July the middle of the race season, as you’d expect, I’ve recently had numerous conversations with clients about race nutrition. Everyone wants to know, “What should I eat before and during a race.” Many times, that question is followed up with a personal experience involving cramping, GI issues, bonking, or other nutrition-related breakdowns. Nutrition is a critical element in endurance events- if you’ve ever got it wrong, you certainly know what it means to have your nutrition off. When nutrition and hydration is on point, athletes enjoy sustained energy throughout their event, with limited if any stomach issues. Yet so many fail to get this critical piece right.
So, what SHOULD you eat when undertaking an endurance event? There is no perfect solution- with multiple factors to consider, what works for one may not work for another. Yet there are a few basic tips that can be extremely helpful to ensuring a positive race experience. Here are 6 things you can do to master your race nutrition and crush your next race:
Know your caloric and hydration needs (calorie, carbohydrate, and sodium intake). Because everyone’s body chemistry is different, no one’s caloric needs are exactly the same. But there are some benchmark ranges to determine if you’re getting the essential nutrients needed for extended periods of racing. Calories, carbohydrates, fluids, and sodium are critical nutritional elements vital to endurance efforts. Understanding how much your body can process is vital to managing your nutritional efforts. As a general rule, the body can process between 200-350 calories per hour, depending on your weight, race intensity, heat, and humidity. Consume 25 g of carbohydrates (the body’s preferred fuel source) every 30-45 minutes, based on body weight. Heavier athletes require more fuel as they race. Athletes that are under fueled or don’t take in enough carbohydrates are subject to the dreaded ‘bonking’ effect when glycogen stores are depleted. Sodium needs can vary greatly based on the athlete’s sweat rate (hence the need for a sweat test), but in general, most require anywhere between 600-1800 mg of sodium per hour during a race. No surprise that low sodium levels can also be a major cause of GI issues during races- most people fail to get enough sodium during hard efforts.
Know the race course. Understanding the demand on the body during different parts of the race, and the locations of aid stations on course is a much- overlooked part of race nutrition planning. Athletes that know where they need and have access to nutrition can better manage their race effort. They have a huge advantage in not having to carry excess fluids/nutrition, yet are able to fuel up at critical times during the race. Knowing challenging parts of the race, which may require nuanced fueling (ex., long, hard climbs on a bike course, or open exposed sections of flat run courses may require more hydration), can be a smart way to ensure an athlete doesn’t suffer a serious nutrition setback.
Plan and practice beforehand. It goes without saying, but plan your race-day nutrition just like you would your race-day pacing. Use your training as a time not only to test your body but to test your nutrition, allowing your gut to acclimate to what you plan to ingest on race day. Most races will tell you (either on the web page or by emailing the race director several weeks in advance of the race) what they plan on using to stock the aid stations on race-day. Find out and then use the several weeks leading up to that race as an opportunity to acclimate your system to what will be on course. This reduces the need to carry your own fueling and hydration (a significant effort if racing an Ironman or even a marathon).
Race hydration starts several days prior to the event. Most endurance athletes have heard the ominous statistic that being dehydrated by just 5% is enough to drastically affect performance. Yet, drinking lots of water the day before a race isn’t enough to be sufficiently hydrated prior to a significant endurance event. Air travel to races, daily influxes of heat and humidity, changes in elevation, and multiple other factors affect hydration. Keep on top of your hydration needs by sipping water AND electrolyte-rich fluids several days prior to the event. Urine color is the easiest way the know if you’re hydrated sufficiently- light yellow is best, dark yellow means you’re under hydrated. Calcium, magnesium, potassium, and sodium are the critical electrolytes that are needed for you to execute on race day, so make sure daily fluid intake includes these essentials. Nuun tabs, G2 or other ‘light’ sports drinks can be a simple way to help supplement water intake with the essentials.
Reduce fiber and fat 1-2 days before. Depending on the duration of the race, you’ll want to reduce fat and fiber content prior to the event. Why? Just imagine going for a 3 hr run after eating a large bean burrito :) Enough said. Fiber, while healthy for daily intake, can spell disaster for race efforts. For events lasting longer than 5-6 hrs (Ultra running, Ironman, half Ironman, etc.), start to reduce fibrous fruits and veggies and substitute them with grains or other simple carbohydrates (bananas, rice, bagels, pretzels, plain pasta, etc.) Be careful to also avoid butter, nuts, nut butters, and other heavy fats, as they can slow down the digestive system.
Have a go-to breakfast option. It’s great to have an easy, pre-race breakfast option that is low fiber, high carbohydrate, and most importantly, portable. This one should be be tested over time on your long-run days. I’ve adapted Jesse Kropelnicki’s “Applesauce breakfast’, and recommend it to almost all of my clients. This high-carbohydrate breakfast has almost zero fat and fiber, and just enough protein for long-race fueling, but doesn’t bog down the digestive tract. Depending on your weight and the distance/duration of the event, consume 2-4 cups unsweetened applesauce, 1x24oz. Sports drink (high in sodium and other electrolytes), a banana, and a scoop of whey protein powder (mixed in w water or into the sports drink). I may also add a mini plain bagel as well. As you may note, this breakfast will top off your glycogen stores as the simple and complex carbohydrate quickly break down into glucose in your body. Stored as glycogen, this is fuel is ready to burn as soon as the gun goes off.
With these tips, you'll be able to navigate your nutrition effectively, whether it's just the local 10k, a half Ironman triathlon, or a 50 mile ultra marathon. Try this your next race and my bet is you'll have consistent energy throughout, and minimal stomach issues!