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What To Eat Leading Up To The Big Race?!

Sep 21, 2016

Question from a client: Gearing up for a distance race

The week before a race carries a certain electric air to it. Being on the cusp of embarking on the final challenge is a reality that tends to hover around the back of your mind seemingly at all times during these final few days. It’s easy to get lost in the feelings of anticipation of the race, feelings of pride in reflecting on all the miles completed in training, and quite possibly having your race day playlist you spent an hour perfecting playing on a loop in your mind. However there’s still some business to be done before all those fantasies and feelings can be brought to full bear at the starting line and I would like to take a minute to discuss one very critical piece of business: your nutrition in that final week.

A short-term nutrition plan for this can seem like a daunting topic to tackle for some, but the task can become a lot simpler when operating from a solid, yet basic framework of guidance. Me personally I like to take the larger task and break it down into smaller components so my framework for pre-race nutrition consists of three stages within that final week: days 1-4, days 5 & 6, and the morning of.

Days 1-4: Preliminary Days

There are a couple goals for this four-day segment. Firstly, and probably most obviously make sure you’re replenishing your calories appropriately. The basic principle of a caloric balance (calories in=calories out) especially applies here. If the calories out side is too much higher than the calories in side, you run the risk of your body breaking down lean body mass (aka muscle), and that’s the last thing you want happening right before the race.

As for a good ratio for percentage of calories protein to carbs to fats, this is where pre-race nutrition gets a little complicated. So without getting too deep into the weeds I’m going to present a ratio as a percent of total calories consumed in a day, and simply note the big picture here: 15% protein-65% carbs-20% fats. For those of you who may not want to do the math on this, the basic takeaway here is carb-heavy, but still a good chunk of calories coming from fats, with a little less emphasis on protein. Fats are important to support a wide range of functions related to race day including fuel, immune function (don’t want to get sick before a race do we?), and hormone function (hormones are working just as hard as you’re running during a race and their actions need to be highly coordinated for optimal performance).

Keep in mind calorie quality matters here too. Opt for the whole grains of course, but my preference is to go for the high carb fruits (pears, raisins, grapes, dates, dried cranberries & apricots, bananas) and veggies (squash, sweet potatoes, peas, beans, corn) to hit that 65%. For the fats, I personally go all-in with cheese, eggs, and chocolate milk, but I realize that’s not for everyone, so other options include seafood (especially white fish), nuts, legumes, and avocados.

The second goal is to test out your morning-of meal. It’s very important that whatever you eat on race morning is tolerable when you run. That factor trumps most any nutrition advice anyone could give you. If it doesn’t sit well in your stomach, don’t eat it on race day. Set aside a day or two to eat, and go for a run in race-day timing. So if you plan on getting up and eating at 6 am for a race that starts at 8:30 am, get up at 6, eat your pre-planned race day breakfast, and test out how well you run on that fuel, and if your digestive system can adequately handle it at 8.

Days 5 & 6: The Big Time

The two days before the race are the most crucial for determining how your nutrition will influence your performance. A recent study of novice distance runners found that carbohydrate intake on the two days immediately prior to competition, had a greater effect on running performance than morning of carbohydrate intake. Why is this the case? The authors of the study believed it has something to do with the liver’s store of glycogen, the sugar-based molecule your body uses to store carbohydrates. Your muscles also store glycogen, which is what is immediately used when engaging in exercise. But your muscles can only hold so much, so the liver serves as a small, but important emergency storage location. The liver can release its stores when needed into the blood stream for working muscles to extract. However, being that it is the last resort, the liver’s store of glycogen is the last to be replenished, and the liver also needs 12-24 hours to process its glycogen molecules, which are formulated and utilized differently than the glycogen stored in the muscles. So in these two days, it’s important to make sure both stores are filled. Current recommendations for carbohydrate intake are 5-12 grams of carbs per kilogram of body weight. So say for instance you weight 155 pounds that is about 70 kilograms, so by these recommendations this person would need between 350-840 grams of carbohydrates. For these two days, I make it simple on myself; I’ll get a carbohydrate intake on the lower end of that range in two days out, and the upper end one day out. Again it’s best to consume, whole grains or other quality carbs from sources such as the ones mentioned above.

Day 7: Race Day

So waking up for the big day what you need to keep in mind is this: plan in advance, and stick to it. As mentioned before, I do advise testing out the plan earlier in the week to allow you to make tweaks of things that don’t work. But at least a day before the race, you should have a plan on what you will be having, just to eliminate the possibility of wasting precious time trying to figure out what to eat for breakfast. Making the meal as simple as possible helps. That means nothing that requires any kind of significant prep that morning, not too many elements, and something portable should the need arise for you to eat in the car. Back to the carbs, about 1-4 grams per kilogram of body weight 1-4 hours before the event is the current recommendation and that’s a very reasonable target range to achieve. My go-to meal to get this is super simple: two pieces of whole grain raisin toast with a little bit of peanut butter and honey with chia seeds, which gives me about 89 grams of carbs. Throw in a banana and a small cup of orange juice and I get about 140 grams of carbs total; for my weight, that’s right in the middle of that recommended range. If you’re one of those people who are scared of in-race gastrointestinal issues, I would highly suggest trying that combination. Not a lot of food at all, easy on the stomach, and still gets the job done.


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