What to Eat Before You Run a Race, According to Experts
You know you need to fuel up for maximum performance before race day, but what does that look like on your plate? Registered sports dietitians and Nike Running Global Head Coach, Chris Bennett, share their thoughts.
Whether you're running your first 5K or clearing a space for another marathon finisher medal, most runners gearing up for competition find themselves asking the same question: "What should I eat for top performance at the race?"
Spoiler: It depends on what works best for you. That said, there are some general guidelines and tips that can help you to discover what bites will have you fuelled up and ready to blast off at the starting line.
Here are the key strategies that experts and Global Head Coach of Nike Running, Chris Bennett, think you should know.
Think High Carb, Moderate Protein
From 5K and up, carbohydrates should be your main fuel for endurance races, according to Kacie Vavrek, RD, a specialist in sports nutrition at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
"Carbohydrates are a quick energy course that the body can use to fuel exercise quickly", she says. "For that reason, the pre-run meal should be mostly carbohydrates, with moderate protein and low fat and fibre, since these nutrients digest slower and that means it can slow down digestion".
Vavrek recommends testing some of these staples below to see what works best for you:
· A bagel with butter or one with peanut butter and banana
· A fruit smoothie
· A peanut butter and jam sandwich with pretzels or fruit
· Rice cakes with nut butter and a cup of berries
· A hard-boiled egg and sliced banana with almond butter
You may have noticed how often bananas and nut butters get suggested—and for good reason. With their low amount of fibre and high-carb content, bananas are also a great source of potassium and vitamin B6. Research suggests the fruit may not only provide quick energy, but also reduce exercise-related inflammation.
Nut butters fall into the category of moderate protein and fat, Vavrek says, which provide a slow release of energy to balance out the big energy burst you'd get from foods like a bagel or bananas.
When Deciding What to Eat Before a Race, Make Sure You Watch Your Timing
If you have an early-morning event, such as a marathon, it may be better to opt for a carb-filled meal the evening before the race instead of loading up in the hours before it, says Dana Ellis Hunnes, PhD, RD, senior dietitian at UCLA Medical Center and author of Recipe for Survival.
If you decide to carb it up the evening before your race, consider choosing a snack like a banana and a handful of nuts for your pre-race breakfast—this will give you a fast jolt of carbs, and the small amount of protein and fats in the nuts will help you sustain that energy, she adds.
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Because a 5K is a shorter race, you don't need a strong focus on carb loading, she adds. In that case, just make sure you eat well before the race—usually two hours is best—so you have time to digest before the run.
For evening races or track meets that typically occur at night, it might seem like you should have a hearty dinner just before you toe the line, but you might end up feeling too full, says Julia Denison, RD, a specialist in sports nutrition and secondary school cross-country coach.
"If you're racing in the evening or afternoon, it's imperative to still eat your typical meals throughout the day", she suggests. "For example, if you have a race at 7pm, you should eat a solid breakfast, lunch and dinner, with snacks throughout the day".
She recommends eating dinner about three to four hours before the evening race, followed by a high-carb small meal or snack within 30 to 60 minutes of racing.
One ritual her secondary-school athletes love is a pasta party the night before a race. Denison doubts that it actually helps improve their performance, but she finds the team-bonding element of the event can provide a boost in self-confidence prior to race day.
It's a good reminder that sometimes it's not only what you eat and when, but also the company that joins you. Many, if not most, runners develop pre-race rituals that might involve what they wear, how they tie their shoes or listening to the same song right before the race begins. Sharing a meal with fellow runners on the day before a big race can offer the same note of consistency and confidence, says Denison.
Play Around with What Fuel Works Well for You
More accurately, play around with food options during your training cycle—not right before a big race. If you're aiming to compete in a long-distance race like a half-marathon, marathon or ultra, you probably have a longer run programmed into your race preparations at least once a week, says Chris Bennett, Global Head Coach, Nike Running. For most, this is the best time to tinker with food and beverage choices to see what works well and what doesn't—both before you run and while you're logging the miles.
This is particularly the case with caffeine, he adds. Although moderate caffeine consumption has been proven to help fight fatigue during endurance exercise, Bennett notes that it takes trial and error to find the amount (and type) that works best. For example, caffeinated chewing gum right before a run might make you feel too jittery, but a cup of coffee with the same level of caffeine doesn't have the same negative effect, and may even help you feel more energised.
It's even possible that the best choice right before a run is nothing at all, says Bennett, as long as you've had a pre-race meal at least an hour or more beforehand. That might mean skipping a starting-line energy gel or bar, he advises. These are made for on-the-run fuel. While some runners swear by them when they're mid race, they're usually not an ideal choice for a boost for a quick start, says Bennett. This is especially the case if you're running a shorter distance like a 5K or 10K.
When You Think About What to Eat Before a Race, Focus on Time—Not Distance
While race-day muscles need a steady supply of carbohydrates, you probably won't need the same fuelling for 3.1 miles as you would for 26.2, according to Christina Meyer-Jax, RDN, nutrition chair and assistant professor at the College of Health and Wellness at Northwestern Health Sciences University in Minnesota.
It's not distance that's the biggest factor here, she suggests. It's time.
"The average, well-fuelled person can store roughly 1,800 calories, or between 90–120 minutes of carbs, in their muscles and liver", she says. "Athletes running less than 60 minutes will probably not need extra carbs other than a well-balanced pre-race meal that provides between 150 to 250 grams of carbs, consumed at least two hours before the race for optimal digestion".
If you're running over 60 minutes, such as a half-marathon or marathon, Meyer-Jax says you'll need to add approximately 30–60 grams for each hour you run past that first hour. That's where those energy gels or bars might come into play—and that also requires some testing.
"The timing of those carbohydrates during the race is important to practise", she says. "Runners should learn when is the best time to add in the replenishment, and to keep hydrating throughout the race".
Be Consistent on Race Day
Regardless of the type of race you're taking on, doing all the prep work in the weeks beforehand should give a solid idea of what your pre-race meals and snacks should be, and when you should eat them, Bennett says. You might be tempted to throw in a little extra fuel like more carbs or another cup of coffee, but more often than not, it's much better to stick with the original plan, he suggests.
"Having all this proven info that's specifically tailored to your body will make you feel more in control of your morning and give you more confidence on the course", he says. "Physically, you've given your muscles the ideal fuel to perform at their best. Mentally, you know you have what you need in the tank to crush your goals, mile after mile".
For more tips on what to eat before a race or just a regular run, don't miss What Should I Eat Before and After a Workout? Then, make sure you download the Nike Training Club App for additional expert-backed nutrition tips.
Story written by Elizabeth Millard