What You Should Be Eating To Perform Your Best On Race Day — And No, It's Not Just Carbs
You’ve been training hard for your upcoming race — logging miles, timing runs, eating for optimal energy and recovery. And now you’re ready.
But as race day approaches, it’s normal to wonder what to eat directly before a race in order to perform your best. You want to provide your body with the right amount and kind of fuel, but you also don’t want to overeat or eat the wrong things.
Of course, there’s conflicting information out there, which is why we wanted to set the record straight.
Carb loading isn’t for everyone.
The idea of carb loading — consuming lots carbs, like pasta, bread, and rice, in the days leading up to a race — originated in the late 1960s, when a physiologist discovered a positive correlation between endurance performance and the amount of glycogen (the stored form of carbohydrates) in the body. While it has benefits, carb loading can also lead to dips in energy and endurance.
For one, many individuals interpret carb loading to mean eating lots of refined grains and sugars, such as pasta, bagels, and bread, which can actually interfere with normal blood sugar handling. These kinds of carbs can also make you feel more tired and negatively impact recovery. Plus, many of the foods commonly consumed for carb loading contain gluten, which can cause digestive issues for some.
It’s important to keep in mind that if you normally don’t eat a high-carb diet, you may feel these negative effects more intensely. Lastly, for every gram of carbohydrate our bodies store as glycogen, at least three grams of water is also stored. This can make you feel more bloated leading up to your event.
Fat and protein are just as important as carbs.
Particularly during longer races, our bodies can burn through glucose (from food and as stored glycogen) fairly quickly. This can lead to you hitting a wall during your race. Endurance exercise, like long-distance running, actually taps into a different energy system than shorter, higher intensity runs like sprints. This energy system can use fat, in addition to carbs, for energy. In fact, your body can create more energy from fat than it can from carbs because fat has more calories per gram.
Your protein intake is also crucial. If you aren’t eating enough carbs and fats, your body will break down protein (from your diet or muscle tissue) into amino acids in order to make glucose for fuel. This isn’t optimal as it requires more energy and therefore, isn’t a quick process.
Focus on a balance of quality proteins, complex carbs, and nourishing fat sources during the week leading up to your race.
If it’s not broken, don’t fix it! In other words, if your nutrition approach throughout your training helps you feel and perform your best during your practice runs, there’s no need to make drastic adjustments. In fact, changing things up too dramatically the week of the race can actually be more detrimental as your body needs time to adjust to new nutrition practices.
A balance of quality proteins (chicken, eggs, fish, turkey, beef), complex carbs (sweet potatoes, brown rice, quinoa, yucca), and nourishing fat sources (avocado, nuts and nut butters, olive oil) is ideal throughout this week. You can slightly skew your balance to include more carbohydrates than usual, but you’ll still want to pair them with proteins and fats. Around your training, pair quicker-digesting carb foods (like bananas, dried fruit, white rice, and quick oats) with a small amount of lean protein.
You don’t need a ton of carbs on race day.
Consume a quality fat source with protein and a moderate amount of complex carbohydrate at least two hours before you race. This will give your body adequate time to digest. If you’ve been fueling properly throughout the week and adjusting your run schedule, your glycogen stores should already be filled, so you don’t need a ton of carbs the day of the race. Fats will help slow the absorption of nutrients into the bloodstream for more stable energy.
Here are some examples of meals you can eat on the big day:
2 hardboiled eggs with 1 apple and 1 Tbsp. almond butter
½ cup Greek or coconut yogurt with 1 cup cooked steel-cut oats and 2 Tbsp. cacao nibs
4 oz. grass-fed beef burger with 1 cup brown rice and ½ avocado
2 scrambled eggs with 1 small baked sweet potato topped with 1 Tbsp. ghee
4 oz. grilled chicken with 1 cup plantains pan fried in 1 Tbsp. coconut oil
Keep in mind that serving sizes will vary based on your body as well as the duration of your race and the timing of the meal.
If you’re running anything longer than a half marathon, consider eating something portable and easy during your race, like dried fruit, squeezable applesauce, or yogurt/smoothie pouches. If you’d rather create your homemade race fuel, check out these recipes. Don’t forget to hydrate either! Water is just as important as food on race day. As always, nutrition isn’t one size fits all, so be sure to experiment with the above suggestions and find what works best for you.