Proper fueling on race day is important – but practicing your fueling plan several weeks prior to the event and fueling properly before, during and after workouts will help you perform at your best on race day. Here are a few tips to guide you.
Days leading up to the race
Carbohydrate is the main energy source for the muscles, and it is stored in the muscles as glycogen. It is a more efficient fuel than fat during high intensity exercise (including longer distances) because it requires less oxygen than fat to produce the same effort. We recommend a consistent daily intake of adequate carbohydrate with gradual increases closer to the event to optimize glycogen stores. In general, it is important to choose nutrient-rich carbohydrates like fruit, starchy vegetables, whole grains and beans/legumes.
Dinner the night before
Your dinner the night before the race should contain mostly carbohydrates and a bit of protein and fat. Be careful not to eat a very large dinner, which can make you feel sluggish on race morning. It is also crucial to plan your meals ahead of time, especially if you are traveling. DO NOT eat anything that you’ve never tried before! Here are a few examples of well-balanced pre-race dinners:
3-ounce chicken breast, large sweet potato with 1 Tbsp vegetable-based spread, roasted broccoli (using olive or canola oil), with ½ cup strawberries for dessert
Vegan option: 1 cup beans, 1 cup rice, salsa and ½ avocado
At Axes, we have a saying: “Hydration for tomorrow occurs today; hydration for today occurred yesterday.” It is important to drink water not only during exercise, but always. How you hydrate the days prior to your event will affect your hydration status the day of the event. The worst thing you can do is start your race dehydrated – it will be too late to catch up. Drink about 16 ounces of water 2 to 3 hours prior to starting your race, or more as needed. Your urine should be pale yellow like lemonade. To determine your fluid and sodium needs during your event, it is a good idea to perform a sweat test during a workout. This basically consists of weighing yourself before and after a workout. Your sports dietitian or coach will be able to calculate your needs based on your results and provide you with a hydration plan to follow for your race.
Breakfast the morning of the race
Breakfast should start at least 2 hours before the race. It is best to sort of “graze” on it and stop eating at least 30 to 45 minutes before the race (depending on your tolerance). Just like the days leading up to the race, breakfast should consist of mostly carbohydrates with a little bit of protein and fat. Never eat anything that you haven’t eaten prior to racing before, or if it’s your first race, make sure to trial your breakfast before workouts. Here are a few examples (portions can be tailored based on individual needs and appetite):
1 bagel with 1-2 Tbsp of peanut butter and a banana
Oatmeal with raisins and/or blueberries and a few nuts
1 Tbsp peanut butter mixed with 1 Tbsp honey with a banana and 1 cup Chex cereal
Fueling during the race
Fueling needs during the race will vary based on the duration of the race. If your race is longer than an hour, you will need some fast-acting fuel during the race, like gels, blocks, or sports drinks. If your race is longer than 3 hours, you may want to consider having some long-acting fuel (also known as “real food”). If it’s longer than 4 hours, you will absolutely need some long-acting fuel in addition to the fast-acting fuel. It is important to never try anything new on race day. We can’t emphasize enough how important it is to practice your nutrition strategy ahead of time during your workouts, at least once a week, for long outings or intense trainings. When you get used to consuming carbohydrates during exercise, the number of carbohydrate carriers in your body increases, making it possible for you to absorb more carbohydrate at a time and use it properly. On the contrary, if you are not used to it, your ability to absorb carbohydrate is lower, which means that you may not be able to use all the carbohydrate that you are taking in. This is not optimal for performance and can also cause malabsorption and gastrointestinal issues. The body can take several weeks to adapt, hence the importance of starting well before race day. It is important to experiment with different types of drinks and gels to find the ones that work for you.
Recovery after the race
It is best to eat within an hour of finishing your race and then have another meal about 2 hours later. Your meals and snacks should contain both carbohydrates (to replenish glycogen stores) and protein (to repair muscle). It is also very important to replace fluid losses from the race. If you plan on drinking alcohol, make sure to have a balanced meal or snack and rehydrate properly first!
These recommendations should not just be implemented into race day, but also into your daily training. It is important not to under-fuel because a too-large calorie deficit or not fueling at the right times (post-workout for instance) could seriously compromise not only your performance, but also your health. It’s always a great idea to speak to a sports dietitian to be sure you’re getting the nutrition you need to support all your goals.