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. Suit up, it’s a long one! If this post isn’t for you, I’ll be back Wednesday with a food-related post.
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. This post on race day nutrition will go into the details of what to eat before a race, during a race (if longer than an hour), and after a race.
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. 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.
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Race Day Nutrition Fueling: Pre Race Meal
Nutrition strategies and race day nutrition may vary depending on how long your race this. Generally speaking, no matter what distance you’re running, carbohydrates should be your go-to choice for a snack or meal before a run. Your race day breakfast sets the stage for your muscles to perform.
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. Compared to fat, carbohydrates yield a much greater amount of ATP (aka energy) per volume of oxygen, which helps improve exercise efficiency.
This post goes into more details about the fueling differences for shorter and longer races but let’s recap them below.
If you’re planning for a race under an hour (5k or a 10k for some people), you don’t necessarily need to have a huge pre-race meal, but again, you should know what works for you. I’d say to plan to eat a balanced breakfast 1-2 hours beforehand. By balanced, I mean carbohydrate-based with a tiny bit of protein/fat for satiety.
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 (these packets are the best)
- Half a bagel with a little cream cheese or peanut butter
- 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 on race day oatmeal or toast with peanut butter and raisins (not the side of chocolate, though).
If you’re gearing up for a longer race, like a half marathon or marathon, your race day nutrition (or pre-race nutrition) strategy may look a little different. I don’t think it’s necessary to count carbohydrate 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, which 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.
For me, I prefer to have an average-sized breakfast (like mentioned above) 2-3 hours before and then a smaller snack closer to the starting time. For the smaller snack, it’s strictly carbohydrate-based, ideas below.
Smaller snack ideas:
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. Tailwind is one of my favorites for carbohydrates, calories and electrolytes, but there are others on the market too.
The last thing I’ll say about this is that, 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.”
Race Day Nutrition Fueling: Fueling During a Race
Probably not necessary. 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.
However, if you’re someone who doesn’t eat anything in a pre-race meal (see above why I don’t recommend that), maybe you do 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.
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) during a race or run. Protein, fat and fiber will only serve to slow digestion and may lead to cramping and stomach discomfort.
Carbohydrate intake during exercise can provide many performance benefits, such as preventing hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), preventing depleted glycogen stores, and 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 what some of the newer research has found but I’m sure there’s lots more to come.
I 1000% encourage my clients to practice fueling during longer runs with whatever nutrition sources they plan to use on race day. This makes race day nutrition so 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.
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.
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.
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
Electrolytes and hydration are also very important, obviously. Fortunately, many of the carbohydrate sources you choose will also have electrolytes. You just want to make sure you’re taking in enough water alongside these sources. I’ve written a whole post on hydration so I’ll refer you to that.
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.
Race Day Nutrition Fueling: Post Race Fueling & Recovery
In my opinion, this is one of the most important pieces for runners to understand and implement in their race day nutrition strategy.
Why is it important to eat after exercise?
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.
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
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.
However, I say that with the caveat that if you’re hungry, you should always eat.
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:
- chocolate milk (dairy or soy will give protein; non-dairy milk can work, too, but you won’t have the protein)
- Pre-made protein shakes are great for traveling (and to pair with fruit)
- anything with whey or cow’s milk
- banana with pb
- yogurt with fruit
- granola bar (ideally, one with more carbohydrates, like Lara bars or Kashi bars)
- sweet potato energy bites
I prefer to stick with food sources that are also providing antioxidants, which help with the recovery process. Sweet potatoes, mangos, blueberries and eggs are great options. Sweet potato blueberry baked oatmeal is my favorite.
Balanced meal ideas:
- eggs and toast (antioxidant-rich veggies are a plus)
- breakfast pizza or a skillet meal
- oatmeal (add eggs/milk/yogurt/protein powder for extra protein)
- sweet potato burgers
- baked oatmeal with peanut butter
- poultry or other choice of quality meat with grains and vegetables
I’m going to stop here considering this post is 2,000 words long. Stay tuned for the next post in this spring marathon nutrition campaign about how to optimize recovery.
Want To Check Out More of the Marathon Training Series?
- Easy Meals for Marathon Training
- The truth on Low Carb Diets for Runners
- How Much Water Should You Drink When Training in the Summer?
- Sports Nutrition FAQs
- How Nutrition Helps with Recovery
- The best recovery foods for runners
- Fueling Differences For Longer and Shorter Races
What does your race day nutrition plan look like?