It’s the night before the race. You ate a healthy meal full of carb rich foods, lean proteins and healthy fats. (for the exact amounts check out Race-week-nutrition-a-7-day-plan)
You have all your gear laid out and now it’s time to make sure your nutrition is ready to go from the time you wake up, until you cross the finish line.
Let’s break down what you will need, when to eat/drink it and even what to do after the race to minimize soreness and expedite recovery.
I will qualify everything by how long you will be running. If it’s a 10K or shorter, you will probably be done in about an hour or less so the same pre-race fueling will apply but during race nutrition is not really necessary beyond a few sips of hydration and electrolytes.
The biggest rule of thumb for race-day nutrition is: Don’t try anything new. What to eat before the marathon will come down to your usual habits. Eat a breakfast that you have eaten several times in the past before a long run. You don’t want to test your stomach and have an emergency mid-race bathroom stop or worse. Let’s get into the specifics of how to set up your race day from the night before.
What to prepare the night before your race:
Portable nutrition: Get all the portable nutrition you are going to use during the race. This includes gels, bottles, your hydration belt or pack, solid foods, and supplements (electrolytes, tums, etc..). I like to put the powder in bottles and fill them the next morning so they stay cold but this depends on your preference and race conditions. Organize your race belt/pack and make sure everything is accessible where you like it. Literally, try it on and make sure so you don’t have to make changes mid-race and eliminate as many decisions as possible on race day.
This will give you one last chance to go through your nutrition plan during the race.
Morning/pre-race meal: Get out exactly what you are going to eat in the morning(as long as it doesn’t need to be refrigerated, and if it does organize your fridge so it’s obvious). If it’s oatmeal, a banana, and 20 oz of water with a cup of coffee. Have it all ready to go the night before. Remember, the fewer decisions you have to make on race day the better.
Now try to get some sleep so that you can be up about 3-3.5 hours before your race.
Pre-Race Breakfast (3-4 hours before race start):
Get up early enough so that you can digest your meal before the gun goes off. If that’s 4 hours do it, if it’s only 2 hours, great. Just know your body and what you have practiced. A general rule is the closer to the race, the smaller the meal. The main goal of this meal is to hold you over throughout your race without weighing you down.
This is your chance to top off glycogen stores, particularly in the liver, which will help steady blood sugar levels during the race. Aim for 0.5 to 1 gram of carbohydrate for every pound of body weight (about 70 to 140 grams for a 140-pound runner or 92 to 185 grams for a 185-pound runner)—but only eat the higher range if you have about 3 full hours to digest. Back off on fats and keep protein to about 15-20 grams or fewer—both nutrients take longer to digest. In a study from the University of Minnesota, novice marathoners, eating a high-carb pre-race meal was an important predictor of finishing times: Runners who ate ample carbs ran faster than those who skimped.
Stick with what has worked for you in the past and don’t stress out over it, but here are some examples of a breakfast high in carbs and electrolytes that are easy to digest:
1/2 cup oatmeal cooked in 1 cup milk, a banana, peanut butter, raisins, sweetened with honey and cinnamon and a dash of salt
A turkey sandwich with lite mayo or just mustard and no cheese
1/2 to a full large bagel with peanut butter, honey and a banana
Two pieces of toast with a banana and honey, some sports drink or juice
One Nature Valley granola bar and a banana
In terms of hydration, you’ll want to drink mostly water with some electrolyte fluids. Drink 1.5 to 2.5 cups of fluids spread out over 2-3 hours. Sip slowly from the time you wake up until you are peeing lite yellow to almost clear. Don’t try to get all your fluids down by chugging your water bottle, drink slowly over several hours, drink small amounts (1-2oz) at a time.
1 hour to the start of the race:
If you feel slightly hungry, that is perfect. Top off your energy stores, you can consume 15 to 20 grams of carbs within 30-45 minutes of the start. Easy fuels are gels, chews or sports drinks—just make sure it’s the kind you’ve been training with for the past month to avoid any stomach issues. Don’t just eat anything you got in your pre-race bag or from a vendor. If you prefer a banana, have that, just make sure it’s in your plan. Start your race fueling 5-15 min before the start (a gel with a few sips of water is an example) or finish off the electrolyte/carb drink you have been sipping on.
During Race: Fuel Up According to Plan
In the weeks leading up to the marathon, you have been testing different fueling strategies. Today you need to stick to that strategy that works for you. I know that isn’t a real definitive plan so let’s talk about the structure of the race so you can fit the foods and fuel you have been training with into it. Fuel up with at least 30 to 60 grams of carbs—and up to 90 grams if your gut tolerated it during training—of easily-digestible carbs per hour (spread it out, such as every mile or every 15 minutes or so). Try to get 5-10g of protein per hour as well to help with muscle function. Start your fueling about 30 minutes into the race depending on how much you ate in the last 2 hours. Keep it up every hour on the aforementioned amounts.
Fluid intake should also go according to training, keeping the temperature in mind, sweat loss will be less in cooler/less humid weather. Slightly warmer (room temperature) water is absorbed quicker than warm or cold water. A good estimation is that you’ll need 6 oz. every hour or 8 oz. every hour on hot days. Studies show mild dehydration (one to two percent loss of body weight) will not hamper performance, so avoid over consuming fluids, which might just slosh around in your stomach. When you start to fade during the second half of the race (I know I usually do), try a hit of caffeine (30 to 50 milligrams) from an energy gel, chew, or drink. Studies show this modest amount helps boost alertness and may provide a second wind, but don’t overdo it and don’t try it if you are sensitive to caffeine.
DURING YOUR MARATHON SUMMARY
Stick to your nutrition plan, but don’t stick to it at all costs, be smart.
Don’t experiment with anything new. Stick to what you have practiced.
Aim for 30-60 grams of carbs per hour and 5-10 grams of protein.
Use sports drinks, gels, chews, bars, depending on your personal preference. You can mix and match to achieve your carbohydrate goals.
Don’t over drink, don’t under drink. Try to match your sweat loss or a little less. Some weight loss at the end (2% of your body weight is fine).
Don’t use excessive salt or electrolyte intake, know how much you typically sweat out and replace it.
Great job, the race is over. All the hard work and sacrifice you put into it has paid off so don’t just go crazy and eat/drink everything in sight, be smart and maximize your recovery. I like to have a bottle of water and some simple carbs (as long as you can still stomach them) in the form of fruit. This will allow your stomach to settle down and your body to come back to baseline. My next target is a nice big delicious meal full of carbs, proteins and healthy fats. I’m usually pretty hungry about an hour after the race. I just think in terms of what my plate should look like...half carbs like sweet potatoes, pasta, veggies, rice, etc… and on the other half ¾ of that is protein like chicken, fish or beef (I aim for 6-8oz of protein). My flavoring is fat like avocado, olive oil, or grass fed butter. Lots of fluids until you pee light yellow again and that is when you know your body is hydrated again. This attention to your post race nutrition will allow your body to heal, recover and minimize any tendon or joint issues.
Have a great race!
Eat Smart, Train Hard