What you eat is one of the most controllable factors in your running success, but it is also one of the most commonly ignored. If you ensure that your nutrition is good then it can help you to reach new heights and start setting records.
So, what should you eat before you race?
The night before:
So, to start with you should consider your pre-race nutrition the night before you race- especially if your race is the next morning. Opt for a dinner that’s high in carbohydrates and moderate in fat and protein because the fat and protein will slow the digestion of the meal which will allow your glycogen (energy) stores to fill up whilst you sleep night. Go for complex carbohydrates with a low to medium glycemic index, good choices are:
- Whole-wheat pasta with tomato and turkey mince sauce,
- Brown rice with vegetables and some fish,
- Lentil and bean stew with vegetables
Make sure you keep oily, greasy, or very high in fiber foods to a minimum because these can cause GI problems- not ideal if you are trying to run at your best! Also keep your protein intake moderate because of how slowly it is digested- having about 100g or 2-3 ounces is enough for most people.
Before you go to bed:
Then before you go to bed have a bedtime snack to really boost your energy for the race! Try and have something small that has twice as much carbohydrate as protein- something like toast with a nut butter spread or a bowl of cereal with milk.
You do not need to overload on carbohydrates the night before your race- carboloading is overkill for most athletes and can in some cases leave you feeling heavy and lethargic.
In the morning- if you have 3-4 hours:
In the morning, if you have at least three to four hours before your morning race, you can have a relatively large meal of up to 700-800 calories! This should be something similar to the previous night’s dinner, so something high in carbohydrate, moderate in protein, low in fat. Great examples of race-morning breakfasts are:
- 1 cup of cereal with milk or yogurt, 1 slice of toast, and 1 piece of fruit
- 1 medium bagel with 1 tablespoon of peanut butter and 1 to 2 cups of a sports drink
- Buckwheat pancakes with a banana
Of course there are many possible breakfasts that you can have. My favorite pre race breakfast is rice or oats with almond milk and a banana- just see what works for you- find something that you like and are comfortable with and it will work fine as long as your meal choice falls within the above guidelines.
In the morning- if you only have 1-2 hours:
If your race is early and you don’t have long before you race, then opt for foods that digest quickly and easily, and keep your snacks below 300-400 calories. Good pre-race choices could be:
- Granola bar or sports bar (can be homemade or store bought)
- 1-2 cups of dry cereal
- Handful of trail mix and/or dried fruit
- Few whole-grain crackers or rice cakes with a little peanut butter.
A lot of people find it hard to eat solid food that close to a race so instead try and find a full-calorie (non-diet) sports drink that you like and sip on that. You could also have a homemade smoothie or green juice if you prefer.
If your race is in the afternoon:
Afternoon races can make deciding what to eat difficult, but make sure you stick to the above guidelines as they are appropriate and will help you run at your best. But there are additional challenges that you also need to keep in mind and this means that I always find afternoon races the hardest ones to prep for.
So, the biggest challenge is finding foods that you can eat that are not high-fat, high-sugar. On afternoon race days (and also on afternoon workout days) make sure you have a lunch that is made up of familiar foods that follow the guidelines for pre-workout meals.
Good, simple lunch choices include a sandwich with lean meat, a tortilla wrap with hummus and veg or a small plate of pasta with sauce. In addition to lunch, especially if your race is longer than 3 hours after, have a pre-race snack planned out that you can have one to two hours before. Remember to for something simple and easy to digest.
No matter when your race is, make sure you eat foods that are familiar and avoid foods that are spicy, greasy, or high in fiber. Do not use race days as experiments for food replacements like energy gels or sports bars. If you want to try out using foods like these then try them out in practice to see what works best for you.
Do not forget to prep your post race nutrition too!
What you eat post-race is just as important as pre-competition nutrition. Of course it is natural to want to celebrate and pig-out, but you need to make sure you fill up on something other than just junk food because your body has worked hard for you and needs nutrients so it can repair itself.
You should aim to eat post-exercise meals as soon as possible, preferably in the first 20-30 minutes, to refuel the body as quickly as possible. If this is not possible then makes sure to have something on hand after your race as a snack to replenish your glycogen stores and allow your muscles to start repairing. You will also need to replace the fluids and electrolytes that you lost through sweat. Then make sure to get your post race meal in within 2 hours.
A very easy recovery snack is a chocolate milkshake which is great because it has a 3:1 carbohydrate- to-protein ratio and is a good source of both. It also aids in replacing fluids and some electrolytes. Other great options are a sandwich with some lean meat, or a cereal bar and some nuts.