How to Eat For The Race

In this and any other fitness column, healthy eating for athletes tends to be the hottest topic. Without the right gas in the tank, we can’t handle the mileage. The same rule goes for race day. If you consume the wrong fuel, your body is going to stall out before you hit the finish line. You can still get it done, but an ill fueled race is never pretty.

But how do you know what’s right? Is a gel going to take me to the finish or give me cramps that feel like a punch in the stomach? Should I load up on protein or carbs on the eve of the race? What’s the best breakfast for race day? Should I eat breakfast at all?

Every runner has unique individual fueling needs and as a result, there are countless fueling methods. My race day routine may leave you out on the trail wishing you’d never started. But following these general guidelines will help find the right mix for you.

Here are my tips to keeping your stomach on race day, no matter the distance.

Breakfast

It’s the most important meal of the day and something I always look forward to on race day. But not every runner loves breakfast. Many are like my boyfriend, who are lucky if they get a cup of coffee down before toeing the line.

Pre-race breakfast is the last chance to top off the glycogen, or carbohydrate, stores that got depleted overnight. Your morning meal provides fuel for your muscles and your brain, which is essential in keeping motivation, moral and focus during a race.

The trick is to bite the bullet, set that alarm and take in that last meal three to four hours pre-race. That will give you just enough time to digest so your stomach will be fairly empty and your glycogen stores completely fueled. If you’re like my dude and find that eating a meal before 10 a.m. is borderline impossible, then break it up into two meals. Have a small breakfast like a bagel with peanut butter four hours before the start then eat a little something else, like a sports drink or an energy bar, 90 minutes out.

Fuel for the distance

Our body can hold around 90 minutes of glycogen stores. Running out of glycogen induces a sort of a drunk-like feeling known as the bonk, where morale spirals downwards and every step feels like you’re wearing ankle weights. In other words, if you’re racing 90 minutes or longer you’ll require some sort of caloric intake to keep you moving towards the finish line. To play it safe, I recommend taking in a couple hundred calories for any race over an hour.

Conversely, even though the correct fuel is vital for a 10k, you can leave the gels at home and instead focus on a good breakfast that sits well. While running a race under an hour at an intensity that is only sustainable for a short amount of time, our bodies can’t do much but hold on. An extra job like processing food will result in a performance dip at best.

Fuel for the race

The longer and slower you run, the more solid food your body will be able to process and the more real food you’ll crave. In races that only last a few hours, semi-solid, highly processed foods like gels and chews will be more than enough and likely the easiest thing for you to process. However, during longer races like ultramarathons, more fat and protein will be needed as your body uses a slower-burning gear.

To put simply, shorter races are usually much faster, and your body might not be able to process solid food effectively during periods of high intensity. But when you’re moving at a slower, ultra-marathon pace, your stomach can better digest and absorb solid, calorie-dense food. If you listen to your gut (literally) and eat what you crave during the race, you’ll likely tend to the fuel choices better suited to the amount of time spent running.

Cut the Fiber

I made two horrific mistakes in both my first and second 100 mile races. With both, I followed a nutrition plan that was unintentionally high in fiber. In the first, I ate entire sandwiches made with high fiber whole grain bread. The second was fueled almost solely by dates. Fool me once, shame on you, fiber. Fool me twice, and you can guarantee emergency potty stops and some embarrassing chafing.

Normally, we runners should be loading up on the fibrous veggies, beans and whole grains. But on race day, and even a day or so pre-race, skip the complex carbs and say yes to simple sugars, plain potatoes and white bread.

Sip and Nibble

If my first two hundreds were the worst gastrointestinal discomfort, then as far as a race goes, last June’s Western States 100 was probably the year of the iron stomach. Thanks to the wise words of Silke Koester, friend and crew of the Western States trail who told me to just “sip and nibble,” I was able to take in a small amount of calories even through extreme discomfort and nausea.

Sipping and nibbling means taking in small amounts of fuel and water often. Never drink too much at once, and never go too long without taking anything in. These rules apply before, during and after a race. Taking in too much at once, or nothing at all, could alter the fragility of an overworked GI tract.

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