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What should I eat before a race?


Pre-Race Nutrition

After all the training that has been done leading up to your big event, the last mistake you would want to make race morning is with your pre race nutrition.   There are some athletes who decide that they want to skip all the confusion and try not eating.  While this may work for a morning 5K, it gets more risky with a 10K and down right nonsense for a half-marathon/marathon or triathlon.  There have been several studies done that repeatedly show substantial increases in performance with proper fueling before an event.  In addition to increasing performance and topping off glycogen (energy) stores, a pre race meal will also help avoid hunger, stabilize blood sugar (especially in those who are sugar sensitive), hydrate the body, still leave your stomach empty by race time and help prevent gastrointestinal distress when done correctly.  So in other words, you will feel and perform better.  The key is to customize your eating habit based on your weight, race distance and food sensitivities.

Here are some basic guidelines to follow for a pre-race morning:

  1. Consume .5-1 gram of carbs per lb of body weight the morning of race[i].  For longer races stick to the 1 gram/lb. At least half of it in solid food eaten no later than 2 hours before the race.  The rest of the requirement can be taken in the form of a pre race hydration drink (see below) between 90-30 minutes prior to start time. There are some extra sensitive people that can only do liquids the morning of and that is OK(especially for short, less than 40 minutes, and high intensity racing) Some people keep a packet of gel to take 10-15 minutes before if they can tell they need a little more, so carry one just in case.
  2. Choose a solid food meal that is low to moderate in glycemic value. This is a key piece that will help keep your blood sugar stable before and during the race.  One reason some people feel hungry right before the start is that their pre event breakfast was way to high in simple sugars (i.e.: fruit loops, white breads, candy.) which caused a hypoglycemic reaction. People seem to be more sensitive to this blood sugar drop on race day.  With a lower glycemic meal, a steady stream of fuel will be released into the muscle during the first part of the race and allow your body to wait until later to use the other carbs you have stored up in the days before.
  3. Avoid high fat and high protein meals. This will slow down the absorption of carbs too much and then you end up trying to race on a full stomach. Yuck! That would be a gastrointestinal disaster. Some “lighter” protein is OK in order to reduce the glycemic index of a meal and make it “stick.” Acceptable protein would be eggs or whey protein, which are both easily digestible.
  4. Keep the fiber intake low. This would not be good time for a bean burrito. No explanation needed, ehh?
  5. Drink 12-24 oz. of fluid, stopping about 30 min. before race start. If you eat mostly solid food, then your fluid choice will be water.  But for some athletes, some or all fluids will be in the form of a hydration drink.

What about bars and drinks? Based on the above guidelines, the most acceptable bars seem to be Clif bars as they are specifically formulated to have a moderate glycemic index. However, some flavors seem to stabilize blood sugar better than others. Also, some people do well with some flavors of powerbars. If you are used to the bars with nuts and seeds (probars,) then that may be OK, too (see tip 5 above).

As far as pre race hydration drinks, choose wisely since there are quite a few people who can’t do any high carb drink before races due to the high glycemic nature of them. However, they are great if you drink it 30-45 minutes before the race. If you do this, pick one that uses maltodextrin as the carb source. Some drink companies that do this are Endurox, Hammer, and Cytomax.  No matter what brand you pick, make sure to add 40 grams of carbs to 16 OZ of water to get the right concentration of carbs that will absorb most effectively![ii]

What about smoothies and meal replacement drinks. When you are at home, smoothies can be a great option.  It is easy to alter these to give you the whey protein and low glycemic carbs you need and are used to.  The thicker the smoothie the more full you will feel if you are trying to substitute one for a solid meal. Also, don’t add overripe fruits or high glycemic juices as this will still cause a hypoglycemic reaction for some people.  As for products like Ensure, some people like them as long as they are still meeting all carb needs.

What are some solid meal ideas? French toast, scrambled eggs and sliced fruit, old fashioned long cooking oatmeal served up to your liking (can be cooked the day before and heated in microwave.) whole grain cereal with moderate amounts of protein and fiber, manna bread (from local health food store,) natural applesauce with whey protein or cottage cheese mixed in, or homemade whole grain muffins that have applesauce substituted for most of the oil.

Some of these homemade products can be made 1-2 days ahead and easily be taken with you when traveling. Keep products cool that have a lot of eggs.  Also, I Hop and Denny’s do come in handy. You can even buy a breakfast the night before as long as there is a mini fridge and a microwave (not mandatory.) Cold french toast is not that bad, actually.

Plan ahead and good luck! The easiest way to ensure that you will have what you need on race day is to plan ahead and be over prepared.  Who care’s if your pre race stash of food is over planned.  I am sure you would rather not finish your food than not finish your race.  So plan ahead, be prepared and have a great, energy filled time!


[i] Monique Ryan MS,RD  Feed Zone Q &A W/ Monique Ryan Velonews.com June 18,2003

[ii] Dr. Michael Colgan Optimum Sports Nutrition Advanced Research Press Pg.108

by Debbie Perry

Certified Sports Nutrition Advisor

USA Triathlon Certified Coach

Colgan Power Program Strength Trainer

Local Elite Runner/Triathlete

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010 at 6:18 pm and is filed under Expert Answers, Nutrition, Utah Running Experts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

8 Responses to “What should I eat before a race?”

  1. [...] you need to bring something along for mid-race refueling. Refer to Debbie Perry’s article on pre-race nutrition for more [...]

  2. Hi, its great to read some info my a fellow nutrition and fitness enthusiast. I personally am not a fan of whey protein, I know that on paper it is very efficient. But i have always wondered of the dairy aspect. A protein straight from milk, something great for weight loss and weight gain depending on usage but in terms of some folks you may find yourself to have a low metabolic tolerance to dairy (some people find the same with wheat). I prefer to diversify and try different proteins. This is all my personal opinion of course but i find all our body’s are different and you must do your own search to find the right form of powder for you. i personally shift between promasil and myofusion with some mutant mass if i feel like bulking or even as a recovery drink after a power cardio workout (such as plyo).

  3. Nice. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Shakeology says:

    Brilliant post!!! It gets confusing with all the details available about post-workout utilization. Thanks for clarifying when/what to consume post-workout and your personnal recommendations.

  5. In regards to this topic, it is often hard to find reliable recommendations on the Web. Thanks for sharing your ideas on natural health and related topics. By the way, do you have any savvy opinions on where I can get more useful recommendations on the Internet? Keep up the excellent work!

  6. Jerrell Brin says:

    Thanks, thats very useful stuff to know! I admit I’m a bit of a failure in the kitchen, but I’m trying my best to learn. Admitting is the first step to recovery right!!? I promised to cook something for my wife this weekend for the first time – very exciting! I found some simple recipe at this website, seems to be designed exactly with people like me in mind, which is great! Anyway, thanks for your tips, I’ll be sure to bookmark your site to read more later.

  7. Gel Fuel says:

    My brother recommended I might like this blog. He was once entirely right. This publish actually made my day. You can not imagine just how a lot time I had spent for this information! Thanks!

  8. Terry Bandy says:

    Everything is very open with a very clear clarification of the
    issues. It was really informative. Your website is very helpful.
    Thanks for sharing!

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