Eating on the Run -Nothing New on Race Day

I got a great question yesterday about how to fuel before, during, and after a race in order to not feel that “hungover” feeling when you cross the finish line.  It was a good reminder that it is time to talk about nutrition specifically for your running.  In order to not completely reinvent the wheel, I am re-posting from last year.  I am also going to re-post about hydration and determining your own hydration needs.  Please take some time and read these now because you will want to practice all of this throughout your training in the next few months.  Practice is crucial to determining what products work for you and maybe more importantly what does not agree with your stomach.  If you wait until late in the training season, you won’t have time to change it!  If you still have questions, please email me at and as always Happy Training!

The question of how to properly fuel for an endurance event is a huge one.  Many of us start on this journey as a way to get fit and to lose weight.  The second one sometimes is at odds with our nutritional needs as endurance athletes, which is often why I will tell someone whose main fitness goal is to lose weight NOT to train for a marathon yet.  The reason for that is simple, you need to fuel your body so that it can perform.  The nice thing about a half marathon distance is that many times just by getting out the door for all the training we will lose some weight and still be able to adequately fuel our bodies for our runs.  But what does that mean?  Essentially, it means that we need to give our bodies the right types of fuel so that it can turn that fuel into energy, in the body’s case that means turning it into ATP.  All sources of fuel can be turned into ATP, including sugars (carbohydrates), fat, and protein.  We want to make sure that we are using the first two and not the third (protein for ATP production would mean you’re using your muscle for fuel – BAD).   So there’s a lot of science behind all of this, but you’re probably not looking for a lesson in the Krebs energy cycle today, you just want to know how to eat before, during, and after a race to ensure a quality run and to not “hit the wall.”

Rule #1 of endurance races – nothing new on race day!

I know I sound like a broken record, but this is HUGE for food and hydration.  Practice your fueling strategy for before, during, and after the race to make sure it all works for you.  We all have very different tummies and what your buddy can handle may be disastrous for you.  Also, what works for a 5 mile run may not work for a 10-13 mile run.  So practice all of it.

Carbs – a little bit more science

First and foremost, if you are an endurance athlete you should not be on a low carb diet during your training and racing  (unless of course you have worked something out with your physician and/or a registered dietician that knows your training schedule).  Your body needs carbohydrates to make ATP directly (from glycogen in your muscles) and also to make ATP from fat.  If you don’t have enough carbohydrates around you will not be able to tap that fabulous energy storage system we call fat.  Unless you are running a track race of 400meters or less, you will be using some fat for energy.  You want your body to get used to using fat efficiently as an energy source and that comes from training at the proper paces (i.e. not too fast).  I want to be clear on this though, you need the carbohydrate around in order to utilize that fat source.  If not, you could actually start breaking down your muscles for energy and obviously that is not beneficial to anyone.   Starving an endurance athlete’s body of carbs will only lead to things that are not fun: hitting the wall, feeling dopey or “out of it,” and definitely having to slow down.

The Night Before and The Morning of Your Race

Traditionally, this is where runners want the “pasta party.”  This is a great idea.  Your main goal of the meal the night before is to top off your carbohydrate stores (really your glycogen stores).  You want to eat high quality carbs and some protein that you know work for you (because you’ve practiced …).  Some ideas are: of course spaghetti and meat sauce, whole wheat pasta, brown rice, potatoes, etc.  I like whole wheat pasta with a little olive oil and garlic because sometimes red sauce bothers me.  Again, try and find what works for you.  You want your last big meal to be about 12 hours before your event.  You’ll want to have another meal about 1-3 hours before your event.  This is your true “top off the tank” meal.  It should be mostly, if not all, carbohydrates.  You essentially want 200-300 calories or so, closer to 300 if you’re at 3 hours prior less closer to the start.  I like oatmeal and yogurt, with a little peanut butter before long runs.  From about 60 mins pre-race until about 10-15 minutes before your race, don’t eat any sugar.  Eating sugar in this window actually makes your blood sugar drop a little bit, so make your last sugary snack or drink (including Gatorade) about 1 hour pre-race and then not again until just before you toe the line (10 mins or so pre-race).  Again, practice all of this before you get to race day!

The big question – how to avoid the wall … Eating during the Race
First of all what is the dreaded “wall?”  Essentially, this happens when you run yourself out of sugar/carbs/glycogen.  Your body is now trying to use only fat to propel you forward.  This is a slow process for the body and it is using its energy to keep you alive first and foremost, sending energy to your vital organs and such and THEN to your muscles.  Your only response can be to slow down tremendously or even stop running or walking.  You may feel like you are running through molasses now, working really hard and not getting very far.  What do you do now?  Well the best thing would have been to not get there in the first place, but if you do hit the wall, slow down and start taking in some carbs (Gatorade, Gu, etc).  You may eventually start to feel better, but you probably won’t feel like you did at the start of the race.  So let’s avoid this altogether, which is entirely possible for a half marathon.   During a race of an hour or longer (which I’m assuming is most of us reading this unless your name is Meb, Ryan, or Abdi) we should be taking in carbohydrates at a rate of about 100-240 calories per hour from the very beginning of the race (essentially aid station #1).  Happily, this is pretty simple to accomplish with what is out on the course.  You want to go through the aid station and grab the sports drink at each stop, not just water.  Gatorade, HEED, Powerade, etc all have a nice amount of carbohydrates that are meant to get into your system easily.  Don’t dilute the sports drink, if you do you only mess with the highly researched balance that these companies have worked out for you.  Don’t skip aid stations.  Start with the Gatorade right away, aid station 1.  If you decide to use a condensed version of carbohydrates like Gu, Sport Beans, Gu Chomps, Clif Blocks, Carboom, Honey Stinger, etc great!  They are like dehydrated versions of sports drink.  The key to these is to chase them with water at the aid station, not sports drink.  For me the plan is typically miles 1-4 drink Gatorade, then mile 5 Gu with water, repeat.   This will vary for you based on pace and what your palate preferences are and what your gut can handle.  You want to drink about every 15 minutes or so, which will be about every aid station, but you might want to carry a throw away bottle if you want to avoid the traffic in the early miles at the aid stations.

Try the above strategy in your long training runs.  Make sure this works for you and doesn’t have you running toward the porta potty.  It sometimes takes some trial and error to figure this out.  People are different, that’s why there are so many different products out there.  Some people HATE the consistency of Gu but love Sport Beans.  Some people hate chewing Sport Beans, but love Carboom.  Find your favorite and make sure it works (before the expo please)!

Refueling after long training runs and races

Once you get that well earned medal, you still have work to do.  Refueling is just as important for your training as fueling during your workout, same with races.  You want to start refueling right away to begin the process of replacing your carbohydrate stores and start recovering.  The BEST time to do this is within the first 30-60 minutes after your workout, preferably the first 30 minutes.  Your body is like a carbohydrate sponge at this point, primed and ready to be replaced.  It is now that you want to drink that recovery drink, eat that banana with some peanut butter, or drink your chocolate milk.  Not only will this help you with replacing your glycogen stores, it helps you to refuel you so that you are not STARVING a few hours from now and overeat.  Now is the time to get some protein, you want about a 3:1 or 4:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio after your workout.  Enjoy that chocolate mile before hitting the finish line party!

Next in line for publication is a guest discussion from Professor Steven Devor at OSU about hydration – how to calculate your own needs for hydration and electrolytes.  Thanks to Dr. Devor for his help with this post too!  Train well, rest up, eat your good carbs, and I’ll see you on May 4th!

Posted on January 29, 2013, in Beginners. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Eating on the Run -Nothing New on Race Day.

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