Hydration and Fueling Guidelines for Race Day

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Hydration and Fueling Guidelines for Race Day

Contributor: Matt Fitzgerald     Category: Race Day

What you eat and drink on the day of a race—both before and during the event—has a major impact on how you perform, for better or worse. Consuming the wrong things or the right things at the wrong times or too much or too little of anything can cause problems ranging from gastrointestinal distress to bonking. Consuming the right things in the right amounts at the right times will ensure that you perform up to your potential. Here are some science-based guidelines for race-day nutrition.

The Pre-Race Meal

Most races start early in the morning, and most people wake up in the morning not having eaten or drunk anything for twelve hours or so. Therefore it’s important to eat something before racing to top up the body’s energy stores and restore a normal level of hydration.

The optimal time for a pre-race meal is three hours before the race start. If you don’t want to wake up early enough to have your breakfast then, you can wait until two hours out, but you’ll need to eat a lighter meal to ensure that it empties from your stomach by the time the gun goes off.

A traditional pre-race meal consists of easily digested high-carbohydrate foods such as oatmeal and bananas. However, there is some research suggesting that a meal consisting mainly of fat works better before longer races. The reason is twofold. First, eating a high-fat meal before exercise causes the muscles to rely more on fat and less on stored muscle glycogen for fuel during exercise, increasing endurance. Also, the traditional pre-race breakfast contains more carbohydrate than is necessary to top off the body’s energy stores prior to competition.

Based on this research, I have replaced traditional pre-race breakfasts with one that consists of about 800 calories’ worth of sausage, egg and cheese breakfast sandwiches, which provide the right balance of fat and carbs to stimulate fat burning and top off energy stores. This is a rather heavy meal, so you’ll want to test it in training before you use it on race day. There’s no need to use this strategy before races shorter than a half marathon.

As for hydration, many runners drink too much before races. You are not a camel. The human body cannot store excess water. If you drink more than you need to in order to restore a normal level of hydration, you will succeed only in increasing the number of bathroom trips you need to make before the race and the likelihood of time-wasting pit stops during the race.

The Final Hour

One hour before your race starts, stop drinking. This will ensure that you start the race with an empty bladder. If you get thirsty during this period, take tiny sips from a water bottle—just enough to wet your whistle.

If you are a coffee drinker and/or you wish to take advantage of the performance-enhancing effect of caffeine, take one or two caffeine pills at the same time you stop drinking. You could drink coffee instead, but I find the pills more convenient because the optimal time to take caffeine is one hour before you start racing and by that time you’re already on site. Plus, pills give you what you want (caffeine) and not what you don’t want (fluid) at this time.

The optimal pre-race caffeine dosage is about 4 milligrams per kilogram you weigh (1 kg = 2.2 lbs). The typical caffeine pill contains 200 mg. Experiment with this practice in workouts before you try it on race day.

About five minutes before you start your race, swallow a packet of energy gel or a couple of energy chews. This will kick-start the race fueling process, as the carbohydrate in the gel or chews will begin to enter your bloodstream just as you are beginning to run.

During the Race

It is not necessary or beneficial to consume any nutrition during a race lasting less than about an hour. In races lasting longer than an hour or so, performance is maximized when runners drink according to their thirst and consume 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour.

It is sensible to get as much of the fluid and carbohydrate you need as possible from the same source—ideally from the sports drink offered at on-course aid stations. Most runners do not get 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour by drinking an event’s official sports drink according to their thirst, however. You can make up the balance by consuming energy gels that you carry with you or get from aid stations as well.

Finally, successful race fueling requires that you listen your body. You must first pay attention to your thirst in order to drink frequently enough and in sufficient amounts to keep it at bay. But you must also pay attention to your gut and avoid forcing yourself to take in nutrition when you are experiencing nausea or other symptoms of GI distress. Practicing your race nutrition strategy in race-simulation workouts will minimizes your chances of experiencing such unpleasant surprises on race day.



