When I first started practicing, my team of clients would say, “Just tell us what to eat and when.” My response: “Everyone’s different.” Without trial and error, there’s no blanket recommendation on what to eat on race day. But the more I run and race, I realise there are habits we all should adopt and nutrition tips that apply to each and every runner.
1. If you’re racing longer than 90 minutes, carb-loading applies
If you’re lacing up for a 10K, you can skip this ritual. Or if you’re gifted enough to run a half in say, 80 minutes, you may be able to get away without the load. For the rest of us, tapered training accompanied by three days (one day at the minimum) of gloriously imbibing in wholegrains, bread, bagels, fruit and cereal will do it.
How much is enough? You’re going to need to aim for 4.5 to 5.5 grams of carbohydate per pound, which is likely more than you’re used to and might mean the vast majority of your daily calories in the days before the race are coming from baked goods, pretzels, potatoes and whole grains.
For those who are carb-phobic, you might be afraid this amount of carbs will derail your weight goals or open the door for gluttony. But remember: carb-loading is only temporary, and it’s important to fend off race-day walls. Once the race is over, you’ll return to your normal pattern of balanced eating with about 55 to 65 per cent of calories coming from carbs and the rest from lean protein and unsaturated fats. (Right?)
2. Don’t skip breakfast
While you may have found some weight loss success with “training low” (i.e. training on an empty tank and burning off some fat reserves), race day is not a day to train low. The goal on race day is to perform and finish rather than meet weight goals. (I promise you one day of fuelling the run is not going to derail long-term weight loss.)
A pre-race breakfast does many things. It restores muscle glycogen stores after an overnight fast; it tops off those muscle glycogen stores so they’re full at race start; it prevents hunger (which, if it rears its head in the middle of the race, can certainly distract you and impair performance); and it can keep blood glucose levels more stable, providing a mental boost.
What to eat for breakfast? Aim for a light meal you’re familiar with and one that sits well in your system. Most research suggests you should eat 0.5 to 1.8 grams of carbs per pound in the one to four hours before a workout. The longer you have before heading out, the more time you’ll have to digest. Most athletes can handle 0.45 grams per pound of carbs (and a bit of protein) in the hour or so before a race.
3. If you’re going to run a half or full, you need to fuel along the way
Certainly, your carb-load (see above), if done properly, will fill your muscle glycogen stores to the brim before you take off. But even with the carb-load, there’s a limit to how much muscle glycogen you have on board. Which means that at some point during the race, you’re going to need to add some fuel to your tank. You can find the 30 to 60 grams of carbs you need in gels, blocks, bars, and drinks. Aim to consume some carbs every 15-20 minutes along the course. This will give your system time to absorb the fuel and disperse to working muscles.
Remember to practise fuelling during your training. If you’re trying to determine which brand and flavour of fuel to use, check the race website. It’s well worth your time to do the research; the race is bound to hand out a certain brand of gel. If you can tolerate the brand they are using, you can be confident on race day that you won’t have any GI surprises and you won’t need to pack as much in your fuel belt. If you try out the on-course brand and find it isn’t for you, no problem. Experiment with other brands, flavours and forms during training. Once you find one that works, stick with it and pack it on race day.
4. Don’t wait
If you start to feel good during a race, don’t save your fuel thinking you’ll use it once you start to feel fatigued. By then it may be too late! Instead of letting your glycogen stores get past the point of no return, start fueling early and often. If you take just a bit of fuel at a time, you can meet your goal of 30+ grams of carbs an hour without feeling like you have a gut bomb.
5. Chase those gels or blocks with water
Your system will struggle to absorb the badly needed energy unless you dilute it by grabbing some water along the course. So plan your fuelling strategy (especially with gels) around the aid stations.
6. Drink along the course
Every runner is different in terms of choice, volume and frequency. Most find that if they replace sweat losses and are careful to drink to thirst (potentially beyond if sweat losses are intense), they finish the race feeling strong. Personally, I find that as a salty sweater (a really salty sweater, with a sensitive gut), I need heavy electrolytes and fluids. But high-carb sports drinks aren’t for me. When I hit the wall, it’s an electrolyte issue rather than a carb issue.
Like anything, it took a lot of trial and error before I figured this out. So while the above tips are general, solid guidance, take time to practice fuelling ahead of race day. And best of luck in your training and fuelling!