Fuel for the Finish


Performance Boosting Pre-race Nutrition

By Kary Woodruff, Sport Dietitian at TOSH
(The Orthopedic Specialty Hospital)

It’s the day of your big race. You went to bed early, woke up early, stretched, and double knotted your running shoes. After weeks (or even months) of training, you’re ready. You’ve done everything you can to ensure an optimal performance during the race. Or did you? Pre-race nutrition is often overlooked by athletes, but eating right before a race can boost your ability to perform well.

Let’s look closer. People often ask, “Does it really matter what I eat the night before?” Absolutely. Your pre-race meal can ensure your body has optimal energy stores to get through the race. Specifically, you’re looking for a meal rich in carbohydrates. Think of your muscles as having little gas tanks inside them. You wouldn’t drive your car without fuel, so don’t ask your body to work on empty either. Our bodies use both carbohydrates and fat as energy sources during endurance events. We have an almost endless supply of energy from fat, but carbohydrates are stored in limited amounts. Eating a meal rich in carbohydrates ensures you fill those gas tanks.

Carb-rich Meals versus Carbo-loading

However, there’s a difference between eating a carb-rich meal and carbo-loading. Most people don’t need to carbo-load—this is more for athletes participating in exhaustive exercise for more than 90 minutes and has a specific protocol. A carbohydrate meal, on the other hand, has a significant carbohydrate content, along with moderate amounts of protein and healthy fats.

The proverbial pasta meal the night before can accomplish this, but there are plenty of other options as well. Carbohydrates are found in all grains, in fruits and starchy vegetables, and in milk and yogurt (or soy milk for those who are lactose intolerant). Vegetarians could choose a tofu and vegetable stir-fry over brown rice with a glass of milk; quinoa pilaf and fresh fruit; or a whole wheat tortilla with beans, corn, rice, and vegetables with a glass of orange juice—the possibilities are endless. If you prefer animal protein, try a 4-ounce grilled chicken breast with roasted butternut squash. Then have some yogurt and berries as a small snack before bed.

What to Eat on Race Day

On race day you want to make sure those gas tanks are topped off, as you have used some carbohydrates overnight. Two to four hours before your race, eat a carb-rich breakfast, like oatmeal, cereal, toast with almond butter, fruit, yogurt, or whole grain waffles/pancakes. Yes, this means waking up earlier than an hour before the race, but it’s worth the effort.

If it doesn’t bother your stomach, have a high-carb snack right before the race. Try a banana, granola bar, sport bar, (just read the label and make sure it has carbohydrates in it), or half a peanut butter and banana sandwich. A little bit of protein or fat is okay, but too much and you may find your stomach trying to interrupt your race in a few hours!

Your nutrition during the race can present with logistical challenges, but nothing that preparation and practice can’t overcome. First and foremost, do not try something new on race day. This is worth repeating. Do not try something new on race day! Practice what you’ll eat and drink during the race while training. Use your training not only to work your body, but to nail down your nutrition strategy as well.

If your event will be longer than 60 minutes of high-intensity exercise, or more than 90 minutes of steady-state exercise, plan on getting some carbohydrates in during the race. Athletes that don’t account for this are all too familiar with the experience of ‘hitting the wall’. This happens when your carbohydrate stores are depleted. How much do you need to prevent this? Think 30–60 grams each hour. Use food labels to understand how to do this. You can get your carbohydrates from whole foods, like fruit, or from sport nutrition products, like gels, chews, bars, or sports drinks.

Additional Tips

Look ahead to see what products the race will be offering. If you’ll be using the race-supported aid stations, use those products in training. For those who say they can’t tolerate food or drink during exercise, you can actually train the body to take in nutrients, it just takes practice and time. Also, try different products. If one sports gel doesn’t sit well with you, get another brand, they usually have different formulas and types of carbohydrates.

The bottom line: your nutrition is just as crucial to your performance as your physical training. Why spend weeks or months training to then be limited on race day by a lack of fuel? With some forethought and preparation, you can dial in your nutrition and maximize your performance.

Kary Woodruff Kary Woodruff is a Dietitian in the Sport Science Department at TOSH. She loves playing outside, whether it be backcountry/telemark skiing, mountain and road biking, running, or hiking, but her favorite activity is playing with her 6-month-old daughter and husband. Kary has a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Master’s degrees in Sports Psychology and Sports Nutrition from the University of Utah.


About Author

Jenny Willden is the Managing Editor of Outdoor Sports Guide and a self-proclaimed gear and grammar nut. She's a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association and the Adventure Travel Trade Association. A lover of adventure and travel, she's happiest when riding horses or snowboarding in Utah’s mountains. Follow Jenny’s exploits on Twitter @jennywillden or Instagram @jlwillden.

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