Race nutrition can be a nerve-wracking topic for many a runner – myself included. You’ve done all the training in the weeks leading up to your race, but you’re double-guessing yourself on everything in the days leading up to it, especially your race nutrition.
Hopefully what follows will be a guide you can use to put your mind more at ease, or if you’re still training and coming up on a race, you can use this guide to prepare. Please note that I’ll be writing this from the perspective of preparing for a marathon, but the principles still hold for shorter races – just scaled back a little.
As always, a disclaimer: I’m not a professional, just a regular guy doing research and trying things out for myself. Take what you agree with, but also make sure to find out what works for you.
Before the race
I’ll get my most important piece of advice out first – nothing new on race day! This can extend to the few days before your race as well, especially if your stomach is particularly finicky.
In the days before your race, the things you want to be looking out for are your hydration and your carb intake – in particular for the last three days or so, you might consider doing something know as “carb-loading”. There are several definitions of carb-loading, but the one that I use is the one that says you should roughly maintain the same number of calories you normally take in, but change your ratios slightly to have more carbs in your diet.
For those of you who aren’t calorie counting, what this means is you can just have that serving of rice, pasta, or bread that you’ve probably been turning down while training. The theory here is that the glycogen stores (which is your fuel!) in your muscles accumulate over time, so although you’re liking tapering at this point and therefore reducing your training, you’re still going to need to increase your carb intake a little, particularly for those longer races like half and full marathons.
Maintaining your hydration is also particularly important – this will also be most beneficial if you’re doing this the few days before your race. Sipping water or electrolyte drink regularly will do the trick – there is plenty of fancy stuff out there that will allegedly help, but keeping it simple never fails, I say.
On the day of your race, not trying anything new is especially important – normally have oats for your breakfast before a run? That’s what you should be eating on race day. If that means you need to wake up a little earlier to make sure your stomach settles before your race, then do that, but your glycogen stores in your muscles will need that last minute top-up to make sure you’ve got the fuel in you to smash your Personal Best.
During the race
If it wasn’t obvious from the previous section, my main advice will still be the same – nothing new on race day, and definitely not during the race!
First and foremost, hydration is the most important aspect of race nutrition – dehydration will be the surest way of ruining your endeavour for a good race. During your training, no doubt you’ll be having hydration with you for longer runs – as your race gets closer, you may want to switch over to the electrolyte drink that is sponsoring the race as this is what they will be providing at the drink stops. If you’re sticking with choosing water for most of the run, you’ll want to make sure you have some other way of ensuring you get enough salts back into your body so you don’t cramp. I’ve heard using salt tabs can help here, but this will depend on how much salt you’re actually sweating out – you may be able to determine this by trial and error, or you can seek professional analysis to help you work this out scientifically.
There is also the option to bring your own hydration with you if that is what is most comfortable with – just be sure to have trained with the full weight of your hydration during a race-length (or as close as possible) training run as you are likely to be quite tired at the end of your run which will make every extra but of weight seem like much more.
During your training, particularly for those longer runs for those half and full marathon runners out there, you’ll likely have been using some kind of gel or other energy food during your runs to make sure you don’t “bonk” or “hit the wall”. For those who don’t know these terms, what they refer to is when your glycogen (which, if you recall, is the fuel for your muscles) has depleted – many runners describe the feeling as “hitting the wall” because the sensation is not dissimilar to it’s namesake; your muscles will feel heavy and you will feel like you can’t keep moving forward.
To avoid this, you can use energy gels or food to keep your glycogen topped up during your run – here, the aim is to find something that you can ingest and your stomach can slowly absorb as you run; this is important because most of your blood in your body will be diverted to your muscles during the race and hence your digestion will slow. My advice here is if you still have the luxury to experiment, try as many products as possible to find out which one your body doesn’t mind. Remember that you should be using whatever you’ve chosen in race-length simulations as your body will generally react differently as it gets more tired.
As for how many gels or product you need to take during the race, this will depend on the kind of athlete you are – using marathons as an example, if you’re gunning for a sub 3 marathon you’re going to want to be quite particular about your nutrition needs and you may need a particular amount of energy every 45 mins, whereas for the average marathon runner, you’re likely to need a less aggressive nutrition plan. Taking a gel every hour to hour and a half will likely be enough for most runners.
After the race
You’ve done everything right before the race, and you’ve smashed your Personal Best during the race, now you still have one thing to get right – your nutrition after the race.
Hydration will be your first port of call as no matter how on top of your hydration you were during the race, you’re almost definitely going to be at a deficit due to sweat – electrolytes will probably be most effective here to replace salts and nutrients that you’re muscles and body have been burning through, but good ol’ plain water is a great idea too.
If you’ve just beaten your best ever time at the distance, it’s likely you were pushing as hard as you could towards the end of the race – in these situations, you might not feel very hungry, or you may even feel like food is what you want to be furthest from once you’ve crossed the line. However, the best thing you can do for your body is to try and consume something loaded with carbohydrates, such as bananas or energy bars, which will help to start replenishing your glycogen stores as well as starting the process of repairing your muscles and body. If the timing of your race allows, as soon as you feel like you’re able to fit in a full meal, you should do so to further fuel your recovery.
So that’s all I’ve got in terms of tips – if you have any of your own, I’d love to hear them down in the comments.