5 Nutrition Tips to Optimize Your Race Day Performance

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The weeks between your last long run and race day can be filled with nervous energy, excitement and/or anxiety – or what are often called the ‘taper tantrums.’ With that comes questions about how you should be eating. While the miles on your feet may be decreasing, it’s important that your diet stays generally the same. The nutrition tips that follow will help support you through the taper while making sure you have the best quality fuel in your tank to optimize your performance on race day—getting you to the finish line feeling great and hopefully with a time you can be proud of.

Tip #1: Plan for Success

Throughout your preparation for the marathon you’ve likely been following a training plan. Just like you plan for your workouts you should have a plan for your what you eat each day during the weeks leading up to the race. That plan should not be so rigid you can’t enjoy eating but should also include plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and dairy or dairy substitutes.

I encourage all athletes I work with, especially those nearing a big goal race, to plan out their week in advance and use their plates as a guide: fill half with fruits and vegetables, at least one quarter with a grain (preferably whole) or a starch like brown rice, whole wheat pasta or a sweet potato. The other quarter should be a lean protein source (e.g., chicken, beef, pork, tofu, tempeh, eggs). Add in at least two snacks per day so you aren’t going more than three or four hours without eating. That’ll help keep you from getting ‘hangry’ while also ensuring you don’t overeat at meal time. For your snacks to tide you over, you’ll want to be sure to include a carbohydrate and a protein source as well as a fruit or vegetable. Some of my favorite snacks include:

  • Apple slices with peanut butter
  • 1 oz of cheese with whole grain crackers and snap peas
  • 2 tablespoons of hummus with baby carrots and whole wheat pita chips
  • A slice of whole grain toast with 1 Tablespoon nut-butter and ½ a sliced banana
  • Plain Greek yogurt with a handful of blueberries and a ¼ cup granola

Sticking to a diet that offers a wide variety of foods—especially fruits and vegetables—ensures you are getting all the essential vitamins and minerals you need to boost your immune system and potentially stop any illness that may come knocking on your door in its tracks during these important weeks.

This is also NOT the time to try an experimental cuisine you’ve never had before, new restaurants or make any drastic changes to your diet. Stick to what you know works for you. The last thing you need is a bout of food poising or a stomach bug the week prior to the race.

Tip #2: Stock Up on Race Day Essentials

Don’t wait until the expo to purchase your desired flavor of on-course nutrition (i.e., gel/gu/blok/etc.) as they may run out or not carry the brand you rely on and then you are stuck trying something new on race day (never a good idea!). Ease your mind by collecting all your race day nutrition supplies and setting them aside early so it’s one less thing to worry about.

Traveling to your goal race? Do some research on grocery or corner stores nearby where you can stock up on supplies and snacks or pack your desired snacks and pre-race meal in your luggage. When I ran the Berlin marathon in 2015, I packed my own jar of peanut butter, a couple of my go-to race morning bagels, a bag of pretzels for snacking on and I bought bananas at a local market when I arrived.

Tip #3: Don’t Underestimate the Power of Hydration

During the weeks leading up to and especially the days prior to the race it’s important to stay adequately hydrated. Carry a water bottle with you throughout the week and be sure to refill it throughout the day. If you are finding yourself heading to the bathroom every 2-3 hours, you are likely doing a pretty good job.

Another good gage of your hydration status is to monitor the color of your urine. It should be light yellow, similar to lemonade. If it’s darker, you may be underhydrating (dehydration) and if it’s completely clear, you may be overhydrating. Dehydration is one of the biggest contributors to runners not finishing (the dreaded DNF) a race or needing to use a medical tent. Overhydration is also a serious condition that can lead to life threatening complications as it will throw your electrolyte balance off and once that happens it’s hard to get it back to normal.

Tip #4: Mastering the Carb-Load

You’ve probably heard about carbohydrate loading prior to the race. But what is it and is it necessary to do? Carbohydrates are our body’s preferred energy source during bouts of moderate to high intensity exercise. But we can only store so much in our bodies and it’s not quite enough to run a marathon. When we carbohydrate load, we’re essentially saturating our muscles with glycogen (the storage form of carbohydrate) to ensure we have as much fuel in the tank as possible.

Studies have shown that a high carbohydrate diet in the days leading up to the race can potentially improve performance time, decrease the amount of time it takes for us to feel fatigued and even boost mental and physical energy. My recommendation is to gradually increase carbs over the week leading up to the marathon and decrease high fat and protein-rich foods. You still want some protein – but focus on smaller portions. If we use our plates as a guide again, two to three days out from the marathon you should be making half your plate your grain or starch (rice, potatoes, pasta, bread, cereal, etc.) and then the other half now is divided up between vegetables and your protein source. Focus your snacks primarily on carbohydrate rich foods like pretzels, dry cereal, fruit snacks, graham crackers, or you can even sip on a sports drink which will also help with maintaining hydration.

What about the pasta dinner? If it’s something you’ve practiced and know sits well with you the next day, then go for it. Just don’t overdo it. With an early race start, I generally recommend trying to consume most of your calories earlier in the day prior and not shortly before bed as it can interfere with your sleep. You want to wake up on race day hungry and a big meal the night before may leave you still feeling full come morning.

One side effect to be aware of: you may gain a couple pounds. Don’t panic! This weight gain is likely just water weight as for every ounce of carbohydrate stored in our bodies, we also store about 3 ounces of water. You’ll quickly run that off during the race.

Tip #5: Perfect that Pre-Race Meal

Race day has finally arrived! By now you should know what your go-to breakfast is and when to have it. Your pre-race meal is just a chance to top off those glycogen stores.  In general, it should contain at least 500-calories primarily from carbohydrate and be consumed at least one hour and up to four hours before the race starts. This time frame allows for you to digest your meal and hit the bathroom once or twice before the start while also keeping you feeling full throughout the race.  Many runners also benefit from a snack about 30-45 minutes before the start. That should be solely carbohydrate based like a banana, handful of pretzels, gel/gu/blok or sports drink.

You’ll want to avoid high-fat foods in your pre-race meal as they may contribute to stomach upset. It’s also not the time to choose that high fiber breakfast cereal as that can lead to some bathroom visits a mile or two into the race. If you’re used to having coffee or tea before your long runs – then by all means continue to do that. But if not, now is not the time to try something new. Some of my go to pre-race meals include:

  • Two pieces of wheat toast or a bagel topped with a couple tablespoons of nut butter, sliced banana, 1-2 tsp of chia seeds and a drizzle of honey
  • Two packets of oatmeal topped with a handful of blueberries or raisins, slivered almonds, maple syrup and skim/non-fat milk
  • A substantial granola bar (200-250 calories), a container of low- or non-fat yogurt and bottle of sports drink with carbohydrates

Finally, hydration is also important before the race. Wake up and sip – don’t chug – on water or a sports drink throughout the morning. It takes at least 45 to 90 minutes for water to move through our system. If you gulp it down, you won’t adequately absorb the water and find yourself having to hit the bathrooms sooner than you may have anticipated. Try to have a couple glasses about 2 hours before to allow for ample time to urinate any excess before the start.

Bottomline: Practice Makes PRs!

The taper can be one of the hardest parts of training for a marathon. Apply these tips as you go through the next few weeks to ensure your nutrition is taken care of. Having the knowledge that you are nutritionally prepared come race day provides you with one less thing to worry about so you can focus instead on the job ahead – to race and enjoy 26.2 miles feeling great!

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