Practice Before Competition?

One of my sisters gave me a call recently, the day after my niece had a big color guard competition. Evidently, the team was asked to be on site at one in the afternoon, had a 3 hour hard practice, then waited for their performance after 8 in the evening. The end result? Dropped rifles, sabres, flags---poor performance. What went wrong?

There's no doubt that twirling and throwing guns, swords and flags on long poles while dancing is exercise. These teens are athletes. Was it just an off day, or was their performance predictable? 


Practicing the day of any athletic event is highly unusual. When muscles are used repetitively or are heavily challenged for any length of time, they become fatigued. During prolonged strenuous exercise, lactic acid is produced as a by-product of anaerobic metabolism. This acidic environment creates a burning sensation in overworked muscles. Lactic acid actually protects muscle cells from permanent damage, but it also slows the key system needed for continued muscle contraction. That means slower muscle response and decreased performance. 
Rest and recovery are necessary to remove lactic acid. 

Another issue is the microscopic tears that can develop within the muscle fibers when vigorously challenged. Rest is needed for these to recover, heal, and then build strength. This is one reason that a day of rest is recommended between weight lifting or strength training the same muscle groups. Without proper rest, the likelihood of pain and injury increase. 

The other challenge is energy. Glucose, a simple carbohydrate, zips around the bloodstream providing the quickest, most readily available type of energy to cells. Glucose cannot provide sustaining fuel as it diminishes quickly during exercise. Glycogen, a carbohydrate stored in muscle and liver cells, is the next go-to fuel that supplies fairly rapid energy. Once glucose and glycogen are drained, athletic performance decreases. 

To maximize performance, athletes should continually focus on overall good nutrition, hydration, adequate sleep and rest.

Recommendations to prepare for competition:

  • Day before the event: 
    • Rest or minimal exercise
    • Plenty of carbohydrates throughout the day
  • Night before event:
    • Balanced meal to focus on energy reserves for the next day
      • Include lean protein, healthy fat, and high in carbohydrates (avoid any that cause gas) to top off glycogen
    • Plenty of water
    • Good night's sleep
  • Day of event: 
    • Minimal exertion prior to the competition to maximize muscle strength
    • Practice visualization of routine for muscle memory
    • Maximize hydration by doubling water, but don't overdo it and become "sloshy"
    • Fuel your body wiselyWhat you eat and drink the day of competition can really make a difference to performance level!
      • Balanced meal to start the day for lasting energy
      • Consume small meals 2-3 hours before event to normalize blood sugar levels
      • Eat breakfast 2 - 3 hours before
        • Use slow-release carbohydrates 
        • Small amount of protein
        • For example: 
          • oatmeal or wheat flakes, low fat milk, banana and honey
          • low-fat yogurt, toast with jam
          • eat what's worked well for you
  • Post exercise: eat something within 15 minutes to rebuild muscle glycogen most efficiently and speed recovery.
And my niece's color guard team? I hope that next time the last heavy practice is no more than 2 days before competition, light exercise the day before, and a light warm up prior to the event. I'd also love to hear that their team or parents organized a small, healthy, high carb mini-meal 2-3 hours before their scheduled routine, along with plenty of water. Best performance means smart rest, hydration, and proper fuel.