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Race Fueling 101

These are just general guidelines and recommendations that work for a majority of runners, but may not work for everyone. It's important to understand that everyone is unique when it comes to race fueling and nutrition. You will most likely need to experiment to figure out what foods work best for you. It's best to meet with a registered dietitian who specialized in sports nutrition to help you figure out your race day nutrition plan.  

  • The Basics

  • Pre-Race Fueling and Hydration

  • Race Day Fueling and Hydration

  • Post-Race Recovery

The Basics

When it comes to fueling your body, its important to understand the main building blocks of your diet. Macro-nutrients provide our bodies energy for us to function throughout the day. So what are the macro-nutrients? They are carbohydrate, proteins, and fats.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates, or carbs, are the primary source of energy for runners. Carbs can be either simple or complex. Simple carbs, which are usually in the form of sugar, are easily digestible. They are quickly broken down, which is good if you need immediate energy. Complex carbs are made of sugar molecules that are connected together. They take longer to digest and are typically found in foods that are also good sources of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Our bodies are much more efficient at using carbohydrates as an energy source in comparison to the other macro-nutrients (fats and proteins). As a result carbs provide us the energy to race and train. Endurance athletes such as runners should have a diet that is between 55 and 65 percent carbohydrates. 

Sources of Carbohydrates:

  • Rice

  • Breads

  • Pasta

  • Potatoes

  • Fruits

Proteins

Along with providing energy, proteins work to repair tissue damage that occurs from exercise. Proteins are needed for muscle repair, muscle growth, and muscle maintenance. An endurance athlete's diet should consist of at least 15 to 20 percent protein. Asides from repairing muscle, protein can be used as a reserve fuel source during a long race once the glycogen stores have been depleted. As a vegetarian, it can be a little more difficult to fond non-mean sources of protein. Here are a couple of my favorite plant-based protein sources.

Sources of Plant-Based Protein:

  • Soy Products (Tofu and Tempeh)

  • Beans (Chickpeas, Lentils, Black Beans)

  • Nuts/Nut Butters

  • Seitan (Wheat Gluten)

  • Seeds (Hemp Hearts, Chia Seeds)

Fats

Fats regulate hormones and help your body absorb certain vitamins and move them through the bloodstream. Heart healthy sources of fat such as olive oil, avocados, and nuts, aid in reducing inflammation, which is important for endurance athletes because they can help reduce muscle soreness. Fats should make up about 20 to 35% of your daily caloric intake.  Sources of Fat:

  • Nuts/Nut Butters

  • Avocados

  • Olive Oil

  • Butter

  • Seeds (Flaxseed, Chia Seeds)

Pre-Race Fueling and Hydration

Carb Loading

Carb loading is a fueling strategy used during the days leading up to a race. Carb loading is typically described as a decrease in training volume with an increase in carbohydrate intake. the goal of Carb loading is to maximize endurance performance by increasing glycogen stores. The larger the glycogen stores the longer you can keep going. With proper carb loading an athlete's endurance can be extended up to 20 percent. Carb loading should be considered for races lasting longer than 90 minutes because around the 90 minute mark is where muscle glycogen stores begin to run low. There are several different approaches that can be used to carb load.  Ahlborg Method (6-Day Method) This method was developed by Swedish physiologist Gunvar Ahlborg. The first 3 days will have you consuming a low carb diet (around 15% calories from carbs) while continuing to exercise. The combination of exercise and diet will decrease your glycogen stores. During the next 3 days, you will consume a high carb diet (around 70% calories from carbs) and reduce training volume. This study believed that the initial depletion phase helps the body produce more glycogen, but new studies show this may not be necessary. 

No-Depletion Method (3-Day Method) Because new studies have found that the depletion phase may not be needed. This method reduces the intensity of training while consuming a high carb diet for 3 days leading up to the race (around 70% calories from carbs)

Pre-Race Meals

Meal 3-4 Hours Before the Race (Breakfast) On race day try to eat your last full meal 3 to 4 hours before the race. This meal will top off your glycogen stores. This meal should be carb focused but have some fats and proteins to help you feel satiated. This meal should be foods that you know are easy to digest and will settle well in your stomach. Typically you will want to avoid high fiber foods for this meal because they may upset your stomach for the race. For shorter distances (5k or 10k) a lighter meal should be sufficient, but for longer distance events you may want a more substantial meal.

Meal Ideas:

  • Oatmeal with fruits and nut butter

  • Peanut Butter Toast or Honey Toast

  • Bagel with Jam or Cream Cheese

  • Fruit Smoothie

​​ 30 Minutes to 1 Hour Before the Race   If you start to feel hungry close to race start feel free to have a small snack before racing. This snack should be primarily made of carbohydrates.

Snack Ideas:

  • Banana

  • Stroop Waffle

  • A Gel or Energy Chews

Pre-Race Hydration

Begin focusing on hydration a week before the race. In the days leading up to the race always have water on you and try to drink frequently enough to where you need to use the restroom once every 3 to 4 hours. Try to avoid excess amount of alcohol which can cause dehydration.  

Race Day Fueling and Hydration

What to Eat During a Race

Your race day fueling strategy should be practiced before during your long training runs. Practicing your fueling strategy allows you to ensure that the race fuel you plan on using sits well in your stomach and does not cause GI distress. Generally for shorter race (races that will last less than 90 minutes) you will not need to take any fuel. 

For longer races you will need to fuel properly so you don't hit the wall. The typical recommendation for race fueling is consuming 0.32 to 0.45 grams of carbohydrates per pound of body weight per hour. I typically try to take a gel(around 100 kCal every 6 miles during a race. Some people prefer to use time rather than mileage to try to figure out when to fuel.  Common Race Fuels:

  • Gels

  • Chews

  • Sports Drinks

  • Dried Fruit


Caffeine

Caffeine affects everyone differently. Many of the fuels available contain caffeine. Caffeine can aid some athletes and make racing feel less difficult, but in other athletes it can cause GI distress and nervousness. Like all other aspects of race nutrition you should experiment with caffeine during your long training runs and see if it works for you. 

Hydration Strategies

There are a couple of hydration strategies that can be used for racing.  Hydration Strategy 1 The first strategy is to drink when you start to feel thirsty. Thirst is the body's self-regulation system to tell if you need fluids. But there are definitely a couple of flaws in this hydration strategy. This strategy requires you to be very focused and in tune with your body, which can be difficult on race day.  Hydration Strategy 2 This strategy requires you to drink before you're thirsty to prevent dehydration. This normally involves drinking at pre-planned stops or intervals. Using this strategy there are predetermined amounts of fluid you're expected to consume.  Fluid Intake Goal: 2 Hours Before Exercise: 16 - 24 oz 30 Minutes Before Exercise: 8 - 16 oz During Exercise: 16 oz per hour The best way to hydrate is probably somewhere in between. Personally, I try to take in fluid every 2 miles alternating between sports drink and water. I normally carry an electrolyte drink in my hydration pack during a race, so if I start to feel more thirsty I will take drink more often than planned. 

Post-Race Meal and Recovery

Your post-race meal is as important as you pre-race meal. Sometimes it can be hard to stomach food after running a hard race, but it's important to refuel your body after your race. Carbs play a big role in after race recovery and refueling as soon as possible will also help you recover as soon as possible! If you're halving a hard time refueling due to lack of appetite or stomach issues try refueling in this order:

​​ Liquids (Sports Drinks) --> Purees (Smoothies) --> Solids (Real Foods!)

Make sure to refuel before drinking the post-race celebratory beer!

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