The Ultimate Guide To Race Day Nutrition

  Mar 11, 2019  |  #Marathon Training

This post on race day nutrition is going to be the first of a series of sports nutrition posts coming to the blog, just in time for spring marathon season. Because let’s face it…eating for marathon training is just as important as the race itself!

If you’re wondering what to eat on race day, what to eat before a race, or what to eat after a race, this post is for you. Maybe you’ve experimented with some different snack and meal options but haven’t found the ideal combination.

Some of the topics discussed in this marathon race day nutrition post include:

  • What to Eat Before Running
    • What to Eat the Night Before a Race
    • What to Eat the Morning of a Race
  • Marathon Race Day Breakfast
  • What To Eat For a Sensitive Stomach 
  • Fueling During a Race (Shorter vs. Longer Races)
  • What Kinds of Carbohydrates to Fuel With
  • Electrolytes and Hydration 
  • What Post Race Nutrition is Good for Recovery 
Race day nutrition plan

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What To Eat Before Running

First and foremost, it’s important to remember that we are all different, so while these recommendations are general and may work for the majority of runners for race day, they may not work for you.

Nutritional requirements for marathon runners can be very individual, though needs are much higher than the average person. 

It’s best to practice a few different methods to see what works for you, or meet with a dietitian who specializes in sports nutrition (like me) to personalize your race day nutrition plan. Race day meals can be very customizable.

holding two freshly baked vegan breakfast cookies with chocolate chips
Vegan breakfast cookies may work for some people!

What should you drink before a marathon? Water or a carb-based drink. And, if you’re considering drinking coffee before running, know that caffeine and running can work well together. 

In terms of what to eat before a race, nutrition strategies may vary depending on how long your race is. I also think your nutrition in the off season is very important for build up to you training cycle nutrition. 

Generally speaking, no matter what distance you’re running, carbohydrates are pretty much the best food to eat before a run. They should comprise the majority of your pre-race meal or snack.

In terms of marathon nutrition, your race day breakfast sets the stage for your muscles to perform.

oatmeal topped with fruit

Carbohydrates are the quickest energy sources for our body to use, and provide fuel for the brain and central nervous system as well. Most can be digested quickly and easily, making them the best food to eat before a run.

Compared to fat, carbohydrates yield a much greater amount of ATP (aka energy) per volume of oxygen, which helps improve exercise efficiency. This is why I don’t recommend a low carb diet for runners.

This post goes into more details about the fueling differences for shorter and longer races but let’s recap them below for this pre race meal plan. 

Pre Race Day Meals For Shorter Races

Looking for what to eat before race day 10k? If you’re planning for a race under an hour, you don’t necessarily need to have a huge pre-race meal, but again, you should know what works for you.

Generally speaking, plan to eat a balanced breakfast 1-2 hours beforehand.

Banana bread with chia seeds topped with peanut butter

I really like  UCAN energy bars or the UCAN almond butter. Both have superstarch, which helps stabilize blood sugar and can also help with sensitive stomachs. 

By balanced, I mean carbohydrate-based with a tiny bit of protein/fat for satiety. Most runners stray from high fiber options, which can create discomfort in digestion, in the pre race meal. 

Some good race day nutrition breakfast options:

  • Oatmeal with fruit and peanut butter (overnight oats and baked oatmeal can be great too!)
  • Toast with peanut butter and a banana 
  • Granola with yogurt (I would recommend a low-fat, sweetened yogurt for extra carbs)
  • Half a bagel with a little cream cheese or peanut butter
  • An energy bar made with superstarch 
  • Cereal with milk
  • Stroop waffles with some peanut butter (if you like something lighter)
  • Energy bites (can be great so you can personalize based on your taste preferences)

My go to breakfast the morning of a race is oatmeal or toast with peanut butter and raisins.

What To Eat The Night Before a Race

Again, choose a predominantly carbohydrate-based meal, with low fiber and some protein if you’re looking for what to eat the night before a half marathon. 

toast with peanut butter and raisins

Some of my favorite night before a race meal recipes include this veggie pasta bake, sweet potato turkey burgers on a bun (more carbs!), or an egg noodle stir fry without most of the veggies. 

What to Eat the Morning of  a Longer Race

If you’re gearing up for a longer race, like a half marathon or marathon, your marathon nutrition plan (or pre-race nutrition) and strategy may look a little different.

I don’t think it’s necessary to count carbohydrates and overly focus on it, but if you are a numbers person, the general recommendation for pre-exercise carbohydrates is 1-4 grams of carbohydrates per kg of body weight.

