Some runner’s burnout, lose energy fast, and never make it across the finish line. While others run with explosive energy. They feel incredibly enduring and finish their race with their hands up high and a smile on their face.
What makes the difference? Where is the line drawn between a memorable race day photo and walking off the course with your head down?
The answer: running nutrition. In particular, what you eat before, during, and after a race.
Understand that whatever you put into your body is exactly what you get out. How you perform on race day is significantly impacted by how you feel inside. And guess what? Nutrition is a BIG part of that.
Because when your nutrition and fueling strategy is under control, you’ve set yourself up for success. But it all starts in the KITCHEN…not on the road.
And that’s where I come in. If you are looking for a quick guide to eating for race day, then you’ve come to the right place. In this guide, I provide a practical break down on developing effective nutritional habits for runners. You will learn–SPECIFICALLY–how to eat before, during, and after a race.
And when it’s all said and done, you will have developed a solid and strategically devised game plan for maximizing your results on race day.
Are you ready to get started? Great! Let’s begin…
Running Nutrition as a Whole
As a runner, what you do in your kitchen apron has a direct effect on how you perform in your running shoes. That is, what you eat designs your runner’s body. Think about it…have you ever gone on a junk food binge and then tried running? Doesn’t feel all that great…does it?
Junk foods–meaning, processed foods–can wreak havoc on your body. They make you feel heavy and are the culprit to the many stomach issues runners face every race. In fact…
I know…throws a wrench in your plans for your next pizza and french fry weekend splurge. But trust me when I tell you stomach issues are not from the mileage…they’re from the junk.
So know that good eating habits don’t start on race day…they begin RIGHT NOW. Today, start eating more whole foods like vegetables, nuts, seeds, fruits, whole grains, and lean meats. Here’s a tip: make sure the foods you eat are as close to the source as possible.
An orange is from an orange tree. Yet, I don’t think a muffin comes from a muffin tree. Get the point?
And it’s important to take each nutrient into consideration as a runner including carbohydrates, protein, and fat.
When preparing for your race, carbohydrates should take up a large portion of your diet. No, “carbo-loading” is not necessary and is an outdated approach if you ask me. The only RECIPE, an entire pot of spaghetti in alfredo sauce, is good for is a RECIPE FOR DISATSTER.
Here’s the thing, most carbohydrates are quickly convertible to usable energy. Plus, if you are following a standard diet, chances are your body is more efficient at burning carbs as fuel.
The Numbers: 40-60% carbohydrates.
When it comes to protein consumption as a runner, some is utilized for energy, yet the majority is reserved for repairing damaged tissue. That’s why it’s essential to increase your protein intake after a training run or race. Think of protein as the building blocks to stronger and more enduring running muscles.
The Numbers: 25-35% protein
There are many benefits from a diet rich in good fats. The fats I’m referring to are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Try to avoid trans fats.
Good fats help you stay fuller for longer and also reduce sugar cravings that cause you to overeat. Also, runners have been experimenting with “fat adapted running” and have seen astonishing results.
Fat adapted running allows you to run longer without the need to refuel constantly. It also provides the key to the door that stands between you and your stored body fat for energy. And although fat adapted running sounds like a gift from the heavens above…this process takes time…and if you are currently training for a race, today is not the day to get started.
The Numbers: 15-25% fats
Summing up Carbs, Protein, and Fat
A balanced diet and patience produce an unbreakable runner’s body. Now, instead of being a one-hit wonder in the runner’s world, you can run many races in your lifetime. And it starts with what you eat!
So–as a “normal” runner–your diet should consist of approximately 40-60% carbohydrates, 25-35% protein, and 15-25% fats. Eat whole foods and stay away from processed ones.
Water, Water, and more Water!
Lastly, it’s essential to drink more water as a runner. And that goes for before, during, and after your race. Without proper hydration, your body can’t perform at its full potential.
The human body is made up of more than 68% water. It needs water to flourish and run long and fast mileage. So hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! And make sure you balance your electrolytes in the process.
