What Do I Eat Before My Race?

Q: I am running my first half-marathon in three days. I am as nervous about the distance as I am about what to eat before my run on Sunday morning. Should I plan on pasta for lunch and dinner each meal leading up to Sunday? Should I include protein like chicken? Should I carry with me a carb-enriched drink? Any suggestions for the morning of my race? I’m scared to death of needing a porta-loo during the race and have none provided. –Gordon

A: Congratulations to you!  Your first half-marathon is very exciting! Pre-race nerves are all part of the process and completely normal, so try and enjoy the race prep as best you can. Let’s break it down…

First, your pre-race breakfast should be exactly the same as what you have eaten before your longer weekend training runs. The typical choices are toast or half a bagel with some peanut butter, washed down with some water, coffee, and sports drink. Other good choices are energy bars made specifically for a pre-run meal so they contain easily digested carbohydrates and some protein.  Again, what is most important is that you eat foods and drink beverages that you are accustomed to consuming before training runs. Race morning is not the time to try anything new.

Eat your pre-race breakfast 2 to 3 hours before the race start. This means an early morning, but, all the better to get up and moving as far as the bathroom issues are concerned. Keep sipping water up to 30 minutes before the race starts. This should allow you to process everything you have taken in and time to use the bathroom before the race begins.

Next, in these few days leading up to your race, eat lean protein like chicken or fish and add some carbohydrate to each meal in the form of vegetables, fruits, rice, pasta, breads, or legumes.  Stay away from processed foods, fats, and fried foods. Keep it healthy and fresh. Dairy products can create GI issues in some runners, so eat them only if you know they agree with you.

If you want to “carbo load”, I suggest you consume your largest meal 2 nights before the race rather than the night before. Here’s why: The night before a race we usually don’t sleep very well because we are anxious; anxiety compromises the digestion process. Eating a large meal under these conditions can have disastrous results. If digestion does not go well that night, you wake up feeling very full and uncomfortable. Not a good way to start a race! You want to go to the start line feeling nourished – not hungry, but not full either.  Lean and mean is what you want!

The race should supply water and a sports drink of some type along the route. For the half-marathon distance, most runners will need something more than just water to get them through the kilometres. Carry your run nutrition with you – gu’s, gels, shots, blocks, or whatever you have used during your training runs. Again, now is not the time to experiment. Use only products you have used before. If the race is not providing a sports drink, then yes, carry it with you. And, if the race is using a sports drink you have not used before, you may want to carry your own product with you anyway.

Use your run nutrition and/or sports drink exactly as you have used them in training. I do recommend that you do not take run nutrition with a sports drink. Rather, wash run nutrition down with water only. When drinking sports drink, use it alone. The reason for this is that the combination of run nutrition and a sports drink can be too much sugar and carbohydrate intake at one time for your gut and the result is usually GI distress. Something we all want to avoid during a race!

When bathroom issues are a concern, reduce the fibre you consume in the few days before the race. For example, eat white bread instead of whole wheat, use regular pasta instead of whole grain. Counter intuitive, I know, but this is only for a couple of days.  You may also want to avoid fresh fruit or salad the day before your race because of their fibre content.

Port-a-loos should be provided before the race start and there should be a few along the course. Check out the race course and see if any port-a-loos are marked, or if there are toilets along the way for pit stops. If not, pick your bushes wisely!  Always carry a small plastic bag with wet wipes in them for emergencies. Pack a towel and a complete change of clothes in your gear bag too. When bathroom issues seriously threaten to interfere with your race, one option for some is taking an over-the-counter anti-diarrhea medication before the race. If you entertain this option, I encourage you to consult with your physician first before doing this just to make certain there are no contraindications with the medication. And, of course, it’s always best to try this out during a training run first before trying something new during your race.

The Golden Rule for Race Day is: Nothing New, Only Tried and True!

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