Steelcut Banana Oatmeal topped with banana slices and cinnamon on white counter | Bucket List Tummy

This has been shown to enhance endurance or performance of a prolonged exercise.

I will say, most of my clients tend to not get enough carbohydrates in their diets, so race day breakfast is a great opportunity to capitalize.

Marathon Race Day Breakfast

Before a half marathon, I prefer to have an average-sized breakfast (like mentioned above) 2-3 hours before.

Then, I’ll have a smaller snack closer to the starting time for my marathon race day nutrition plan.

box of Sunmaid raisins in hand

For the smaller snack, it’s strictly carbohydrate-based for that energy boost.

Smaller snack ideas for the pre race meal:

So, my marathon race day breakfast looks like a bowl of oatmeal with banana and peanut butter, and then another half of banana or piece of dried fruit or some toast. 

Sweet potato energy bites with coconut flakes in white bowl, a great option for pre race meal | Bucket List Tummy

If you’re someone who doesn’t like anything in your stomach before a race, consider liquid carbohydrates.

While Gatorade is always an option, some people prefer less sweet electrolyte beverages or you can make your own.

UCAN (no sugar, and made with superstarch) and Tailwind are some of my favorites for carbohydrates, calories and electrolytes, but there are others on the market too.

If you’re running in the morning (which most races are), you do want to have something in your tank.

According to the Position Paper from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “carbohydrate consumed in meals and/or snacks during the 1-4 hours pre-exercise may continue to increase body glycogen stores, particularly liver glycogen levels that have been depleted by the overnight fast.

UCAN can also help those who have a sensitive stomach while running or are sensitive to sugar. It utilizes superstarch (basically, a slow releasing carbohydrate) rather than quick-acting sugar.

How to Use UCan

I alternate between the cran-raspberry flavor and orange flavor depending on my mood. With 21 grams of carbs and 170 mg of sodium per scoop, it’s easy to mix with water for an easily-digestible pre workout carbohydrate and hydration tool. Or, I’ll take it in my water bottle during a run. I recommend this to ALL of my clients, especially those with sensitive stomachs.

Just click subscribe and save to save 10%

Fueling During a Race

What foods should you eat during a race? The best food to eat during a marathon is something you’ve tested several times (ideally months in advance) and that sits well with you!

For shorter races (5k, 10k), it’s probably not necessary to take in any fuel during a run. Of course, much of this will depend on your pre race meal and what you ate the day before a race as well. 

Generally speaking (assuming you had a balance pre-race snack and eat sufficient carbohydrates in your daily diet), you should have sufficient muscle glycogen stores to last the race.

Spoonful of peanut butter with no bake energy bites

However, if you’re someone who doesn’t eat anything in a pre-race meal (see above why I don’t recommend that), it may be prudent to include something small right before the start or within the early miles.

You would want this to be something quickly digested (simple carbohydrates), so a gel would be ideal.

I love the Gu salted watermelon for a one and done.

But, I will say that shorter runs can be a great time to train the gut to take in fuel before longer runs and races, and a good chance to practice before eating during a marathon. 

Longer Races and How Marathon Nutrition Can Impact Performance

Unless you’re doing an ultramarathon or very long distance race, you probably don’t need to ever take in anything other than carbohydrates (and electrolytes and water) for your marathon food plan. 

Protein, fat and fiber will only serve to slow digestion and may lead to cramping and stomach discomfort.

Let’s talk more about what to take during a marathon because marathon nutrition can make a significant impact on performance.

Carbohydrate intake during exercise can provide many performance benefits, such as preventing hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), preventing depleted glycogen stores.

There’s even research that just a mouth rinse of something carbohydrate-based can activate reward centers in the central nervous system, which may enhance performance and pacing strategies.

This is according to some of the newer research, but I’m sure there’s lots more to come.

overhead view of different running fuels for marathon nutrition plan on brown background | Bucket List Tummy

I 1000% encourage my clients to practice fueling during longer runs with whatever nutrition sources they plan to use to know what to eat on race day. This makes your marathon nutrition plan much easier!

If you want to see an example of how I fuel during a long run, this post breaks down what I had (and why) during a 20 mile long run, and this is a more recent account of a 20 mile run.

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What kinds of carbohydrates and how much?

If you suffer from stomach discomfort with certain types of fuel during exercise, keep experimenting. There are so many different forms available, from 100% liquid based, to gels, to chews, to blocks to real food ideas, like tart cherry gummies.