Mental Strategies for Race Day

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Mental Strategies for Race Day

Contributor: Matt Fitzgerald     Category: Race Day

When you wake up on race morning, you’re either physically prepared to achieve your goal or you’re not. There is nothing you can do to change your fitness level in the final hours before the gun goes off.

Your mind is another matter. Recent science has demonstrated that the thoughts and emotions a runner experiences immediately before and during a race strongly affect performance and outcomes—for better or worse. As a runner, you want to control your race-day thoughts and emotions in ways that produce the best possible results.

Here are five specific science-backed mental strategies to use in your next race.

Brace yourself

The direct limiter of performance in distance-running events is not physiology but something called perception of effort, which is a runner’s global sense of how hard running feels at any given moment. Every runner has a maximum tolerable level of perceived effort, just as every person has a maximum pain tolerance. But certain factors can increase this limit and thereby boost performance, while other factors can enhance performance by reducing the level of effort a runner perceives at any given pace.

One of these factors is expectations. Runners tend to be less bothered by a high level of effort and less likely to slow down in response to it when the feeling does not exceed the effort level they expected to experience at that point in the race. So one way to harness the power of your mind to your advantage on race day is to consciously expect the race to be very hard—a strategy I refer to as “bracing yourself”.

Turn anxiety into excitement

Psychological experiments have demonstrated that when people tell themselves they are excited rather than nervous before a challenge such as speaking in public or taking a math test, they perform better. This technique has not yet been tested in an exercise context, but it’s reasonable to assume that it would work just as well before a running race because anxiety is known to increase perceived effort. And even if it doesn’t make you run faster, turning anxiety into excitement will make the pre-race experience less unpleasant for you.

Embrace your effort

Perceived effort is distinct from pain, but similar. Many factors that increase pain tolerance or reduce pain sensitivity have similar effects on perceived effort during exercise. For example, studies have shown that people who adopt an attitude of acceptance before experiencing a pain stimulus (“I know this will hurt, but I can handle it”) are able to tolerate the pain better than people who adopt an attitude of resistance (“I hope this doesn’t hurt”).

Psychologists use a technique known as acceptance and commitment therapy to teach people to embrace the unpleasant aspects of pursuing behavioral change and goals. In a 2014 study, Elena Ivanova of McGill University found that teaching beginning exercisers to accept the discomfort of exercise through this method resulted in a 55 percent increase in time to exhaustion in a high-intensity endurance test. These subjects weren’t any fitter than before; they simply had a higher tolerance for perceived effort because they embraced it. Do the same in your next race!

Stay on task

There are two directions in which you can channel your attention while running: internally and externally. Generally speaking, when your attention is focused internally, you are concentrating on how you’re doing, and when your attention is focused externally, you’re focused on what you’re doing. Studies have shown that runners experience a lower level of perceived effort at any given pace and perform better when they keep their attention externally focused, on the task at hand.

How do you do this? Try concentrating on task-relevant stimuli such as other runners (e.g., put a target on the back of the runner in front of you) and your pace (e.g. check your watch at regular intervals and make adjustments as necessary to stay on track toward your goal). When you find your attention turning inward toward negative feelings (discomfort) and emotions (self-doubt), make a conscious effort to shift it back to the task at hand.

Stay positive

When experiencing discomfort during a race, it is normal to think negative thoughts such as, “I’m going to hit the wall!” But some runners consciously arrest these thoughts and replace them with positive substitutes like, “Just be patient.” A 2013 study by Samuele Marcora at the University of Kent demonstrated that this practice, known as positive self-talk, reduces perceived effort and enhances endurance performance.

The next time you find yourself entertaining negative thoughts during a race, quickly replace them with a more helpful alternative. With a little practice you will find specific phrases that work especially well for you. Among my personal favorites are “Relax, you’ve been here before” and “How bad do you want it?” (which happens to be the title of my new book on mastering the psychology of mind over muscle).