How to Fuel Your Race: race day nutrition

sarah cuff Carb-Loading for Runners, Ergogenic Aids, Performance, Run Faster, Running Performance Leave a Comment

In any event that lasts longer than 90 minutes, we greatly increase our chances of optimal performance by paying close attention to filling and replenishing our glycogen stores, adequate hydration and maintenance of electrolyte balance, and utilization of appropriate ergogenic aids. This means planning our menu both in the days prior to race day, and importantly, for race day itself. Here in this post, we will look specifically at race day.

There are three main components to race day nutrition:

  1. Ensuring you get enough carbohydrates to properly fuel your race;
  2. Proper fluid/sodium intake; and,
  3. Incorporating the right ergogenic aids to help boost your performance.

Come race day, you have two opportunities to utilize carbohydrates and ergogenic aids – before your race and during your race. Ideally you fully top up carb stores before your race begins, so you are not beginning with a deficit. It’s impossible to come back from a deficit during your race. That said, for races that begin REALLY early and are LONG (think, ultra marathons and Ironman distance races), it does make sense to put more calories into the race than try to fit them all in before your race begins.

Important note: ideally you begin practicing your race day morning strategy months out from your actual race, which allows you time to make changes as necessary and hone in on your exact ideal personalized routine. 

Let’s look at how best to utilize carbohydrates and ergogenic aids before and during your race.

BEFORE: breakfast the morning of race day

Ideally breakfast consists of carbohydrates in the amount of 2 to 2.5 grams per kg of bodyweight. For many runners this means between 110 and 180 grams of carbohydrate pre-race. In order to be able to digest this amount, your meal should be low in fibre, protein and fat with some of those carb calories coming from liquids. Furthermore, you’ll need to begin fueling up to 3-4 hours pre-race to ensure complete digestion.

Lastly, when it comes to hydration, you don’t need to drink too much BEFORE you begin racing – 5 to 10 ml per kg, 2 to 4 hours prior will do the trick.

An example is given below (keep in mind there are SO MANY different ways your race morning nutrition might come together and still meet your macronutrient requirements). This particular example is for a 150 lb marathon runner who plans to finish in about 4 hours.

EXAMPLE breakfast (2.0-2.5 grams of carbohydrate per kg of bodyweight required)

  • Carbs required: 136 grams to 170 grams
  • Fluid required: 340 ml to 680 ml (1.5 to 3 cups)

5:00am (3 hours prior to race start)

  • 1 serving Overnight Oats using ¼ cup rolled oats (15g carb), with
  • 2 Tbsp dried tart cherries (18g carb), and
  • 1 sliced banana (25g carb)
  • 1 small (250ml) matcha green tea (ergogenic aid: catechins for reduced inflammation and L-theanine for increased focus and concentration)

6:00am (2 hours prior to race start) 

  • 1 Power Cookie (18g carb) 
  • 1 cup orange juice with ½ cup tart cherry juice (44g carb)

7:00am (1 hour prior to race start) 

  • triple shot espresso (ergogenic aid: caffeine = 3mg/kg BW for central nervous system stimulation – shown in studies to be strongest legal ergogenic aid)

7:30am (30 minutes prior)

  • 1 shot (2 Tbsp beet powder) BeetBoost (15g carb) with 125ml water (ergogenic aid: nitrates in beets promote blood flow to working muscles, enhancing endurance and speed)

7:45am (15 minutes prior)

  • 1 gel (25g carb) (ergogenic aid: simple carbs for immediate blood glucose utilization)

8:00am – RACE!!                                                                                                       

  • Total Carbs: 160 grams
  • Total Fluid: 3 cups

You’ll notice I like to spread out the carbohydrate calories pre-race to help with complete digestion. Additionally, various ergogenic aids must be applied at optimal timing. Thus it makes sense to actually draw up your race morning plan complete with timing in advance. I had a cue card on my fridge outlining my race morning plan when I first implemented it (now years later, it’s memorized in my head!).

DURING: fueling during your race 

Some half marathoners (and any distance that can be completed in less than 2 hours) may choose to race without any fuel during the race, particularly if they are ‘fat-adapted’ or metabolically efficient. However, many will find they benefit from taking in 25 grams of carbohydrate (equal to 1 gel or 1 serving energy chews or 1½ pitted medjool dates) every 6 to 8 kilometres (every 3.5 to 5 miles) or even just once over the course of the half marathon, typically just past half way. Experiment in training to find the best strategy for you.

For any race lasting longer than 2 hours, you’ll want to establish a plan that has you consuming carbohydrates at a rate of 30 to 60 grams per hour (even up to 90 grams for races longer than 5-6 hours). Always consume any gels, chews, dates or other food with water (to help with optimal digestion).

Additionally, aim to drink to thirst, either water with salty foods or salt tabs; or a sports hydration drink that contains adequate sodium. You are looking to consume 300-400 mg of sodium for every 500 ml of fluid consumed (possibly a bit more sodium if you are a very salty sweater) to maintain your electrolyte balance. Thus you’ll need to check nutrition info on gels, etc to get an understanding of how much sodium is found in your fuel and balance it with water and sports drink.

Here is an example of a race day nutrition plan for the above mentioned 150 lb marathon runner.

Anticipated finish = 4:00 hours (thus, 611 calories burned per hour running 5:40/km = 45 grams carb per hour at a 30% replenishment rate). Additionally, aim to consume ~500ml fluid per hour (more if very hot/humid out) with 300-400 mg sodium per 500ml.

  • Carbs required: 180g
  • Fluids required: ~2 litres
  • Sodium required: ~1,200mg to 1,600mg

To meet above requirements:

  1. Carbs: 4 chocolate and 2 cafe mocha Huma gels = 150 grams carb and 660mg sodium
  2. Fluids: Water on course = drink ~100 ml at every aid station (20 aid stations total) = ~2 litres
  3. Sodium: 660mg from gels; plus 600mg from 6 Saltstick Fast Chews (not required if you don’t manage to drink as much water as planned OR you choose to drink the electrolyte drink offered at race every other aid station)

For gels, take one immediately prior to race start (10-15 minutes before) and then the other five at kilometres 7, 14, 21, 28 and 35. Make the gels at km 21 and 35 ones with extra caffeine (Huma cafe mocha), thus utilizing this ergogenic aid as well as carb and sodium source.

Just as there are MANY ways to put together your pre-race morning breakfast, there are just as many ways to put together meeting your carbohydrate, fluid, sodium and ergogenic aid needs during your race. Have fun experimenting!

To deliciously healthy food and stronger faster running,

Sarah Cuff, R.H.N.
Holistic Sports Nutritionist
Run Coach
Therapuetic Coach

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