I’ve written a whole post on runner’s gut for stomach issues and what to try if you have stomach discomfort during running, too.

Tart Cherry Gummies on white countertop with more gummies in the background | Bucket List Tummy

Ideally, you have been amping up your muscle glycogen stores (in other words, carb loading) before the race so you have some backup reserve that may last you longer. I usually recommend to my runners to start with 30-60 grams of carbohydrates per hour over 75 minutes. Obviously, test this on your training runs. 

This could mean about 2-3 gels/hour, or half gel every 10 minutes, whatever works. I recommend taking gels at regular intervals (ie every 3-5 miles, or if you’re time-based, every 20-30 minutes) so your brain and body are receiving a steady flow of glucose.

Electrolytes and Hydration

Don’t underestimate the importance of electrolytes and hydration. Electrolytes for runners need a whole post of their own.

Fortunately, many of the carbohydrate sources you choose will also have electrolytes in them. You just want to make sure you’re taking in enough water alongside these sources. I’ve written a about hydration during training so I’ll refer you to that.

Lemon, salt, sugar on black background to make homemade electrolyte drink, as part of a race day nutrition plan

For taste and performance, these packets are great!

UCAn hydration packets strawberry kiwi flavor

If you know you are a salty sweater, consider taking salt tabs (these are great) before or during your run, or choosing a re-run snack with sufficient sodium. Some examples are bread with salted peanut butter, soup, milk, nuts and deli meats. 

Get Your Free Nutrition Tips

Post Race Meal and Recovery

While it’s a common question of, “what to eat before a marathon,” in my opinion, the post race meal is one of the most important pieces for runners to understand and implement in their race day nutrition strategy.

Why Is Post Race Nutrition Important for Recovery?

Immediately after exercise, our muscles are primed to assimilate and build protein from amino acids from the blood. After exercise, our muscles are also most efficient at absorbing carbohydrates. The amino acids replenish and build protein stores, while the carbohydrates refill our glycogen stores.

Carbohydrates also stimulate insulin, an anabolic hormone that helps with muscle building and bringing carbohydrates into the muscles.

Ideally, you want a 3:1-4:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein. Yes – you want more carbohydrates than protein. Your body can only absorb a certain amount of protein at once, so loading up your smoothie with 50 grams of protein is pretty futile.

A little bit more about the optimal combination in this post about how nutrition helps with recovery

Smoothie bowl with fruit, granola and peanut butter, an example of a post run meal

The best food for recovery after running? Ideally, a mixture of carbs and protein, but the best food to eat after a long run is….anything that you can stomach. Eating something is often better than nothing. 

Do I need to eat immediately after exercise?

I talk a little bit more about timing in my sports nutrition FAQ post. In short, it’s not as vital as we once thought to refuel within 30 minutes.

However, I am of the opinion that the sooner we do, the better. I say this for many reasons. (More in this Women’s Running post I wrote).

Food helps with recovery for many reasons, some of which include:

  • replenish glycogen stores
  • restore energy reserves
  • rebuild protein stores
  • maintain blood sugar
  • decrease inflammation
  • improve immunity

The post race meal will accomplish these things quicker if it is consumed quicker. 

Shorter Races

Honestly, I don’t see too much of a difference in the short term between shorter and longer races. It’s the days after that also make a difference for longer races. As you probably know if you’ve run a half marathon or full marathon before, it takes days to recover.

There may be delayed muscle soreness, and your appetite may be very high for days after the race. All of this is part of the recovery process, as well as making sure to eat adequately, and foods that can help your recovery.

If you live close to home or where you’ll get a meal after, you can probably just have that meal serve as your post-run snack/fueling. It’s not as necessary to have a designated post-run snack for a shorter race, like a 5k. This is because you likely have some glycogen reserves still left that you have not depleted.

However, I say that with the caveat that if you’re hungry, you should always eat.

chocolate milk after a run

Longer Races

After longer races, I’ve found through working with athletes that it’s more common for appetites to be blunted. A liquid drink may be easier to digest before thinking about a meal. Smoothies, chocolate milk, lemonade, gatorade, sports drinks or other electrolyte drinks can work.

Other snack ideas to have shortly after your run include:

Sweet potatoes, mangos, blueberries and eggs are great options. Sweet potato blueberry baked oatmeal is my favorite.

Prefer a vegan athlete meal plan? Click!

closeup of sweet potato blueberry baked oatmeal

Balanced meal ideas:

For more marathon nutrition tips, check out this PDF. 

Want To Check Out More of the Marathon Training Series?

What does your race day nutrition plan look like?

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