give you the needed energy to lift a big weight, then that’s your best bet. If it takes 200-300mg, then go for that. You can supplement with more than your usual dose if you really think you need an extra boost, but be smart about it. If you intake double or triple the caffeine you’re used to having, you run the risk of experiencing a heart rate and physical state that you aren’t accustomed to training with.
Having said that, a powerlifting meet itself brings conditions you might not be used to training in, so extra energy might be called for. You just need to make sure you don’t go above the threshold where too much energy takes you OUT of focus.
For a reference point for caffeine content, an average cup of coffee contains 100-150mg of caffeine, and an average energy drink or pre-workout powder usually has anywhere from 150mg-300mg per serving.
If you want to maximize your strength to it’s fullest potential, you need to stay hydrated. In fact, your muscle cells are comprised of 75% water. According to Precision Nutrition, as little as a 1-2% reduction in body weight due to water loss can lead to a performance decrease. On an average day this may not pose a problem, but for a competition that you’ve worked months in advance for, you’d hate to miss out on even that little bit of strength.
So how much water should you drink and when should you drink it? The American College of Sports Medicine gives recommendations for hydration during exercise, and here are the most relevant points for powerlifting:
1) Adequate hydration 24 hours before an event
2) “about 500 ml (about 17 ounces) of fluid about 2 h before exercise to promote adequate hydration and allow time for excretion of excess ingested water” (if you’ve ever overloaded on water during a powerlifting meet you can relate to that last part)
3) During exercise lasting less than 1 h, there is little evidence of physiological or physical performance differences between consuming a carbohydrate-electrolyte drink and plain water.
Consuming 17 ounces of water about 2 hours before each lift should be sufficient. If you’re a larger athlete (weighing 200lbs or more), you may have to increase this number. That’s certainly an achievable amount of water for any powerlifter.
Further reading of the ACSM’s recommendations reveals that not much more fluid is needed unless your exercise lasts for over an hour. In the case of powerlifting, the totality of your lifts including warm-up and competition might barely last you a minute! So make sure you have a water bottle handy and it won’t take much effort on your part to ensure you’re adequately hydrated.
The prescription for this is very simple: eat foods, and quantities of food, that are part of your normal routine. There’s no need to eat foods you don’t usually have, nor larger quantities than you usually have. If you do this, you run the risk of feeling sick and uncomfortable on your most important training day!
Understand these realities:
1) Excess protein is unwarranted- You are testing your strength at a competition, not building it.
2) Excess carbohydrates aren’t need- Powerlifting requires one repetition for each set. One repetition is hardly depleting any of the carbohydrate (glycogen) stores in your body, especially when it is for only 9 working sets, spaced throughout the day.
Stick to your normal protein and carbohydrate intakes. Competition day is not a time to experiment or be creative with your meals. No food will have an overly beneficial impact on your strength within just a few hours. Just like it required months of proper training to build up your strength, the same is required of your nutrition. One day is not enough to work wonders. If you overeat, you risk paying a steep price.
Continue Your Normal Routine
After all that explanation, this is what I hope you’ve deduced: Don’t make major changes to your nutrition on competition day! No foods, beverages, or supplements will be able to make such an impact in one day as to provide increases in strength that you haven’t already demonstrated. Eat like you normally would, drink at least 16-32 oz of water prior to each lift, and use some caffeine for an energy boost if that’s what you normally do.
Rob Riccobono is a strength trainer at GameChanger Strength & Performance, and is the nutrition coach on staff. He is also a competitive powerlifter. Rob has worked with hundreds of athletes from all sports including football, baseball, softball, basketball, track-and-field, lacrosse, wrestling, and of course powerlifting. Rob is an ACSM-certified personal trainer, and a Certified Nutrition Coach from Precision Nutrition, the largest private nutrition coaching and research company in the world.