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.
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.
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.
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.