It’s race morning. What should you eat? Oatmeal? Toast? Bagel? Banana? Eggs and bacon? Nothing? A 2014 review of pre-exercise nutrition studies conducted over that past 50 years concluded that eating carb-rich foods prior to endurance exercise appears to enhance performance (more so than protein-rich or fat-rich foods). Eating a high carbohydrate meal in the hours before your race maximizes glycogen stores, both in the muscles and especially in the the liver, which will be utilized during the race.
The reason it’s so important to eat race morning (and not rely on what you ate yesterday) is because while we sleep, our liver glycogen stores are substantially reduced. In fact some studies show they are 80% depleted overnight. This means we’d begin racing with sub-optimal carb stores and have a much higher chance of ‘bonking’. This is especially evident in events lasting longer than 1.5 to 2 hours.
We understand that pre-race carbohydrate intake is important to performance (even for fat-adapted athletes). The question becomes exactly how much, when and what to eat.
HOW MUCH TO EAT
If you’re racing a marathon or longer distance, you’ll likely receive optimal performance benefits by eating between 2 to 4 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of bodyweight pre-race.
If you’re racing a half-marathon or shorter distance, you’ll probably race your best after consuming between 1 to 3 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of bodyweight on race morning.
You’ll want to consume the entirety of these carbohydrates in the period of time between waking up and actually beginning to race.
For example, a 140lb marathon runner (64kg) would require between 128 and 256 grams of carbohydrate on race morning. Or, a 120lb half-marathoner (55kg) would require between 55 and 165 grams carbohydrate on race morning.
Calculate your numbers… And let’s move on to when and what to eat.
WHEN TO EAT
Breakfast should be eaten ideally 3 to 4 hours before a full marathon or longer racing distance and 2 to 3 hours before a half marathon or shorter racing distance, in order to ensure full digestion. However, timing can be highly variable to the individual and it’s worth it to experiment before long training runs in order to determine what works best for you.
There is also the option of having a snack an hour pre-race, such as a banana, a few dates or some crystallized ginger (this 60 minute prior option is not recommended for those susceptible to hypoglycaemia, unless they are eating it just as they begin their warm-up). This tops up liver glycogen stores – but it’s generally recommended to eat no more than half your bodyweight in kilograms at this point in time (which usually ends up being about 22 to 35 grams of carb, which is exactly what one banana or two dates equals).
Lastly, it can be beneficial to take a half to one serving of a sports gel (such as the Citrus Chia Energy Gel or a commercial energy gel made from natural ingredients) in the 5 to 15 minutes pre-race (12 to 25 grams carb) with just a sip of water. This energy source will be absorbed and immediately used by your body as fuel as you begin to race – so technically it is actually be counted as part of your race nutrition strategy!
Keep in mind that while you may eat the majority of your carbs at breakfast 2 to 4 hours before you race, you might also have a snack an hour later as well as take in additional carbohydrates in liquid form between breakfast and your race. That all counts in reaching your number calculated above.
For example, a marathoner requiring 128-256 carbs may consume 100 carbs for breakfast at 3.5 hours pre-race, but then drink another 75 carbs or so via things like beet juice, tart cherry juice or sports drink; and finally 24 grams in a pre-race gel – allowing them to hit 199 grams total which is approximately midway their recommended amount.
WHAT TO EAT
Along with solid foods, it may be necessary to drink some of your carbs in a liquid form in order to consume enough carbohydrate without causing digestive distress. In fact, some runners choose to drink their breakfast in a shake form, which is generally easier overall to digest. It’s best practice to avoid too much protein, too much fat and too much fibre (generally, anything between 5 to 10 grams of each is acceptable but again, tolerance is highly variable between individuals).
Here are some natural, whole food examples of pre-race carb rich breakfast ideas:
- oatmeal (instant, quick or old fashioned) [23 grams carbohydrate per ⅓ cup dry] (or try Qi’a instant oatmeal [24g/pkg] for easy travel option – use hot water from coffee maker in hotel room, bring a bowl and spoon with you or request from housekeeping) with hemp hearts and
- honey and/or maple syrup [5g/tsp] and
- banana [24g each] and
- fresh berries [10g/½ cup];
- a banana [24g each] plus 4-5 pitted medjool dates [17g each] with a touch of almond butter;
- homemade Classic Granola [35g per serving] with banana [24g each], berries and coconut or almond milk;
- 1-2 pieces of toast [~15g per slice] or bagel [~50g each] (gluten-free if necessary) with touch of almond butter and sliced banana [24g each] or jam or honey [15g/Tbsp] (normally I’d recommend only whole grain sprouted, but because it’s race morning, some runners may be best off reaching for only the simplest and low-fibre breads and bagels);
- a coconut water [10g per cup], banana [24g each], berries [20g/cup], medjool dates [17g each] and hemp hearts smoothie (may wish to avoid any leafy greens, nuts, coconut oil or milk or avocado as that can add too much fibre or fat) – bring a magic bullet with you if this is your breakfast of choice even for destination races;
- beet juice [25g each];
- tart cherry juice [35g each];
- orange juice [26g each] with 1-3 tsp each of honey [5g/tsp] and matcha green tea powder whisked in
WHAT ABOUT HYDRATION?
The majority of your hydration has really happened the in the day(s) before. For every 1 gram of carbohydrate stored through proper carb-loading, 2.7 grams of water are stored with it. Therefore if you’ve carb-loaded well, you’re also nicely “pre-hydrated”. Consider this: well-trained and properly carb-loaded leg muscles can hold up to 720 grams of glycogen, and stored with it is about 1,944 grams of water. That’s about 8 cups water (aka 4 lbs, the reason why carb-loading without eating excess calories gives the appearance of weight gain).
On race morning, it’s a good idea to top this “pre-hydration” up (without creating a need for a ‘pit stop’ out on the race course) by consuming the majority of your race day fluids as soon as you wake – 1 to 2 cups water along with any additional caffeinated beverage, juice or sports drink you might choose to have.
I generally suggest cutting off all fluid intake at least one hour before your race begins. Just before this cutoff you may wish to have your last serving of caffeine (whether from espresso, matcha, pre-workout energizer or another source). This exact cutoff time will vary depending on the person – get to know your body. Having to make a pit stop due to drinking too close to race start is a sure way to lower your chances of a PB / PR (been there, done that!).
I’d be remiss not to mention that any of the above strategies are best practiced in advance. Do not try anything new on race day. I know you’ve heard that one before, likely a million times over. But seriously, don’t try anything new on race day 🙂
To good eats and strong running… Cheers,