What to eat on race day: dos and don’ts for a good run
Time to get my dietitian hat out again!
I went orienteering on the weekend, and while it wasn’t exactly race conditions, I did have to think about my food as I was out running for quite a long time (yep, I got lost, and I knew it would happen!). It got me thinking about racing nutrition, and the many parts that are involved on the day, so I thought I’d bring you some info on what to eat on race day.
Your race day is more than just the race. You have before the race, during the race, and after the race. Having the right nutrition at each step will have a big impact on your performance and your recovery, so it’s something you’ll want to get right.
I’ve got my own routine for up to half marathon distance down pat, I’ll share what I do personally at the end of the post. For further info, you can also visit the website of Sports Dietitians Australia: they have a ton of great info freely available.
Practice makes perfect
I will go over some guidelines in a second, but first I want to point out that everyone is different. What works for you might not work for your running buddy, and vice versa. Everyone’s gut reacts a little differently to long and intense exercise, and will tolerate food and fluids in different ways to others.
It will take some experimentation to find out exactly what works for you, so the key is to practice, practice, practice. Find out what works (or not) for you, and stick with that for race day. Whatever you do, don’t do anything new on race day! It’s just not worth the risk.
If you do experience gut issues when you run, the good news is that your gut is actually quite trainable, so don’t give up if you have these problems. You may want to consult individually with a sports dietitian if you are really being held back by gut problems.
Summary: DO practice. DON’T do anything different on race day.
Before your race
First things first, you’ll want to make sure your nutrition in the build up to your race has been as good as possible. You don’t want to be deficient or lacking in anything. Read these eating guidelines if you need help with general nutrition.
Now most races are held in the morning, so for simplicity I’m going to assume your pre-race eating is going to be in the few hours between getting up and racing.
Don’t eat big heavy breakfast
A hearty feed of bacon and eggs on grainy bread is not going to be ideal. Even though you’ll run far enough to burn off the calories, your gut will take a long time to process it, and impaair your run.
Do choose some simple carbs
1-2 hours before you run, have a snack or small meal of low fiber carbohydrate. Having fiber might upset your guts during your race.
Some simple options include: toast with jam or honey, bowl of cereal, yogurt and fruit. If you get really nervous or your guts really play up, then a carby liquid like a smoothie or sports drink might be a better option for you. Remember to practice, practice!
Remember to keep yourself hydrated, take small sips of water across the morning (don’t drink too much though: you don’t want to be looking for a toilet as the start gun goes off).
During your race
What you need to consume during your race depends entirely on how long your race is!
If you’re planning on running for 60 minutes or less, you don’t really need anything other than a sip of water from a drink station if you feel like it.
If your run is over 60 minutes, a good rule of thumb is to have some carbohydrate every 60-90 minutes to keep your energy levels up. Gels and liquids are often easier to consume on the run than solid foods, so try some out. Gels tend to be easier to carry, and you don’t have to think about the portion, you just have the whole sachet. Remember, the key is practice, practice!
Summary: DO refuel during the race if it’s longer than 60 minutes, but DON’T worry if your race is less than that.
After your race
Alright! You got through your race. Obviously, what you eat won’t impact on your performance, but it will impact on your recovery.
Have a snack with some carbs and protein as soon as you can stomach it. Something like a piece of bread with some peanut butter or a glass of milk is ideal.
Have a meal 2-4 hours after you finish. If your race was in the morning, having a nice balanced lunch should do the trick. Go to my article on eating guidelines (link is above) for more on good general nutrition.
Rehydrate yourself adequately.
Avoid eating. You need the energy and protein to repair and recover.
Drink too much fluid.This can upset your body’s electrolyte balance, which is dangerous. Also, if you drink too much sports drink after shorter races, you could gain weight from drinking calories you don’t need.
Drink too much alcohol! It’s absolutely fine to have a post race beer (these are quite common here in New Zealand) but more than one will interfere with your recovery. Make sure you rehydrate before having any alcohol.
I’m very lucky not to have any gut problems while I run. Here’s what I do on half marathon day.
Pre race: 2-3 hours before, I have a bowl of cereal with some yoghurt and a cup of coffee with milk. I sip water up until around 20 min before the start, but make sure to not have more than 300ml.
During the race: I am a 1:45-1:55 half marathoner. I could get away with one gel for this, but I actually take two. I have the first one at 7km and the second one at 14km. I started enjoying my runs a whole lot more doing this, I didn’t feel totally depleted by the end. I take a few sips of water at each drink station, no matter how early or how late they are in the race.
Post race: Top priority is to have a cup of water, but not much more. I then eat a peanut butter sandwich and have a beer! Then I eat my usual lunch (something like another sandwich but with meat and salad).
What works for you on race day? I’d love to hear about it, please leave a comment.
Your running buddy,
image 1 by Francisco Osorio, CC 2.0. https://flic.kr/p/pt19Hd, image 2 by Josh McClumpha, CC 2.0, https://flic.kr/p/7yo1mx, image 3 by Paul Wilkinson, CC 2.0, https://flic.kr/p/eenLh1, image 4 by Felix Triller, CC 2.0, https://flic.kr/p/6VZzjj