Here’s a good place to start: every day, drink half your body weight in ounces per day. For example, if you weigh 200 lbs. then drink 100 ounces of water per day.
On days you run, drink 4-8 ounces before you run and every 20 minutes while running. Feel it out. One runner’s intake requirements will vary from another. Work on finding YOUR sweet spot.
Don’t Do This…
Now that you have established a brief background on runner’s nutrition, let’s talk about eating before, during, and after a race. But first…
Here are two things you don’t want to do before a race…
DO NOT drastically change your diet.
DO NOT experiment on race day.
It takes months for your body to transform and benefit from a new way of eating. And sometimes…things may get worse before they get better. Even from a healthy diet.
Consider those who become ill from kicking an addiction. Well, the same thing happens when cleaning up your diet. Sugary processed foods are the addiction, so take it slow.
Now, let’s get into racing…
I once met a guy who eat an entire box of Fiber One bars before a marathon. As you can imagine, he spent less time racing, and more time in the porta potties.
Here’s the point: all pre-race meals are not created equal. So watch what you eat. Stuffing your face full of carbs just for the calories is not an effective fueling strategy.
Generally speaking, there are two times to eat before a race.
#1 – 3 to 4 hours before.
#2 – Thirty minutes to 1 hour.
When eating 3-4 hours before your race, complex carbs will be your go-to. Eating mainly complex carbohydrates provides relatively quick-to-use energy (compared to fat and protein) and last long.
You can eat a bowl of oatmeal with berries, an almond butter bagel + banana, or a quinoa bowl. Just make sure it’s rich in whole grains and other complex carbohydrates.
You can even keep it on the lighter side. Professional runner and marathon world record holder Eliud Kipchoge consumes a piece of bread and a cup of tea before racing. That’s why it’s essential to test out what works for you in training and THEN apply it to race day.
Regarding the 30 minutes to 1-hour mark, fast and reliable will do the trick. Simple carbohydrates work best here. Consume a quick snack and drink. Performance bars, fruit, and sports drinks will serve you best.
Once you nail down a pre-race meal, let’s discuss how to eat during your race, also known as “fueling.”
What you choose to eat during a race will depend on the overall distance. If you’re running a 5k or 10k, you will likely get by with water and a sports drink. Here’s your strategy: when you are thirsty…drink.
On the other hand, if you are running a half-marathon or longer–like a marathon–most use a water+sports drink+gel approach works best.
And although a runner’s approach cannot be standardized, here’s a great starting point: drink water for the first 25-35% of the race, sports drink for the next 25-35%, and sports drink + gel for the remaining.
As an experienced runner, I don’t recommend counting calories or ounces. Instead, listen to your body.
Sports drinks like Gatorade and Powerade work well when it comes to liquids. For gels, the most common are GU Energy, Clif Shot, and Hammer Gel. So find your personal favorite and practice using it while training.
Yes, you can eat whole foods on race day. However, gels are more convenient and convert quicker to usable energy. Gels are reliable and fit just about anywhere (pocket, belt, handheld. etc.).
After the race, it’s time to recover. Your legs are sore, and the rest of your body is exhausted. You need to refuel and take in nutrients to begin repairing the damage.
Although you may not feel hungry right after the race, it’s important you start eating anyway. Find foods that are easy on the stomach and high in protein. A few options are chocolate milk, nuts, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, fruit, yogurt, and smoothies.
If you are running longer distances like a marathon, you likely eat a lot of sugar (gels, blocks, sports drinks, etc.) during the race. So find food low in sugar to prevent stomach issues. I find a handful of nuts to do the trick.
As you can see, what you eat before, during, and after a race takes little effort, but has an enormous effect on your performance and recovery. It builds a powerful runners body, fuels it through race day, and repairs it quickly to grow back stronger ready for your next training program.
Remember, what you eat will vary. Different runners do better with different foods. That’s why it’s critical to practice fueling during training. So eat clean every day, consume quick energy on race day, and promote a healthy recovery afterward. These basic tips are all a runner really needs. And it’s within these practices that help increase your endurance and speed. Because remember…every race starts in the kitchen!