When it comes to race day nutrition just keep it simple.
If your race is less than 90 minutes, you probably don’t need to eat on the run. If it is hot or humid you can drink some water or electrolyte drink along the course, but proper training, a balanced breakfast a few hours before the start, and regular hydration leading up to the event should get you through a 15 to 90 minute run or race without the need for additional aid.
After 90 minutes of continuous aerobic activity, your body runs out of glycogen stores (carbohydrates – sugars & starches) and starts relying on available fat and protein to fuel itself. The reason people hit the wall or bonk between 90 and 120 minutes into an aerobic effort is because they have run out of glycogen (sugars & starches) and/or electrolytes (salt, potassium, etc.). The body is trying, but not as efficient at using fats and proteins as its primary fuel source. Essentially, the body is feeding off itself which is why it doesn’t feel good and why your ability to perform diminishes.
Carbohydrates consist of simple sugars and complex starches which basically means that one digests faster than the other. Common sources of sugar while on the run are non-diet electrolyte drinks (sugar-free options defeat the purpose and will inevitably lead to an epic bonk), fruit (bananas, oranges, watermelon), gels, honey, chews, blocks, chomps, gummy bears, hard candy, etc. Sugar sources vary from fructose, to sucrose, glucose/dextrose, and maltodextrin, but many pre-packaged products and mixes include a combination of a variety of sugars.
Common sources of starches while on the run are potatoes, potato chips, breads, bananas (both starches and sugars), and granola bars, etc. Some people pre-make rice balls and other light, starchy items like oatmeal cookies or homemade energy bars to fuel their runs, but such items are not always found at aid stations.
In addition to carbohydrates, electrolytes play an essential role in your body’s performance. The combination and concentration of electrolytes vary from product to product, but one essential electrolyte that works as the spark plug to keep your muscles firing is sodium (i.e. salt). Some people claim that we already have enough salt in our diets and that we don’t need to add extra salt while exercising, but if you’ve ever found yourself cramping up in your calf or hamstring and seen how almost instantaneously the consumption of salt eliminated the cramp, it’s hard to argue with its efficacy. Common electrolyte sources while on the run can be found in electrolyte drinks, gels, salt caps, and broth. Some races may have potatoes with salt and salty potato chips on course as well.
I have found that the longer the race, the more I need to focus on nutrition early on. When the race is less than 2:00 I typically stick to water and possibly the electrolyte drink on course. If the race is between 2:00 and 3:00 I might add a salt cap or a gel or two. When the race is longer than 3:00, it typically means I will be carrying at least some of my fuel with me, so I focus on sipping an electrolyte drink every 15 minutes, and consuming 200 calories every 30 minutes, and taking a salt cap every hour.
The races in which I have been meticulous about nutrition are the ones in which I have raced the best, particularly in the second half. On the other hand, when I have allowed myself to get caught up in a race too early and neglected regular nutrition, I haven’t had anything left toward the end of the race.
When I run a marathon or shorter, I like to eat something light like oatmeal, toast or granola bars with nut butter, a banana and orange juice three to four hours before I race. When the race is early enough that I won’t naturally be up hours before the race, I usually bypass a fibrous breakfast, opt for more sleep, and eat a banana and some nut butter on my way to the start.
In races beyond 3:00, I aim to sip an electrolyte drink at least every 15 minutes. If it’s hot outside I will do it naturally, but sometimes when it’s cool I need a reminder so I set a timer on my watch that sounds every 10-15 minutes. I use the timer to remind me when to drink, eat, and take in additional electrolyte caps. I try to take in as many liquid calories as I can through electrolyte drinks and gels. I also usually take at least one salt cap per hour to ensure I’m getting what I need. If I feel my muscles cramping up or buckling, I increase my salt intake. If I enter an aid station and something looks good I eat it or stuff it in my pack or pocket to eat along the way.
Post-Race nutrition is equally important to long-term success. Post-race refreshments vary, but soup is rather common and it helps me warm up while settling my stomach. Many longer races serve some sort of post-race protein in the form of burritos, quesadillas, burgers, or sandwiches. Regardless of your dietary leanings, get some protein in within 30 minutes after your race. This will aid in muscle repair and will decrease the amount of time off post-race. You can do prime your body for recovery by consuming a handful or nuts or jerky, a protein shake or bar. Just be sure to get something in sooner rather than later.
In addition to protein, be sure to hydrate. Water is always best, but if your stomach is struggling to keep the water down, I suggest carbonated water or ginger ale until your stomach settles.
Practice fueling before the race
Like most things in life, race day nutrition is a very individual thing. It requires practice in training and racing and the willingness to experiment to find what works best for you. My advice – keep it simple. Find the combination of sugars, starches, and salts that works best for you.
While I wouldn’t recommend most common race-day foods as part of a regular diet (simple sugars, potato chips, soda), the reason they work so well during long races is that the nutrients are so refined that they get right into your blood stream, notifying your liver, brain, and muscles that you can sustain your effort because you have enough fuel to get you to the next aid station.
For sound advice on what to eat on a regular basis to keep you lean and energized from day to day, read this article on Daily Nutrition.
Jacob Puzey is a professional runner and internationally certified running coach at Peak Run Performance. To learn more about training and racing, check out the other articles Jacob has written on his personal blog www.jacobpuzey.com. To begin working with Jacob as a coach visit Peak Run Performance and sign up for one-on-one coaching.