The importance of a good breakfast before a hard session like a race or a hard training day should be a no-brainer. After all, the food in the pre-race meal provides the proper fuel for the effort: nutrients like carbohydrates give our muscles ample fuel for long and hard efforts, especially during high intensity races like in cyclocross or criteriums. But a recent study, published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, suggests that the benefits of a good pre-race meal might go beyond the mere nutrient components of the food.  Specifically, researchers sought to discover whether just the perception of having eaten food before a short, intense effort would serve as a placebo and mirror the performance benefits of a meal rich with carbohydrates. To do this, study participants were tested in each of three conditions: with a special carbohydrate rich semi-solid meal, with a meal matched for taste and texture, but without the same carbohydrate content (the placebo condition), and a control condition in which they consumed only water prior to exercise. Participants then undertook a time trial effort on a stationary bike in the laboratory, in which each participant was given an individualized workload target, in kilojoules, based on riding at 80% of their maximum sustainable power in a previously performed ramp test. The researchers hypothesized that compared to the control group, both the carbohydrate group and the placebo group would both see similar levels of TT-performance, reaching their workload targets in less time than the water-drinking control group, and indeed the results were clear with the carbohydrate and placebo conditions produced times that were 26 and 34 seconds faster, respectively, than the trial with only water.

What does this mean for you? The researchers suggest that this finding might be useful in helping athletes execute training in a glycogen-depleted state, such as running or riding before breakfast after an overnight fast, which helps promote some beneficial adaptations for endurance performance. Studies have shown that most athletes end up self-selecting a lower intensity during sessions done in a glycogen depleted state, and the authors of this study point to coaching staff carefully using this placebo effect to elicit the right levels of training intensity from athletes when the physiological need for prior food is less or none, such as for the roughly 20-minute trial performed in the study. 

But I want to suggest a more practical and direct application for this research. Obviously, you are not going to be able to trick yourself into consuming a placebo-replacement of a carbohydrate-rich meal, but instead I think this study points to the significance of the power of belief in your pre-event meal can be. I would argue that this underscore the importance of not treating the pre-race meal as a minor detail, and that it can be a crucial part of your overall race-day strategy, and as such should be carefully planned. In addition to making sure that you pick foods that strike the right nutritional profile, this could be a time when picking “feel good” foods might help you start your day on the right foot by elevating your mood, and subsequently lower stress throughout the hours leading up to your event. The continued knowledge that your race-day strategy has you maximally prepared for success should give you a big boost of confidence as you line up for the race, so you can just focus on executing your race, and giving your all, free of worry and doubt.

 

Mears, Stephen A., et al. “Perception of Breakfast Ingestion Enhances High Intensity Cycling Performance.” International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 2017, pp. 1–21., doi:10.1123/ijspp.2017-0318.