Hydration and Pre-Race Nutrition
I get this question a lot, “What should I eat before a race?”
That’s a great question!
I also get asked, “How much water should I drink before a race?”
Another great question!
Proper nutrition before any race or running workout is essential. It’s easy to overlook the importance of planning what to eat and how much to drink a few days before a race, and not just the day or the night before. One thing to consider when deciding what to eat before a race is that it takes the body 24-48 hours to assimilate any of the nutrients you’ve consumed. Therefore, if you’re racing or working out at 9 am the next morning, the food you eat the night before may not be as useful to your system as the food you’ve been consuming over the past 48 hours. Getting into a routine of consuming the proper pre-race or pre-workout nutrition over two to three days also allows your body to make any metabolic adjustments it may need to. If you suddenly start to consume high amounts of carbohydrates a day before the race or hard run, your blood glucose levels may change in unpredictable ways and unpredictability is not a good thing when prepping for a race. Proper food planning well before the race also allows you to experiment with different foods DURING your practice time so that you know exactly what works when it’s time to race.
The same thing applies to proper hydration. Your body can only assimilate and use a certain amount of fluid per hour, and the rest essentially becomes waste. A proper hydration schedule should involve consuming about 16 ounces of water every 3-4 hours over the course of 48-72 hours before a race. This should happen until about an hour before the race. Then you can sip some water from time to time but at that point, too much water won’t do you any good and may actually work against you. The longer the race, the more important this hydration schedule is.
You should also incorporate sports drinks such as Nuun - the industry standard in electrolyte replacement tablets - if you’re prone to lose a lot of sweat either in workouts or throughout the course of the day (for example if working outside on a hot and humid day). The loss of sweat is not always immediately apparent but if you’re feeling thirsty then it’s almost too late and you should be hydrating well before this happens. Nuun works by enhancing the water you drink with the electrolytes (sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium) you lose through sweat, without any additional sugar or calories. Water does not contain electrolytes, but you can help it out. It’s a revolutionary way of thinking about the sports drink; consume only what you need. One Nuun tablet is good for 16oz of water and each tube contains 10 of these tablets packed with electrolytes and in some cases even b-vitamins and naturally-occurring caffeine (found in Nuun Energy) for that added kick.
So what should you be eating before a race?
Our food preferences are about as varied as our personalities but here are a few things to keep in mind when shopping for and planning your pre-race nutrition:
Complex carbs are always the best carbs - they provide slow and steady fuel that allows you to sustain physical activity for longer periods of time. Some examples of these carb sources are grains such as rice (my favorite!), quinoa, oatmeal and unrefined pasta, and certain vegetables such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn (or maize), beans and lentils. Simple carbs are found in foods such as sugar, honey, soft drinks and candy.
Carbs are your friend - believe it or not, as a runner complex carbs should make up 50-60 percent of your meals, with protein 20-30 percent and healthy fats about 10-20 percent. Protein is important for muscle repair and it also plays a role in hormone regulation. The longer the race, the more muscles you break down and the greater the need for protein in your post-race meals. Healthy fats are considered unsaturated (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) and olive oil, canola oil and avocados as some of the best examples.
Fiber is not always your friend - foods high in fiber such as leafy green vegetables and even whole grain bread or bagels can cause abdominal discomfort while you’re on the move. This is usually the result of gas or bloating. While perfectly okay to consume after a race, try to avoid these foods as a pre-race meal. If you must have greens, a green smoothie is a great alternative!
Always break your fast - your body has been at rest during the night for quite some time and it needs nutrition. Your blood sugar levels are also invariably low so this calls for a sensible meal to start off your day. Even if it’s a small snack, always start your day, especially the day of a race, with something to eat.
The timing of meals is as important as the meals themselves - you should try to have your last meal about 3 hours before the race and a snack an hour or two beforehand. A good general rule of thumb is to have a cup of water and about 50 grams of carbs an hour before the race; bananas, oatmeal or porridge and even a natural smoothie are a great choice before a morning race. I’ve included some additional suggestions for snacks below. On the flip side, you should try to consume a sports drink immediately after the race (preferably within 15 minutes) and eat a meal rich in complex carbs AND protein within an hour after the race. There’s a window of opportunity of about an hour when your body is primed to receive nutrients after a hard workout like a race. Take advantage of it!
Go ahead and snack, just snack wisely - while running you may notice that your base metabolism starts to run a little higher. That’s okay and perfectly normal, and it’s actually one of the many benefits of running! You can eat more...if you want. In order to sustain this intense calorie-burning you may need to incorporate some snacks into your diet in between your meals. Sensible snacking acts as a bridge in between meals and allows you to sustain your energy level throughout the day. Some examples are smoothies, yogurt, nuts (read the labels, some nuts are high in saturated fats), fruits such as berries and certain health food bars.
Size matters (don’t snicker) - in general, the smaller the quantity, the better they serve you. Aim to keep your food portions small in order to better regulate your blood sugar levels and to simply use more of what you eat. Smaller, more frequent meals are the way to go.
Runners tend to eat a lot and the nutritional and hydration requirements of runners is also unique, but a little bit of planning can go a long way toward ensuring that you perform at your best every time. Treat your body well and it will treat you well.
If you have any questions on how to properly fuel up for your races or hard workouts, don’t hesitate to pull me aside at the next Wednesday group run, or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Run better. Run smarter. Run for life.